Writing Organization Activity

At the end of last term, I taught first-semester freshman composition in a pinch. Faced with preparing for a month’s worth of class sessions and lots of essay workshopping days, I decided to go hands-on as much as possible, taking inspiration from the activities we did in ENGL3223: Advanced Grammar.

A rough draft of an essay often has paragraphs in the order that the writer thinks of them. In the popular 5-paragraph essay form, the body paragraphs can be reshuffled easily; they are just 3 points connected only by the fact that the author puts them all in the same thesis.

This doesn’t work with advanced research papers or most real-world writing, to be honest. There needs to be more thought put into organizational choices. And they are choices. There’s no one right way to set up the argument. A transition here and a tweak to the target audience there, and paragraph 23 works better as paragraph 2!

So I took an old student paper about increasing foreign language requirements (an essay that the student had agreed I could use as an example) and pasted the thesis and the topic sentences of all the main paragraphs into a new Word document. Then I rearranged them all out of order and numbered them. I made sure the font was a decent size, made several copies of the file, and attacked them with the paper cutter. Groups of 3-5 students received an envelope full of paper strips.

The challenge: determine the best, most logical order for the sentences if your audience is university administrators.

It’s not a new activity. Sarah Selecky suggests something similar in her blog, that students cut up a complete draft into paragraphs and rearrange from there. Doing the same thing with isolated sentences, however, removes the context clues. Can the essay stand on its topic sentences?

Not surprisingly, no group had the same order. We examined patterns — sentences that everyone agreed should be towards the beginning or the end, sentences that everyone paired as sequential — and discussed which sentence should be the thesis statement, given the skeleton they had. Of course they wanted to know the “right answer,” and I was careful to tell them that what I was giving them was simply the organization that the student had chosen. For all they knew, that essay had gotten a terrible score on organization and their choices made more sense! At the end of the activity, I encouraged them to do the same with their own complete essay drafts.


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