Understanding Organization in Composition and Speech

Speeches and presentations follow a similar format

A Woman Organizes a Shelf
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In composition and speech, the organization is the arrangement of ideas, incidents, evidence, or details in a perceptible order in a paragraphessay, or speech. It is also known as the elements' arrangement or dispositio, as in classical rhetoric. It was defined by Aristotle in "Metaphysics" as "the order of that which has parts, either according to place or potentia or form."

As Diana Hacker wrote in "Rules for Writers,"

"Although paragraphs (and indeed whole essays) may be patterned in any number of ways, certain patterns of organization occur frequently, either alone or in combination: examples and illustrations, narration, description, process, comparison and contrast, analogy, cause and effect, classification and division, and definition. There is nothing particularly magical about these patterns (sometimes called methods of development). They simply reflect some of the ways in which we think." (Diana Hacker, with Nancy I. Sommers, Thomas Robert Jehn, and Jane Rosenzweig, "Rules for Writers with 2009 MLA and 2010 APA Updates," Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009)

Choosing a Format

Basically, the goal is to choose an organizational method that enables your report, essay, presentation, or article to clearly convey your information and message to your audience. Your topic and message will dictate that. Are you trying to persuade, report findings, describe something, compare and contrast two things, instruct, or tell someone's story?

Figure out the thesis statement or message you want to get across—boil it down in one sentence if you can—and what you aim to do will help you to choose your essay's structure.

If you're writing instructional text, you'll want to go in chronological order. If you're reporting findings of an experiment or your conclusions after analyzing a text, you'll start with your thesis statement and then support your ideas with evidence, explaining how you came to your conclusion.

If you're telling someone's story, you may have a chronological organization for much of the piece, but not necessarily right at the introduction. If you're writing a news story for a publication, you may need to work in reverse-pyramid style, which puts the most immediate information up top, giving people the gist of the story even if they read only one or two paragraphs. They'll get more detail the further into the story they read.

Outlines

Even if you just sketch a rough outline on scratch paper with a topic list and arrows, making it will help drafting the paper go more smoothly. Putting a plan in place can also save you time later because you'll be able to rearrange things even before you start writing. Having an outline doesn't mean things won't change as you go, but just having one can help ground you and give you a place to start.

Dwight Macdonald wrote in The New York Times,

"[T]he great basic principle of organization: put everything on the same subject in the same place. I remember when an editor, Ralph Ingersoll I think, casually explained this trick of the trade to me, that my first reaction was 'obviously,' my second 'but why didn't it ever occur to me?' and my third that it was one of those profound banalities 'everybody knows' after they've been told." (Rreview of "Luce and His Empire," in "The New York Times Book Review," 1972. Rpt. in "Discriminations: Essays and Afterthoughts, 1938–1974," by Dwight Macdonald. Viking Press, 1974)

Introductions and Body Text

Whatever you write, you'll need a strong introduction. If your readers don't find something to hook their interest in the first paragraph, all your research and effort into making your report won't achieve their goal of informing or persuading an audience. After the intro, then you get into the meat of your information.

You won't necessarily write your intro first, even though your reader will see it first. Sometimes you need to start in the middle, just so you're not overwhelmed with a blank page for long. Start with the basics, the background, or boiling down your research—just to get going—and come back to writing the intro at the end. Writing the background often gives you an idea of how you want to do the intro, so you don't need to fret over it. Just get the words moving.

Organizing Paragraphs Structure

Don't get too hung up on a particular formula for each paragraph, though. Stephen Wilbers wrote,

"Paragraphs range from tightly structured to loosely structured. Any scheme will do as long as the paragraph seems to hold together. Many paragraphs begin with a topic sentence or generalization, followed by a clarifying or limiting statement and one or more sentences of explanation or development. Some conclude with a resolution statement. Others delay the topic sentence until the end. Others have no topic sentence at all. Each paragraph should be designed to achieve its particular purpose." ("Keys to Great Writing," Writer's Digest Books, 2000)

Conclusions

Some pieces that you write may need a wrap-up type of conclusion—especially if you're out to persuade or present findings—where you give a quick summary of the high points of what you've just presented in detail. Shorter papers may not necessarily need this type of conclusion, as it will feel overly repetitive or belabored to the reader.

Instead of a straight-out summary, you can come at it a bit differently and discuss the significance of your topic, set up a sequel (talk about its potential in the future), or bring back the scene from the beginning with a little added twist, knowing what you know now, with the information presented in the article.  

Speeches

Writing a speech or presentation is similar to writing a paper, but you may need a bit more "bounce back" to your main points—depending on the length of your presentation and the detail you plan to cover—to make sure that the crux of your information is solidified in the audience members' mind.

Speeches and presentations likely do need "highlights" in a summary conclusion, but none of the repetition need be long—just enough to make the message memorable.