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Fixing a Disorganized Essay in 4 Easy Steps

Even with prewriting and planning, it can be difficult to write a well-organized essay. This is particularly true on the TOEFL Independent Writing task. The time you have for pre-writing is minimal. With only 30 minutes to finish the task, you may need to correct organizational mistakes during and after your writing of the essay.

In my earlier post, “TOEFL Independent Writing: Organizing Your Ideas”, I showed you a four-part process revising essay structure after you write an essay. This revision method is re-posted below:

1) Look at the essay you’ve already written, and make an outline of its structure.

2) Look at the outline you’ve made. Identify ideas that seem out of place or incomplete. Which ideas should you move to a different part of the essay? Which ideas should you remove entirely? Are there any missing ideas that you should add?

3) Make a new outline based on your observations.

4) Re-write your essay based on the new outline.

            To take you through this process, I’m going to revise a badly disorganized essay I wrote when I was a college freshman back in 2000. In this assignment, my English professor asked me to write a short essay using a simile to describe college life. Read it here: My Awful ENG110 Essay

Some organizational problems are pretty obvious, while others are harder to spot. To find all the problems and propose solutions, I’ll do steps 1 and 2 of the 4-step revision process above. Here is an outline of my essay, with notes on things I should change:

Outline for “College is Like a Long Journey on Foot”

Paragraph 1: Walking a lot in college

A) Hard to park car on campus
B) Buildings are big, need to be walked through
C) Students don’t have car or can’t afford reliable car (This should go next to point A, because both A and C are about cars.)
D) Metaphoric similarities (This is about metaphors instead of literal similarities. None of the other paragraphs really focus on metaphors. Get rid of point D.)

Paragraph 2: Time in a long foot-journey/Time in college

A) College and long journey on foot both take all day
B) Brushing teeth (Not directly part of college or long journey on foot.)
C) Breakfast (Not directly part of college or long journey on foot.)
D) Morning and afternoon classes
E) Dinner (Not directly part of college or long journey on foot.)
F) Homework
G) Bed (Not directly part of college or long journey on foot.)
H) Feeling tired after a long foot journey or day at school (Being tired is a sensation. Move this point to Paragraph 3, which focuses on sensations, or get rid of this point.)

(Remove points B, C, E, and G)

Paragraph 3: Sensations in long foot journey/college

A) Walking (feeling the ground, smelling the outdoors)
B) College (hearing campus clock, friends’ voices, smelling food and spring flowers)
(Point A only mentions touch and smell. Point B has touch, smell, and sound. Add sound to A, or remove sound from B.)

(This paragraph focuses on the physical, just like Paragraph 1. Put Paragraph 1 and Paragraph 3 next to each other.)

Paragraph 4: Conclusion

A) Walking
B) Senses (Also need to mention time, because one of the paragraphs in the essay focuses on time.)
C) Reasons for walking and going to college (This was not one of the main points in the body of the essay.)

(There’s a conclusion but no introduction. Consider adding an introduction.)

Now for step 3, making a new outline:

Revised Outline for “College is Like a Long Journey on Foot”

Paragraph 1: Introduction

A) Physical similarities (both a foot journey and college involve walking, use of the senses)
B) Time similarities (both are time consuming)

Paragraph 2: Walking a lot in college

A) Hard to park car on campus
B) Students don’t have car or can’t afford reliable car
C) Buildings are big, need to be walked through

Paragraph 3: Sensations in long foot journey/college

A) Walking (hearing your own footsteps, feeling the ground, smelling the outdoors)
B) College (hearing campus clock, friends’ voices, smelling food and spring flowers)

Paragraph 4: Time in a long foot-journey/Time in college

A) College and a long journey on foot both take all day
B) Morning and afternoon classes
C) Evening homework

Paragraph 5: Conclusion

A) Walking
B) Senses
C) Time

As you can see, the new outline puts the ideas in much more logical order. Now for step 4: rewriting the essay. Download my rewrite (College Essay Rewrite) to see the improvements.

Revising your essays in this way will help you become more aware of organizational problems in your writing. Practice this process often enough, and you’ll learn to catch your mistakes as you make them. This will allow you to quickly re-organize your ideas in timed TOEFL Writing tasks.

In my next post on essay organization, I’ll give you a few self-study activities so you can really practice these skills.

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