Thursday, February 9, 2012

Organizing Chaos

Your brain has just spattered a hot mess of information onto the page.  You've managed to defeat the White Screen of Doom and produce a plethora of delicious information for the nearest discourse-starved academic.  But there's a problem.  You're not sure whether it flows together properly.  You've just spent a significant amount of time on it, so your brain reels at the thought of going through it all again.  It makes sense to you, but how can you tell if it will for your reader?  Is your information in the right place?  Does your thought progression make sense?  Do these sentences bounce around your main points too rapidly?

Stop!  Don't tear your hear out!  (It's beautiful, really.  What kind of shampoo are you using?)

There's no need to fear, my caffeine-addled friend.  There are several ways to ensure your organization is up to par, regardless of what stage of the writing process you're in.

Pre-Writing Organization:
Outlines: Yes, I know, I know!  This is probably as obvious as one could get with organization.  But even though they sometimes feel more like a bane than a boon, taking the time to outline your main points will always help you keep things organized.  It forces you to break things down into bite-sized chunks, and if you're someone like me who really enjoys headings, it gives you little visual compartments for your ideas.

Are they annoying?  Do they take some time?  Will they occasionally make you want to injure small, fluffy animals?  Yes, yes, and hopefully not.  But the initial time investment will pay off in the end.  Thirty minutes up front can save you hours of copying, pasting, and revising when you're dealing with a complicated topic

Idea Mapping:  Meet Outlining's smaller, lesser-known, sexier cousin.  Idea mapping is great when you're trying to find ways that various ideas or concepts are connected.  It's pretty simple.  You start with a word or phrase that you plan on discussing.  Then, you write down other words or phrases that are connected to it, drawing lines between the ones that happen to be directly related.  I might start with "poodle" and follow that with "urinates on shoes" and "eats homework".  From there, I may make a new word -- "irritating" -- which could very well have lines drawn to "poodle", "urinates on shoes", and "eats homework".  Voila!  We've got a connection!  I've discovered their tendency to defile my footwear and devour my schoolwork are both elements of frustration.  I'd likely include both of these ideas in my "Poodles are Evil" segment.

While idea mapping is often used as a brainstorming tool as well, strong visual learners may find it more helpful to literally see the ideas spread out before them.  From there, you can start forging connections and establishing which ideas should be clustered together.

Topic Clustering: Sometimes you're completely unsure of what order your ideas should go in, and outlining really isn't doing the job.  Instead of lighting your hair on fire and leaping from the nearest tall window, try topic clustering.  Divide a piece of paper into columns, labeling each column with a single word or phrase that represents one of the main points you're working with.  For example, if you were writing an analytic essay comparing the elements of a book to changes made in its movie interpretation, you might end up with the following topics:  characters, setting, plot.  Now you've got a place to work with when you start thinking about the various changes between the two mediums.  And, naturally, as you continue to group your ideas, you may come up with new topics or subdivide into more specific ones.  This method essentially gives you the seeds for your body paragraphs.

Post-Writing Organization
Already finished with the paper?  Working with a hot mess of disjointed paragraphs?  No biggie.  There are plenty of ways to get those working for you, too.

Topic Sentences:  How many of you had the idea of a topic sentence drilled into your head since you were old enough to write one of those abominable five-paragraph essays?  Now, I'm not here to say that every paragraph should start with a sentence that explicitly says "HEY!  HERE I AM!  LISTEN DUDE, THIS IS WHAT WE'RE GONNA TALK ABOUT, OKAY?"  However, you should be able to go through a paragraph and find a sentence or two that gives a good idea of what's covered.  (If that's an impossible task, you may have too many ideas fighting for your paragraph)  Writing down each of your topic sentence(s) can give you an idea of what your paper's main points are.  Once you have those in front of you without all the other words vying for your attention, finding a reasonable, logical way to order them is much easier.  In some ways, it's kind of like a retroactive outline.  However, you're using words and phrases you've already constructed, so looking for similarities, links, and transitions won't be nearly as difficult.

Paragraph Structuring: If each paragraph is a hot mess, it's sometimes useful to set up some kind of a structure or frame to use for your ideas.  Look at the kind of information required and find a consistent way to represent it within your writing.  For instance, in the above example with the analysis between a book and its movie adaptation, let's say you have to compare, contrast, and analyze the elements that changed within the movie.  Your paragraph structure may end up something like this:

  • Element being discussed (i.e. characters)
  • How it was handled in the book
    • Quotation
  • How it was handled in the movie
    • Scene example
  • Was this an effective change?  If so, why/how?
This gives you a consistent approach to each paragraph, ensuring that the reader falls into your rhythm.  This also has the added bonus of making your paper flow much better.  "Flow" is usually a fancy-pants term for readability, and the more familiar constructions your reader runs into, the easier he or she will be able to navigate them.

Think about it.  If you know the kind of information that's coming up, you can anticipate it and subconsciously put yourself in the proper frame of mind.  You don't have to constantly stop, back-track, and pull out your GPS to figure out where the paper is headed next, because the writer has established a comfortable pattern for you.  Obviously, you don't want to write the exact same thing, or your paper is just as likely to be used as a pillow as anything else.  Still, structure within your paper will help both you as the writer and anyone who reads it in the future.

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