Organizing your ideas

Improve Your English Skills by Writing, (Part 4) from The Linguist Library. A podcast of this content will follow in a few days.

Organizing Your Ideas

Most of you will not write a book, but you may have to write letters, emails or reports. Many of you will answer writing questions on tests and exams. You will need to have a reliable formula or plan for organizing your ideas.

We all know the importance of planning so that our writing will appear coherent. It is best to plan our thoughts before we start writing. However, sometimes this simply does not work. I often find it easier to just start writing. Once I have a few ideas down it then becomes easier to start planning and organizing. Words influence ideas. The German writer Goethe once said “When ideas fail, words really come in handy.” With modern software it is easier than ever to rearrange and reorganize your writing.

Whether you start by writing or start by planning, you will need to decide how you are going to organize your ideas. Which facts or arguments belong together? In your plan you should be thinking about how to most effectively get your point across. You need to be deliberate and clear in presenting your views. Yet you also need to gain the sympathy and support of the reader.

When I have had to organize my thoughts, I have often found it useful to be guided by the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, where the art of rhetoric was developed to a high degree. It has helped me to quickly organize my thoughts when I had to make a presentation or even write an essay. The classical approach to rhetoric is very much a part of the tradition of debate in modern western languages.

The ancient philosophers would normally organize their ideas in six parts. In a modern setting it would be something like this.

Exordium: Introduction to gain sympathy from the listeners

“I am glad to be in this town, where I have come so often and have so many friends. I am not used to speaking in public but feel very strongly about the subject.”

Narratio: Lead up to the subject at hand

” Many of you are aware of the issue of public transport and the circumstances of population growth that have created more demands on our system….. Why just today on my way in from the airport…..”

Partitio: Description of the points you are going to make

“Today I will talk about the best way to spend public and private funds to improve everyone’s quality of life.”

Confirmatio: Observation and proofs that confirm your point of view

” So you see the main point of my research has shown that what we need is the following policy. The following statistics demonstrate that…… A public opinion poll showed that……”.

Refutatio: Refuting the opposite points of view

” Now some people have argued that the opposite is true, or that my conclusions do not take into consideration these other facts……but I have found that my evidence is very strong that……”

and finally,

Peroratio: Conclusion and final appeal for support

“So my conclusion is that while opinion may be divided, we all know that we need to work for the common good and that means……. I hope I can count on your support, my friends”

A Simpler Formula

This classical model is still effective today. It can provide inspiration for many modern situations, including sales calls or even job interviews. For the typical writing assignments at school or at work, however, a simpler formula is probably more useful.

The following is a shorter adaptation of the classical formula.

I. Introduction giving background to the issue and stating the question.

II. Arguments in favour of one position

III. Arguments against that position

IV. Summary and conclusion

You should develop your own standard formula for organizing your thoughts. You will find that it is usually possible to adapt most writing or public speaking situations to such a formula.


One thought on “Organizing your ideas

  1. The way they taught us in the Army: I. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. II. Tell them.III. Tell them what you told them.

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