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Finding and Establishing other Patterns for your Essay Structure

Here are four methods for re-reading and reshaping your essay. As always, choose those that work best for you.

The T-Chart

After reading through your writing, create two side-by-side columns on a fresh clean piece of paper. This is called a t-chart. Label one column “What I Say” and the other “What I Don’t Say.” Using what you’ve already written, make a list under each phrase. Use these lists to point the way into more writing and organizing. Are there ideas you’re now willing to drop? What in your writing needs more emphasis?


After reading through the latest draft of your essay, ask yourself the following question, “What do I want the reader to think, see, feel, and/or believe after reading this essay?” If you can, write out your response in a single sentence. You now have another version of your controlling idea in a new form. Use it to guide you as you make selections about which ideas you will keep in the next draft of your essay and which ones you will set aside.

Go through your essay paragraph by paragraph. As you read, ask yourself a similar question to the one just posed, “What do I want the reader to think, see, feel, and/or believe after reading this paragraph?” Write out your responses, in a word or two, next to each corresponding paragraph.

This activity, which is called glossing, can help you recognize existing patterns in your writing, places of connection, and parts that don’t match with the ideas that you want to emphasize. In this way, you’ll know what to bring forward and what to let go.

Outlining and Diagramming

Now that you’ve had a chance to write, read, and re-read your essay, you may find it helpful to create an outline. An outline functions like a map showing you the direction you want your essay to take. Each section, from beginning to end, is represented by a few words and numbers, showing which ideas you want to come first, second, third and so on and exactly how you want to introduce and conclude your essay.

For some writers, this technique works great. But others prefer an outline that looks more like a diagram, meaning it depends less on words and numbers and more on lines and shapes.

For example, imagine your essay unfolded like a spiral. If so, which idea would come first, second, and so on? What other shapes might your essay make? If it were organized like a circle, how might you explore your topic from every angle and end your essay in a way that was very similar to how you opened it?

For example, if you started your essay describing a high-tech workplace of the future, might you end your essay in that workplace as well?

Images to Provide Structure

In writing terms, an image is not only what we can see but also includes what we can hear, touch, taste, and smell. For example, “One morning, the rush of the swollen river awakened the village,” is a kind of image.

When writers repeat images that are similar in nature two or more times across an essay, it can create a strong pattern for the reader and bring a sense of structure to a piece. For example, if a writer opened her essay with the image of the rushing river, and then included an image somewhere in the middle of a dry river bed, and finally showed the river flowing again filled with tasty fish, the essay would quite naturally begin to feel that it had organization and shape.

Imagine opening your essay with a strong image. How might you repeat this image in different forms across your essay to provide structure and create shape.

Each piece of writing contains infinite possibilities, many of them beautiful and sometimes profound. Let yourself explore your writing in different forms, watch the patterns it makes, and the various shapes it creates.

At some point, however, you’ll need to choose a primary path and follow it well. You’ll find you must let go of many wonderful phrases and some favorite sections of writing because they no longer fit with your main idea.

As before, be open and listening. Only this time, instead of listening on behalf of your subconscious, you will be listening on behalf of your imagined reader, revising and shaping your writing partly in service to them.

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