Organically Structured Essays

Learning Objective

  • Identify characteristics of organically structured essays

In high school, the SAT and other standardized testing formats value a very rigid, formulaic approach to essay writing. Some students who have mastered that form, and enjoyed a lot of success from doing so, assume that college writing is simply more of the same. The skills involved in a very basic kind of essay—often called the five-paragraph theme—are indispensable. If you’re good at the five-paragraph theme, then you’re good at identifying a clear and consistent thesis, arranging cohesive paragraphs, organizing evidence for key points, and situating an argument within a broader context through the introduction and conclusion.

In college, you will build on and move beyond those essential formulaic skills. Your college professors are looking for a more ambitious and arguable thesis, a nuanced and compelling argument, and real-life evidence for all key points, all in an organically structured paper.

Link to Learning

This resource from the UNC Writing Center explains how college writing differs from writing in high school.

The figures below contrast the standard five-paragraph theme and the organic college paper. The five-paragraph theme, outlined on the left, is probably what you’re used to: the introductory paragraph starts broadly and gradually narrows to a thesis, which readers expect to find at the very end of that paragraph. In this format, the thesis invokes the magic number of three: three reasons why a statement is true. Each of those reasons is explained and justified in the three body paragraphs, and then the final paragraph restates the thesis before gradually getting broader. This format is easy for readers to follow, and it helps developing writers organize their points and the evidence that goes with them. That’s why you learned it.

The figure on the right represents a paper on the same topic that has the more organic form expected in college. The first key difference is the thesis. Rather than simply positing a number of reasons to think that something is true, the thesis in an organic essay puts forward an arguable statement: one with which a reasonable person might disagree. An arguable thesis gives the paper purpose. It surprises readers and draws them in. You hope your reader thinks, Huh. Why would the author come to that conclusion? and then feels compelled to read on. The body paragraphs, then, build on one another to carry out this ambitious argument.

In the classic five-paragraph theme it hardly matters which of the three reasons you explain first or second. In the more organic structure, each paragraph specifically leads to the next. The last key difference is seen in the conclusion. Because the organic essay is driven by an ambitious, non-obvious argument, the reader comes to the concluding section thinking, OK, I’m convinced by the argument. What do you, author, make of it? Why does it matter? The conclusion of an organically structured paper has a real job to do. It doesn’t just reiterate the thesis; it explains why the thesis matters. Some instructors will call this the so what? Given what you’ve argued in your essay, so what? What the takeaway or the call to action?

Five Paragraph Essay vs. organic essay

Compare the five-paragraph model on the left with the organic model on the right.

Appropriate alternative text for this image can be found in the caption and/or body text.

Figure 1. Figure 3.1 on the left shows the five-paragraph essay model. Figure 3.2 on the right shows the organic essay model.

The substantial time you spent mastering the five-paragraph form was time well spent; it’s hard to imagine anyone succeeding with the more organic form without the organizational skills and habits of mind inherent in the simpler form. But if you assume that you must adhere rigidly to the simpler form, you’re blunting your intellectual ambition. Your professors will not be impressed by obvious theses, loosely related body paragraphs, and repetitive conclusions. They want you to undertake an ambitious, independent analysis, one that will yield a thesis that is somewhat surprising and challenging to explain.

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Understanding that college writing will demand more than a five-paragraph essay is the first step. But then what? How do writers move beyond the formulas that are so familiar and well-practiced and begin to develop organic writing?

A good starting place is to recharacterize writing as thinking. Experienced writers don’t figure out what they want to say and then write it. They write in order to figure out what they want to say. Experienced writers develop theses in dialog with the body of the essay. An initial characterization of the problem leads to a tentative thesis. Then, drafting the body of the paper reveals thorny contradictions or critical areas of ambiguity, prompting the writer to revisit or expand the body of evidence and then refine the thesis based on that fresh look. The revised thesis may require that body paragraphs be reordered and reshaped to fit the emerging thesis. Throughout the process, the thesis serves as an anchor point while the author wades through the morass of facts and ideas. The writer continues to read to learn more about his or her issue and refines his or her ideas in response to what is learned. The dialogue between thesis and body continues until the author is satisfied or the due date arrives, whatever comes first.

Consider the following example.


Your political science professor asks you to write a paper on legislative redistricting. The professor spent a lot of time in class talking about motivations for redistricting, state redistricting laws, and Supreme Court redistricting cases. You decide to write about those three topics using the following thesis:

Legislative redistricting is a complicated process that involves motivations for redistricting, state redistricting laws, and Supreme Court decisions.

Then you write a section on motivations, a section on state laws, and a section on Supreme Court decisions.

On the first draft of the paper, the professor comments: “This paper tries to cover too much and has no point to make. What’s the original point you are trying to defend? You are just restating everything we said about redistricting in class. Keep thinking.” You realize at this point that you have tried to write a five-paragraph essay, and it doesn’t work.

You go back to the drawing board. Your professor said you needed an arguable, original point and to avoid just restating everything from class. You think about what interested you most in the discussion of redistricting and remember talking about the Goldilocks principle of getting the balance of voters “just right.” You also remember that the professor mentioned a current case before the Supreme Court involving your home state.

You research the case and decide to revise your thesis to argue that your state has not achieved the Goldilocks balance but has erred on the side of excessive racial representation in some districts. Rather than using the body paragraphs of the paper to give three reasons for why that overrepresentation occurred, you decide to first give background on the racial divisions within the state, followed by profiles of two districts where over-representation of one race has occurred.

After writing those sections, you read further about the current status of the Supreme Court case and find that one of the districts you discuss in the paper isn’t involved in the case and that the Court’s decision has still not been handed down. You decide to rewrite one of the profile sections to focus on the district in the Supreme Court case. Then you add a section overviewing the current court case. You use your conclusion to make a recommendation to the Supreme Court about how the case should be decided.

Once the conclusion is drafted, you go back to the introduction and tighten the thesis to focus just on the two districts covered in the court case. You also revise the initial background section to include specific mention of those two cases. Now you are writing like a college writer, using writing as a tool for thinking and developing the paper in response to your growing understanding.

An organically structured argument is a beautiful thing. For one, it gives a paper authentic momentum. The first paragraph doesn’t just start with some broad, vague statement; every sentence is crucial for setting up the thesis. The body paragraphs build on one another, moving through each step of the logical chain. Each paragraph leads inevitably to the next, making the transitions from paragraph to paragraph feel wholly natural. The conclusion, instead of being a mirror-image paraphrase of the introduction, builds out the argument by explaining the broader implications. It offers new insight, without departing from the flow of the analysis.

A paper with this kind of momentum may read like it was knocked out in one inspired sitting. But don’t be fooled In reality, just like accomplished athletes and artists, masterful writers make the difficult look easy. As writer Anne Lamott notes, reading a well-written piece feels like its author sat down and typed it out, “bounding along like huskies across the snow.” However, she continues,

This is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.[1]

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  1. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 21.