Writing Mini-Lessons: Essay Organization and Planning


“There’s no (one) way to outline . . . . But you should find some way of
preseeing what you may write . . . . Most of the time my drafts collapse
unless I have outlines in my head or on paper.”

~ Donald Murray

Once you’ve generated and collected lots of raw material, you need to determine how to use it to make meaning as an essayist. For some of you, organizing the essay may be the most challenging part of the process. Have faith: this is the step that will make your essay possible and keep your piece from falling apart. There’s no one correct way to organize and plan an essay. Below is a basic outline, straight from The Straight-A Conspiracy, delineating how to structure an essay.  Highlighted after the outline are five different strategies that sixth graders have used successfully. Choose the strategy that best suits your learning style and begin organizing and planning!

How to Structure an Essay

– Hook
– 2-3 sentences bringing the reader into your topic
– Thesis statement

Body Paragraph 1
– Transition
– Supporting Argument #1
—-Two to three pieces of evidence plus analysis (4-6 sentences min.)

Body Paragraph 2
– Transition
– Supporting Argument #2
—-Two to three pieces of evidence plus analysis (4-6 sentences min.)

Body Paragraph 3
– Transition
– Supporting Argument #3
—-Two to three pieces of evidence plus analysis (4-6 sentences min.)

– Restate thesis
– 2-3 sentences to show greater relevance and wrap up

Five Ways to Organize Your Information and Plan Your Essay

  1. Donald Murray’s favorite method:
    • Brainstorm titles as a way to capture the direction and tone of your essay.
    • Draft (“play with”) leads until you have the one you think will produce a good essay.
    • Imagine a reader, draft the questions he will ask, then put the questions in the order he’ll ask them. Murray says, “Good writing is a conversation between an individual writer and an individual reader.”
    • Draft closings until you have the one that gives you what Murray calls “a sense of destination” as a writer.
    • Start drafting the essay.
  2. Donald Graves’s method:
    • Create four vertical columns on a huge sheet of white construction paper.
    • Briefly list everything that might be included in the essay in the far left column.
    • Head the other three columns Beginning, Middle, and End. Move ideas and items from the far left into the appropriate columns, based on where they seem to belong in the essay.
    • Be aware that you may not use everything in the left-hand column and that new ideas will arise and can be included there as they come to you.
    • When you’re done, number the items within each of the three lists in the order you want to use them.
    • Start drafting the essay by experimenting with leads.
  3. Colored paper frames:
    • Gather sheets of different colored construction paper.
    • Use scissors to cut and separate your ideas, information, and notes into categories: kinds of data that might be grouped together, patterns of information, or beginning–middle–end.
    • Tape the pieces of information onto different colored sheets of construction paper, depending on what they’re about or where they’ll go in your essay. Move them around and look for the new patterns that emerge.
    • Start drafting the essay by experimenting with leads.
  4. Colored marker highlights:
    • Gather colored markers. Circle or highlight your notes in different colors according to kinds of information, patterns, or beginning–middle–end.
    • Start drafting the essay by experimenting with leads that will help you focus the data.
    • Create the rest of the initial draft by taping together the sections highlighted in each color.
  5. Your own form of planning sheet or an essay planning graphic organizer:
    • Spread out your information: use a whole table, so you can eyeball it.
    • Skim and scan it. As you do, write notes to yourself on a planning sheet. What are the big ideas? The patterns? The points that seem best to start and end the essay? The quotes and statistics that jump out at you and support your argument? The most revealing anecdotes?
    • On a planning sheet—or several sheets—create your own form of outline: notes that fit the way your eye sees and your mind works.
    • Start drafting the essay by experimenting with leads.