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6 Possible Organizational Patterns For Composing An Essay

Development is the process by which you support or explain the central idea of a paragraph, essay, or other piece of writing.


Depending on your purpose—what you want to accomplish—you can use several methods of development:

Each method can be used separately or in combination with any of the others.
Learning which methods best suit your purpose will help when you create outlines and write first drafts of paragraphs and essays.

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Use narration to recall an event or explain how a process works. A narrative is a story. It arranges information in chronological (time) order; one event in a story or one step in a process follows another just as it happened.

Narratives contain action words—verbs and adverbs—that help move the story or process along and make it more interesting. They also use transitions such as first, then, soon, after, and suddenly, which maintain coherence and show movement from one event to the next.

Read this paragraph from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It recalls a childhood incident when neighborhood children mocked her and her grandmother. Action words are in red; transitions are in blue:

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Use description when you need to explain the nature of people, places, and things. It's always a good idea to start a physical description by relying on your five senses to gather details about what your subject looks, sounds, feels, smells, or even tastes like.

Unlike narration, which presents information from beginning to end, description can be arranged in any pattern you think best. Usually, the pattern is spatial, presenting things as they appear in space. But each writer chooses his or her own perspective—the position from which to view a subject. And each decides where to begin and where to end.

Read this paragraph from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou doesn't simply describe her subjects' appearance; she uses description to explain their characters. She also uses it to reveal her emotional reaction to their behavior.

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Narration and description can also be used to explain an idea or statement, to convince readers that an opinion is correct, or to persuade them to do something. But such purposes also lend themselves to other methods.


Depending on what you want to accomplish, you can choose one or more methods to develop your central idea:

Illustration: Uses examples.

Comparison or constrast: Points out similarities or differences.

Definition: Explains what a term means.

Classification: Distinguishes between types or classes.

Cause and effect: Explains why something happens.


Illustration explains abstract ideas by providing clear, specific, and concrete examples. Take this paragraph from "A Few Kind Words for Superstition" by Robertson Davies:

There are two concrete examples here:

  1. Orthodox Jews place a charm . . . .
  2. Some peoples of Middle Europe believe . . . .


A comparison explains similarities. A contrast explains differences. The first half of the following paragraph compares a harpsichord and a piano. The second half contrasts these instruments.

The harpsichord and the piano are closely

related. Both are keyboard instruments, and

both produce sound when jacks or hammers

attached to keys strike metal strings. The piano

is a direct descendant of the harpsichord and takes

its shape from that instrument. In fact, many musical

compositions played on one can be adapted to the other.

However, today the piano is the more popular

of the two instruments. It is capable of producing

greater volume and variety of tone, and it is more

versatile than its predecessor. Pianos provide

accompaniment for vocalists both classical and popular,

and they are used in every instrumental group

from the small dance band to the grandest symphony



A definition identifies a term and sets it apart from all other terms that may be related to it. Often, definitions begin by mentioning the general class to which a term belongs. Then they provide specifics to distinguish the term from other members of that class. For example, if you were to define whale, you might start by saying it is an aquatic mammal. Then you could talk about its size, shape, varieties, environment, breeding habits, and so on.

Read this paragraph. Try to determine the general class to which the subject belongs; then find specifics that distinguish it from other members of that class.


One method of development can be used in combination with others. Reread the paragraph defining the viola. Pick out examples of comparison and contrast.


Classification—distinguishing types or classes—can help you explain a great deal of seemingly unrelated information in an organized and easy-to-follow manner. Take this paragraph that explains stringed instruments:


Once again, remember that two methods of development can be used together. Read the paragraph on stringed instruments above again. See if you can find places where the writer has used definition and description.


The cause-and-effect method is useful in explaining why something happens. Take this paragraph on the causes of avalanches:


Read the paragraph on avalanches again:

Where is definition used in this paragraph? How about comparison?

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As you have learned, there are several ways to develop details in a paragraph. These methods—narration, description, comparison/contrast, definition, classification, illustration, and cause and effect—relate to the paragraph's purpose. You should also learn patterns of arrangement—ways to organize details in a paragraph.

There are four basic patterns, but there are as many variations on such patterns as there are writers who use them. Study these four patterns of arrangement. You can use any of them regardless of the method of development you choose.


Begin with a general statement (topic sentence); develop the rest of the paragraph with supporting details.


Begin with supporting details that lead to a broad concluding statement (topic sentence).


Begin with a question; follow with details that answer that question.


Begin with the least important detail; end with the most important detail.


The pattern that begins with a general statement followed by specific supporting details can be used to argue a point or make an abstract idea clear. In the next paragraph, the writer starts with the idea that living with an alcoholic parent is difficult. This is the topic sentence. She then gives details to explain how difficult this problem is.


This pattern can help you create suspense or build to an emotional high point. The following paragraph starts with a specific detail that leads to a more general topic sentence.


Beginning with a question can capture the reader's attention. It is also an easy way to arrange information. After asking the question, you can fill the rest of the paragraph or essay with details that answer or relate to it.


Fiction writers often save the most important or startling information for last. This technique helps them maintain suspense and create emphasis. You can use this pattern whether your purpose is to tell a story, describe a scene, explain an idea, or defend an opinion. The next paragraph is a good example.

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Patterns of Organization for Essay Assignments

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Patterns of organization for essay assignments vary, but the one thing they all have in common is creating a logical and organized way to present information. No particular pattern is perfect for every type of essay, writer or piece of content. Only by carefully considering the information you identified in prewriting and learning about your topic can you decide on the best pattern of organization.

Patterns of organization do two things for your essay assignments. They present information logically, and they present information in an order that stays interesting to your readers. Essentially, patterns put all the pieces together to create a strong and effective essay. Learn about the different patterns or organization below to decide how to best organize your essay.

Chronological pattern of organization

A chronological pattern organizes information as a progression of time. The time can move forward or backward as long as a logical progression takes place. Best suited for topics that are broken into segments of time, a chronological pattern consists of main sections covering a particular period of time and subsections under each main section covering segments or events within the time period of the main section. When you’re writing about a historical topic, this pattern works well.

Sequential pattern of organization

A sequential pattern organized information in a step-by-step process. It is similar to the chronological pattern because the steps occur over a period of time in a particular order. However, the sequential pattern essentially describes the steps in a certain process. The main sections cover each main step, and the subsections cover the sub-steps. This organization allows you to identify the key steps and to provide the detailed process for that step within the subsections. When you’re writing an essay assignment to describe a process that occurs in a series of steps, the sequential pattern works well.

Climactic pattern of organization

A climactic pattern organizes information from the least important to the most important. As your essay assignment develops and builds throughout the essay, the crescendo of information holds the attention of readers. In essence, you’re saving the best information and part of the essay for last. When you’re writing an essay that builds up to a finishing point, your journey to winning a medal for example, the climactic pattern works well.

Reverse climactic pattern of organization

A reverse climactic pattern organizes information in the exact opposite of the climactic pattern: the most important information precedes the least important. Use caution in choosing this method. While it works well in journalism with the inverted pyramid style of writing, it makes it more difficult to keep your readers’ attention in essay assignments. Using your journey to winning a medal as an example, your essay would start with the act of winning the medal and work backward through the process that got you to that point.

Spatial pattern of organization

A spatial pattern organizes information in a way that leads your readers from one point to the next according to how things fit within a physical space. It allows you to create a mental picture of the parts of something using description to describe psychical location. When you’re writing about geography or explaining multiple things located in different locations (think of a to-do list for a popular city), for example, the spatial pattern works well.

Topical pattern of organization

A topical pattern organizes information into subtopics that fall into larger topics, or examples of types falling into a category. When another pattern of organization doesn’t work, the topical approach generally does; think of it as the catchall pattern. For this reason, it is the most commonly used pattern of organization for essay assignments. If you were writing about cheeses, for example, you would have types of cheese as a larger topic and the individual types as subtopics.

Whatever pattern of organization you use for your essay assignments, make sure to consider any specific instructions from your instructor first by thoroughly reading and understanding the assignment. While these are some of the most common patterns not covered in a specific essay format, they are not the only patterns of organization. Always consider the scope and nature of your topic to pick the pattern best suited to writing a strong paper.

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