The Humble Essay Revisited

I know my former students would probably call me “sick,” but one of my favorite chapters in Roy Humble’s The Humble Essay was Chapter 6, “Organize Your Essay.” In Chapter 6, Humble lists the many ways a person might want to organize an essay and discusses situations in which the various organizational schemes work best. Just reading it made me want to try every one! So, a brief “flyover” of The Humble Essay, Chapter 6:

First, Humble discusses natural patterns:

  •  “Chronological Order”: basically you use the timing of anecdotes, research etc. to organize your writing from least to most recent events/findings.
  • “Cause and Effect”: A form of chronological organization, this method is good for explaining why something happens or the effect of particular events. In presenting your ideas, you pair up causes and effects to produce a chain of evidence to support your thesis.
  • “Problem/Solution”: This too is a chronological form of organization. The essay is begun by discussing a problem (that already exists, bringing the reader up to speed with its manifestation in the present) then follows up with a presentation and analysis of potential solutions (which, naturally, project into the future).
  •  “Place”: Here ideas and information are organized based on the places in which they occur. This can also be used as a form of chronological method if each place/event combo occurred in a distinct period of time.
  •  “Visual”: These are patterns that can be place related, but are not necessarily chronological. With visual organization you think of your writing as a camera lens. The essay can begin with a tight shot of a very specific idea or detail and zoom out to show how it fits with the wider scheme of things, or begin with a panorama shot and zoom in on the specific idea or detail you are discussing.
  • “Text”: This is best used for an essay dealing with a “text.” Your text could be a book, play, movie… Evidence in an essay organized around a text would present ideas and information in the same order that they occurred in the “text”.
  • “Components”: This method divides your topic into parts and presents information and ideas in relationship to the part of the topic they address.

Second, Humble introduces what he calls “Artificial Patterns”:

  • “Least to Most/Most to Least”: This works particularly well when you want to focus on a characteristic that relates to your topic. In this case you present your ideas and information starting either with the pieces that demonstrate the least degree of that characteristic and work your way up presenting stronger and stronger pieces. Or you begin with the strongest and work your way down to the weakest. This is a useful framework for essays that explore potential solutions to problems.
  • “Comparisons…Alternating”: Comparisons, in either alternating or block form, are often used when your topic consists of a number of things that have something in common. Alternating format compares items by characteristic, taking up one characteristic and discussing how it is displayed in each, then moving on to another characteristic, another, etc.
  • “Comparisons…Block:” Block comparisons consider all of the characteristics of one item, then consider all the characteristics of the next item
  •  “Listing”: This method is useful when you have a lot of little bits of information to present and you can’ figure out how to fit them in any natural or artificial pattern. Simply choose a place to start and list. You may number your lists if you wish. A bonus of a good list is that it creates the illusion that you could just keep on going, and going, and going with evidence to support your thesis.

Don’t you just want to jump in and try one or all of these methods of organization? Hmmm. Now, what shall I write about?