The Reviser’s Toolbox, Part 1

A while ago, I discussed revision as re-envisioning. Today, I want to explore a specific area that writers re-envision as they revise: organization.

In the planning stage, writers establish an organizational blueprint. These blueprints vary in complexity from a hasty sketch to a detailed paragraph-by-paragraph plan. However, even the best laid plans can go awry during the drafting stage. And in some cases, it is important to let that wandering take place.

Planning your writing is like planning your life. Should you do it? Definitely. But if your life doesn’t proceed according to the plan, then sometimes it’s best to adjust the plan or throw the plan (or part of it) out the window, right? The same holds true for writing.

Over the next few posts, I will focus on common organizational strategies that can help writers refine their work in revision. These strategies can be used to define the document’s overall organization, but they don’t have to be. They can also be used to organize a particular section or subpoint within the larger work.

First up, an essay question classic that writers too often botch: Comparison and Contrast. Comparison and contrast can be painfully formulaic. One reason for this is that many writers assume that comparison and contrast is conceptually simple and, moreover, that they have mastered the requisite concepts. Let’s take a moment to consider the comparison and contrast mechanism with fresh eyes.

Comparison and contrast starts with two or more poles. These poles can be objects, people, concepts, places…just about anything. But there has to be a unifying rationale. By this I mean that the writer has to understand and communicate his or her purpose in choosing to compare and contrast these things. And for that, of course, there has to be a purpose.

So now we have two key ingredients: the poles being compared/contrasted, and the writer’s purpose in doing so. When you are constructing a comparison and contrast, you can start from either ingredient. You can establish the poles and then seek a purpose, which is what most writers do. Or, and more interestingly, you can establish your communicative purpose and then choose the poles that would fulfill it.

Just as with any other piece of writing, the writer should be able to answer the reader’s “so what” question. The reader doesn’t want to read a comparison and contrast per se. Rather, the reader wants to learn something new, be persuaded, delighted, or inspired. Your overall purpose has the power to enthrall the reader. The comparison and contrast is merely a vehicle. Many writers view comparison and contrast as the “end,” when in fact it’s a “means to an end.”

Before moving into the comparison/contrast itself, the writer should analyze the poles to determine whether he or she needs to describe or explain them before comparing and contrasting. If the reader is already very familiar with the material being compared, then little description is needed. But what if the reader is not as familiar with one or both of the poles being compared? In that case – and it is a common case – the writer should provide sufficient description and explanation before moving into the comparison/contrast mode.

Next, you’ll need to determine how to arrange your comparison and contrast. This can be done in one of two ways. You could discuss every relevant aspect of the first pole first, then move on to discuss every relevant aspect of the second pole. This is called block organization.

Pole 1

  • – Point of comparison
  • – Point of comparison
  • – Point of contrast
  • – Point of contrast

Pole 2

  • – Point of comparison
  • – Point of comparison
  • – Point of contrast
  • – Point of contrast

Or, you could organize by the bases of comparison rather than the things being compared. This is called alternating organization.

Point of comparison 1

  • – Pole 1
  • – Pole 2

Point of comparison 2

  • – Pole 1
  • – Pole 2

Point of contrast 1

  • – Pole 1
  • – Pole 2

Point of contrast 2

  • – Pole 1
  • – Pole 2

Depending on the poles of comparison/contrast and your purpose, either organization could work. It’s important, however, to consider both so that you make the best choice for your subject and purpose.

Finally, do everything you can to counterbalance comparison and contrast’s tendency to sound formulaic. Change up the wording, and work to establish smooth, meaningful transitions. A varied, lively style can compensate for a structured – and quite familiar – organization.

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2 Responses to The Reviser’s Toolbox, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Reviser's Toolbox, Part 2 | Writing Power

  2. Pingback: Revision Tips: Cause And Effect | Writing Power

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