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Writing Tips: Graphic Organizers for Essay Writing

By Jessica Cook

Improve your essay writing skills through the use of graphic organizers. Order your thoughts and structure your essay before you even write it.

When your teacher tells you to write an essay for class, you may feel overwhelmed by the assignment. This is with good reason; an essay is a large and complicated assignment to tackle. Not only do you have to select a topic, but you have to come up with a thesis and support that thesis with relevant details or evidence. Then you have to figure out how to write all of that information in a well-organized, structured manner that will impress your teacher and fulfill all of the requirements of the assignment.

Though you may feel tempted to just jump in and start writing your next essay, you can help yourself out a lot if you take the time to complete a graphic organizer first. A graphic organizer is a chart, graph, or diagram that will help you organize your thoughts and references before you write your essay.

Once you select the type of graphic organizer that will work best for you and the essay you're writing, you can use it to jot down your notes about the essay topic. Include any ideas you have about your thesis or main idea, and then include information from your research or the text you're using. The best part is that it is much easier to rearrange or reorganize notes on a graphic organizer than it is to rewrite an entire essay. So if you get all of your notes down onto your organizer and you want to change something, all you have to do is erase and re-write or draw an arrow to indicate a movement.

Using Graphic Organizers

Some students waste their time using graphic organizers because they put too much information and effort into them. A graphic organizer is NOT an essay; it is a way to write notes clearly and effectively. You don't have to use complete sentences when you write it, and you don't have to polish it as a final draft. You just have to use it to get ideas out of your head and onto paper where you can analyze them and move them around as much as you need to do before writing the essay.

The basic graphic organizer format is going to start with a broad, general topic. This is where you will list ideas for your thesis statement. Again, this can be a list of fragmented sentences; it doesn't have to be thorough. Your first section in a graphic organizer might just say something like, "school lunches are bad."

Then a graphic organizer will branch out into sub-topics. These are the main facts or ideas that support your thesis. You should always try to have at least three of these; if you can think of more, then you have more to choose from when you write your essay. Just because you list five supporting arguments on your graphic organizer doesn't mean all five have to wind up in your essay. For the school lunches essay, you might have supporting topics like, "flavorless combinations," "unnatural coloring," and "poorly heated."

Finally, a graphic organizer will have a spot for including relevant research or other information to support your sub-topics. For the school lunch topic, you might include information you got from surveying students and teachers about the lunches; or you might cite research on the percentage of students nationwide who eat school lunches vs. packing from home. You might also interview the cafeteria workers to find out the requirements for the lunches. Put all of this information into the most detailed part of your graphic organizer.

When you get ready to write your essay, you turn those thoughts and ideas from your graphic organizer into sentences and paragraphs. If one section in your organizer is really full, you might split it into two paragraphs or topics. If one section is really thin, you might leave it out or do more research to support it before writing your essay. The graphic organizer is a good way to visually see all of your ideas before you spend the time crafting those ideas into essay form.

Types of Graphic Organizers

There are several graphic organizers available for you to use, and some work better for a specific essay style than others. In general, though, there are a few that will be useful to you the next time you write an essay.

1. The basic Outline is an essay classic. In an outline, you number the paragraphs of your essay using Roman numerals. Start with your introduction, then include a paragraph to cover each supporting detail, and end with your conclusion. Underneath your Roman numerals you can list your main topics for that paragraph using capital letters, then use numbers to list the details under each topic. The outline is particularly well-suited to writing a five-paragraph essay. Find an interactive essay map outline tool here.

2. A compare and contrast map will help you organize your thoughts for, what else? A compare and contrast essay. A basic compare and contrast map will help you outline your information ahead of time. You might choose to write a description of topic #1, then a description of topic #2, then a conclusion. Instead, you might choose to write about the similarities between topics #1 and #2, then their differences, then your conclusion. Or you might choose to focus on one specific point for both topics, then a second point for both topics, then your conclusion. In either case, a compare and contrast map can help you organize these thoughts as notes before turning them into an essay. Other students find it useful to use a Venn Diagram for comparing and contrasting, or even a simple outline format.

3. For a persuasive essay, consider using a persuasion map to organize your ideas. A persuasion map is like a flow chart; you start with your main topic and then list three (or however many you have) supporting details for that topic. Then you split those supporting details into further evidence. When you list your ideas in this format, it helps you see very quickly which ones you can support well and which ones will make for thin arguments in your paper. Then you can add or take away details as needed in order to round out your persuasive argument before writing your essay.

Other Resources

Writing an essay doesn't have to be scary or confusing. If you really get stuck, consider asking your teacher to sit down and go over your essay with you before you hand it in. She can give you some tips to help you improve your essay before she grades it. If your school has a homework help center or a writing center, use those resources. They exist in order to help students like you write better essays.

For a selection of online graphic organizer tools, visit ReadWriteThink's Student Interactives page.

For more ideas on organizing the paragraphs in your essay, read this article.

For essay writing tips and tricks, check out this article.