Fitting It All Together: Strategies to Organize Your Writing

Melissa Helquist


Writing can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how all of your ideas and research can fit together into a coherent whole, especially when you’re working on a longer, more complex argument or discussion. When you have a lot of great ideas, but aren’t sure how to put them all together, you can experience writer’s block

This article aims to give you a few specific strategies to help you manage complex writing tasks so that they don’t feel so unapproachable. You may find that one strategy fits your preferences and needs more than another, but don’t be afraid to try a range of approaches. Often, you’ll need different strategies to accomplish different tasks; having a variety of tools in your toolbox can give you options when one approach just isn’t working.

Traditional Outlines

Outlines are a common way to plan out a writing project. Outlines are essentially blueprints of an essay, identifying the main points of your essay and their most effective order. You can also use outlines to sketch out specific sections of your essay. With outlines, you not only want to sketch out the content you’ll use in your essay, but also the relationship between ideas and examples.  

To create an outline, first answer the following questions:

  • What is your thesis or argument?
  • What key ideas or points help to support your thesis?
  • What background information will your readers need to know to understand your ideas?
  • What sources, examples, etc. help to support each of your ideas?
  • How do you want to present your ideas? According to categories? Least to most important? Chronologically, etc.

Once you’ve sketched out your basic ideas, you’ll put them into order by assigning numbers, letters, or heading styles to different levels of organization. For instance, you might list major points in the essay with capital letters (e.g., A, B, C), and secondary points with numbers (e.g., 1, 2, 3). If you need to sub-divide those secondary points, you can use lowercase letters (e.g., a, b, c). With this approach, an outline might look something like Figure 1.


Handwritten outline about therapy dogs for college students. Thesis: Colleges should provide therapy dogs for students. Student mental health crisis 60% meet diagnostic criteria 79% mod. or high stress Limited resources Overbooked campus healthcare Limited student insurance Therapy dogs Available to everyone Decrease cortisol Conclusion
Figure 1: Example of a traditional outline. Image credit Melissa Helquist.

If you create your outline in a word processing program like Word or Google docs, try applying heading styles to your key points (for example, you can use Heading 1 for your title, Heading 2 for major points, Heading 3 for secondary points, etc.). If you apply these styles, you can switch back and forth between an outline view and a content view to help you easily develop and restructure content (see Figure 2).  


Google doc shows main document and accompanying outline. The document is an in-progress draft about therapy dogs on college campuses.
Figure 2: Example of a Google doc with Heading styles applied. The outline is displayed on the left side of the screen. Image credit Melissa Helquist.

Reverse/Descriptive Outlines

Sometimes your ideas are a jumble and creating an outline feels too challenging, or you just may not be the outlining type. If you’re in this situation, you can create a reverse (or descriptive) outline. This process allows you to create and adjust an outline based on what you’ve already written.

To create a reverse outline, first start writing. Draft as much of your content as you can, but don’t worry too much about how different sections fit together. Once you’ve written as much as you can, give yourself a break. It’s a good idea to create some space between your drafting and the outlining process. Once you’ve taken a break from your draft (a full day is a good idea if your schedule allows), follow this process to create an outline from what you’ve written: 

1. Read through your drafted text. For each paragraph, note down two pieces of information:

  • What the paragraph does (e.g., introduces the argument, compares two sources, etc.)
  • What the paragraph says (i.e., content, examples, data, etc.)

2. Once you’ve made these notations, scan through your notes and look for overlaps, gaps, etc. Are there multiple paragraphs about the same idea? If so, move them together. Are any sections missing?

3. Once you’ve annotated and analyzed your draft, create a traditional outline that shows how you would like to reshape and develop your draft. Use this outline to help you revise your draft.


Another way that you can revise and develop a draft’s organization is by using a hands-on process called cut-ups. We’re used to copying and pasting text in word processing programs like Word, but sometimes it can help to be a little more hands on and cut and paste with a printed document and scissors.

First, write out a draft. As with the reverse outline process, you don’t need to worry too much about how ideas fit together, if you cover everything, etc. Just get your ideas written down as fully as you can.

Print out your draft and cut up the pages so that each paragraph is on its own slip of paper. Lay these paragraph slips out on a flat surface (a table, the floor, etc.). Move the slips of paper/paragraphs around and see if you find any new ideas, clearer connections, etc. when you change the draft’s structure. When you get an order that you like, you can tape everything back together and/or make the same changes in your word processor draft.

You can also use the cut-ups process to help you arrange and develop the structure of individual paragraphs, by cutting apart and rearranging the sentences that make up each paragraph.

Graphic Organizers

In addition to the outlining ideas we’ve already explored, you can also get a better sense for how your ideas fit together using a range of graphic organizers or visualization tools. These organizational tools can be useful if you prefer working with visual content or if you just want to try a different approach. Some graphic organizers are essentially outlines presented with symbols instead of numbered, hierarchical lists. You can find many graphic organizer templates online, but you can create one by putting together basic shapes to show content and arrows to show relationships.

A few additional graphic organizers you might try out are Venn Diagrams, Storyboards, and Timelines.

Venn Diagrams

Venn diagrams use overlapping circles to help show relationships between ideas, arguments, authors, etc. To create a Venn diagram, first identify key concepts that you would like to compare (this might be key sections of your content, specific sources, etc.). Venn diagrams typically compare two or three things; the example included here focuses on comparing two things. 

Once you have decided what you want to compare, create the basic Venn diagram by drawing two intersecting circles (you can also find lots of templates online). Label each circle with the concepts you are comparing. Under each circle’s label, make a list of notes and ideas. For instance, if you are comparing two ideas you want to discuss in your paper, you can list key sources, focal points, timeframes, etc. List notes for each side of the circle and then move anything that is common between the two to the overlapping segment of the circles. 


Venn diagram titled “Research Comparison.” Article 1 is “A Randomized Cross-over Exploratory Study of the Effect of Visiting Therapy Dogs. . .” and listed points include: 75 participants, 15 min therapy/ control, perceived stress scale and saliva tests, no physiological difference. Article 2 is “The Effects of Group-Administered Canine Therapy on University Students” and listed points include: 163 participants, 20 min. therapy vs. 20 min individual study, perceived stress tests, no difference in follow-up. The overlapping section of the Venn diagram states, “Short-term reduction in perceived stress.”
Figure 3: Venn diagram comparing two research articles. Image credit Melissa Helquist.

Going through the process of creating a Venn can help you understand where sources might connect and how you can integrate their ideas within a paragraph, or it might help you understand how key ideas are related and how you might use similarities to create transitions between those ideas.


Storyboards are essentially a visual outline. While storyboards are typically used to plan out video content, they can provide a helpful visualization for written content. To create a story board, add a series of panels/boxes to a blank page. Add images, text, etc. to each panel to show how your essay’s ideas might develop. You can use visual clues and key words to help you identify transitions relationships between ideas, sources, and sections.


Storyboard includes five images with accompanying text. 1. A group of students working in a classroom with caption, “Stressed college students.” 2. A dog looking up at camera with caption, “Cute fluffy dogs.” 3. The Problem: Majority of college students experience mod/ severe stress and have mental health needs. 4. Key Benefits: Research shows therapy dogs provide reduction of perceived stress. 5. Limitations: Benefits are short term. Need to continue developing all campus mental health resources. (Images 3-5 are decorative)
Figure 4: Storyboard exploring therapy dogs in college. Image created by Melissa Helquist. Top left image from Unsplash, dog photo Melissa Helquist, bottom row Canva clip art.


Timelines are especially helpful if you are working with a chronological idea (e.g., the development of community colleges in the U.S.), but they can also help you plan out the progression of ideas in any essay. Consider the following approach to create an organizational timeline: 

  • Begin the timeline with your audience’s current perspective. What do they know about your topic? What interest do they have in your topic?
  • End the timeline with a description of your audience once they’ve read your argument. How do you want them to think, feel, or act differently once they’ve read your essay?
  • Once you’ve noted the starting and ending points, mark the steps along the way. What information does your audience need to reach the destination you have in mind? What ideas need to come first?


Timeline with five key points. 1. Current audience views (college admins): May not understand extend of problem. 2. Explain problem: Increase in student mental health needs. Severe stress during finals. 3. Research: Impact on perceived stress. Increased relaxation. 4. Concerns: Mental health support should be multi-faceted. Effects are not long-term. 5. Changed Perspective: Motivation to address problem. Dogs as key part of support/ awareness.
Figure 5: Timeline highlighting key points in audience awareness.


In addition to trying different these different organizational approaches, also remember that you may want to use multiple strategies at once. Any of the ideas presented here could be used at the beginning of your writing process or in the middle of your project to help you clarify your ideas. Take your writing one step at a time and don’t be afraid to approach the project from different perspectives. There is no one way to organize an essay, so don’t be afraid to try new things! 


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Melissa Helquist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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