Organizing the Essay

  • Planning the organization of the essay

    Plan to organize the structure of the essay.  It will probably change as the you do the research, but it will be useful as the student progress with the actual essay.


    How to Write an Outline  

    One way to plan a structure for the essay is by writing an outline.  An outline breaks down the parts of the thesis in a clear, hierarchical manner. Most students find that writing an outline before beginning the paper is most helpful in organizing one's thoughts. If the outline is good, the paper will be easy to write. Use this worksheet from the Learning & Advising Center at Philadelphia University to help with writing the own outline.

    WHEN to write an outline - Timing is critical to writing an outline.  Outlining is best done as a middle stage in the writing process, not at the very beginning.  Follow these steps in the order given before attempting an outline:


    1. Read, gather information, and think about the essay topic
                2. Take notes, jot down ideas, use Researcher's Reflection Space
                3. Generate a research question (the student may need several tries)

    The basic format for an outline uses an alternating series of numbers and letters, indented accordingly, to indicate levels of importance. Here is an example of an outline on a paper about the development of Japanese theater from the University at Albany, State University of New York:



    I. Thesis: Japanese theater rose from a popular to elite and then returned to a popular art form.

    The thesis is stated in the first section, which is the introduction.  NOTE: In an IB Extended Essay, the introduction must include the research question.

    II. Early theatrical forms
               A. Bugaku
               B. Sarugaku
               C. Primitive Noh
               D. Authors and Audience        

    III. Noh theater
              A. Authors
               B. Props
                        1. Masks
                                  a. women
                                  b. demons
                                  c. old men
                       2. Structure of Stage
              C. Themes
                       1. Buddhist influence
                       2. The supernatural
              D. Kyogen interludes
             E. Audience 

    IV. Kabuki
             A. Authors
             B. Props
                       1. make-up
                       2. special effects
             C. Themes
                       1. Love stories
                       2. Revenge
             D. Audience

    V. Bunraku (puppet) theater
             A. Authors
             B. Props
             C. Themes
                       1. Love stories
                       2. Historical romances
             D. Audience

    The body follows the introduction and breaks down the points the author wishes to make.

    Note that some sections have subdivisions, others do not, depending on the demands of the paper.

    In this outline, II, III, & IV all have similar structure, but this will not necessarily be true for all papers. Some may only have three major sections, others more than the five given here.

    VI. Conclusion

    The conclusion should restate the thesis, and never introduce new material. NOTE: In an IB Extended Essay, the conclusion must provide an answer to the research question first stated in the introduction.

    "How to Write an Outline." U at Albany, State U of New York. U at Albany, State U of New York, 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2012 <>. 



    Preparing for the organizing and writing of the student essay

    Start preparing for the essay by reading materials about the proposed research question.

    NOTE:  If the student discover that it will not be possible to obtain the resources to support the research question in the time available, then the research question should be changed.  


    Time to read!

    The student has the subject. topic, and research question and identified some sources.  It is at this point, if the student is not able to find the evidence to support the research question, the student will need to change the research question.  (See box at right.)


    Spend some time in the library!  ASU West has supported our IB students by allowing them to use the Fletcher Library on their campus.  Take your Ironwood ID and ask for help if you can’t locate information.  The public and universities libraries are available for your research work!


    The IB advises that the student evaluate the sources (online, print, and otherwise) to make sure they are valid and reliable. Check for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. 

    Advice from the IB on Evaluating Sources (Online, Print, and Multimedia)

    The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding information, but the student needs to use it critically and with care. One important thing to be aware of is that unlike resources found in a library in printed form, those found on the internet may not have been through a review or editing process.

    When researching online, do make sure that you:

    • know appropriate search engines to use
    • not rely exclusively on sources found on the Internet
    • have a clear and focused research question to help the student search more directly on the Internet (given the amount of information available it is easy to be overwhelmed!) 
    • critically evaluate the reliability and validity of the information presented on the Internet 
    • keep a detailed record of all references, in accordance with the IB’s minimum requirements, ensuring that the URL of where the source was located is written down correctly. This includes recording the date that the site was accessed. The Researcher's reflection space (RRS) is a good tool for supporting this practice.

    The following table contains a series of questions the student can apply to determine the reliability and validity of the information the student find: on the Internet, or in print or multimedia.

    Evaluating Sources - Questions to Ask

    Desirable source attribute

    Questions to consider in order to determine this


    • Is the author of the information identified?
    • If the author has chosen to remain anonymous, why might this be? Is this significant in terms of the evaluation of the information presented? 
    • Is there enough information available to establish the author’s credibility?
    • Is the author affiliated to an academic institution or credible organization?
    • Is the author qualified to write about the subject?

     Audience appropriate

    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the information presented appropriately address the target audience?
    • Is the information relevant to the area of research?

     Reliability and credibility

    • Does the information appear to be valid and well researched? 
    • Can it be supported by evidence?
    • Can the information be verified through other sources?
    • Is there a non-web equivalent of this material that could be used to verify the information?
    • Does the URL (web address) give the student any indication of the source of the information?


    • Is there an indication as to who has responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided? 
    • Do the student know if the information has been reviewed?
    • Are there grammatical, spelling or typographical errors? If there are, what does this suggest about the source? 
    • Is there a bibliography?


    • Is the information fact or opinion?
    • Is the language used free of bias?
    • Is the author’s point of view objective or do they make it clear when they are expressing a personal opinion? 
    • Is it a personal website?
    • Is the author affiliated with any institution or organization which might create a bias in the information?


    • Is the information kept up-to-date?
    • Is there any indication of when the information was last updated?
    • Are any links up to date and working?

    Adapted from "Introduction; Academic honesty, Acknowledge the work or ideas of another person", from Extended Essay Guide, International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016.

    Start working on gathering the information. 

    The resources should be put together in a logical order and should be precise and to the point.  Remember that the student can only use from 3,000 to 4,000 words in the essay!  Stay focused on finding materials that will answer the research question. 

    The student should be prepared for things to occasionally go wrong.  Sometimes the student may discover something later in the research that undermines what the student thought had been established earlier.  If that happens, the research plan needs to be revised.

    Primary and Secondary Research: What's the Difference?

    Primary and secondary research play different roles in the research process. What's the difference?

    During the initial inquiry stage of the s research, the collecting information from a range of sources to help formulate the research question. This may involve talking to people as well as reading.  The student should be trying to read as much as the student can of what has already been written about the topic. This is called a “literature review” or “secondary research”.




    Secondary sources may include

    • printed works—books, journals, newspapers, magazines
    • Internet sources—websites, articles, journals and so on, available only online
    • other media sources—films, TV and radio programs
    • any other published information containing ideas and information relating to the choice of topic

    This secondary research can help the student refine the research question and begin to answer it.


    Then, it's time to formulate the research question and undertake further research to answer it. This may be further secondary research or the own primary research

    When the student carries out primary research the student collects the own data. Taking into consideration the findings from the secondary research, the student gathers the additional information the student has identified as required to help the student answer the research question. 

    Primary research techniques include:

    • setting up experiments
    • extracting information from original documents
    • interviewing experts
    • conducting formal surveys
    • gathering information by other methods from primary sources

    Whether the undertaking primary or secondary research, or a combination, reflection plays a key role in evaluating the findings and formulating a reasoned argument that answers the research question. If you need more explanation of the difference between a primary and secondary source, do go to YouTube for further videos about the difference in these sources


    After the research it's time to start writing!

    This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC

    Remember, the extended essay should be the student’s own original piece of work and IB expects the student write their own original essay.

    Quotations, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing

    A quotation is a piece taken from another piece of work, exactly as it was originally written.

    Paraphrasing involves taking a piece of writing and re-writing it in their own words.  

    Summarizing involves using the student’s own words to re-write the main idea(s) of someone else's work. A summary will be significantly shorter than the original piece and will be a broad overview of its content.

    Quotations and paraphrased or summarized material must always include a citation and reference to the original source.


    Tips for summarizing a piece of writing:

    • Scan the text 
      • make notes on paper; read closely to absorb the author’s tone and central ideas, and then comb back through to clarify points.
    • Outline the main idea of each section
      • in the student’s own words. Include only meaningful details and proofs, organizing them from most to least important.
    • Develop the thesis
      • summarizing the main points of the piece. Be sure to include the author’s name and the title of the work right away, avoid using your own opinions or interpretations, no matter how familiar the subject may be.
    • Arrange the information
      • clearly support the author's points, adding details to each section. Improve the flow of ideas with transitions that connect sections.
    • Be sure that sources are cited properly
      • Paraphrase and don’t use the author’s words if the student can help it. Make sure that you haven’t wandered off topic. Tip: Ask who, what, why, when, where, and how questions to be sure the student have represented the author’s work faithfully.
    • Make final corrections
      •  look at the grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Distinguish between the work and that of the subject with the care good scholarship demands.
    • Ask for criticism
      • try asking a hyper-critical friend to read the work. Be receptive and not over-sensitive – if they can’t identify the main points, the student needs to revise.