by Tina Blue
August 28, 2007
I worked part time for several years for a company that scored the state assessment tests that have become so common in the US as a means of measuring students' progress in grades K-12. Each state used its own rubric for assessing student essays in the writing portion of the exams, but most of the rubrics covered the same general set of elements that writing teachers have always focused on.
One of those elements is, of course, organization. But organization is actually a fairly general concept, and it includes such factors as focus, unity, direction, and coherence, as well as the issue of whether the organizing principles chosen for the essay as a whole or for specific paragraphs within the essay are both appropriate to the subject matter and optimally effective. A perfectly logical arrangement of details may, nonetheless, be plodding and uninspired, whereas a slight shift in the way elements are organized might give life to an essay on the same subject.
One way that we would check for whether the organizing principle in a paragraph or an essay was compelling was to ask whether the sentences in a paragraph--or the paragraphs in an essay--needed to be in the order they occurred in. In other words, could those elements be rearranged without affecting either clarity or effect? If so, then the organizing principle was not particularly strong. The points did not lead naturally and effectively into those that followed, and the collection of points did not "march" in the same direction, toward a natural stopping point for the paragraph or essay.
If the elements (whether sentences or paragraphs) are effectively arranged, then finding natural transitions from one point to the next is not a matter of pasting on "transitional devices" after the fact in order to satisfy the demands of an instructor. Instead, the logical connections between ideas will create the necessary transitions, almost automatically. In fact, if you find yourself trying to add transitional devices after the essay is written, then chances are pretty good that there is a problem at some level with the organization of the essay.