Planning Strategies
By Alice L. Trupe

In the planning phase, the writer selects and organizes ideas to create a general shape for the text to be drafted. Many high school students have been taught to write a thesis sentence and/or create an outline before drafting. These are useful activities for some writers some of the time. It's useful knowledge as well. Recognizing the thesis and outlining are important analytical skills students can practice in their reading and in peer response to others' drafts. But it's helpful for writers and teachers of writing to have a repertoire of approaches to planning. We'll begin by talking about the thesis sentence, the outline, and other traditional rhetorical traditions for planning, noting any links with idea-generating prewriting techniques. Then we'll return briefly to the various prewriting activities discussed above and look at the transition from prewriting into planning that grows out of those activities.

Planning Practices

It is very likely that you have been instructed in writing the thesis sentence. The thesis sentence may be thought of as the central, focal sentence of the entire paper. If the whole paper were condensed to a single sentence, that sentence would be the thesis sentence. In her textbook Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing, Linda Flower suggests "nutshelling": What's my paper about, in a nutshell?

A thesis sentence should both identify the topic of the paper and indicate the author's attitude toward the topic or position on the topic. Thus, it should do more than announce a topic. "Announcements" take the form This paper will do such-and-such or In this paper I will . . . . We have observed that many college faculty in disciplines other than English expect to see a clear thesis sentence in any piece of writing, and we believe it has a great deal of value. However, in terms of the writing process, the writer's commitment to a thesis sentence before writing may be premature, especially if the writer is still developing her ideas on the topic.

While planning is often useful and may be necessary, many writers benefit from writing a discovery draft of a paper, in which they "discover" what they have to say. Students who do this often write their way into a thesis, and when this happens, the thesis sentence usually appears near the end of the draft. Of course, this thesis sentence may then be revised and moved to the introduction. We mention it here to urge caution in requiring students to always compose a thesis sentence before drafting. And on those occasions when students are required to write a thesis sentence before drafting, the thesis sentence should be provisional, subject to change as the student becomes more conversant with her topic and develops her ideas through drafting and revising. (This, of course, is an example of the recursive nature of the writing process.)

The outline is a useful hierarchical planning tool. The more knowledge the writer has of the topic she is preparing to write about, the more detailed an outline she can write. The outline is a purely verbal representation of the tree diagram in that the topic is divided into subtopics which are in turn subdivided into more narrowly defined subtopics. This branching structure is probably the most challenging aspect to students who are using outlining to plan a paper. They may be thinking of topic II.A.1. as a heading under which they have one point to make and wish to list that point as II.A.1.a. and then proceed to II.A.2. rather than adding b., c., and so forth under II.A.1. (This is illustrated well at Developing an Outline, a Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) handout.

Writers who do not yet have a full grasp of what they want to say about their topic may have a great deal of difficulty outlining it. However, when a great many ideas have been generated through brainstorming or freewriting, the writer may be ready to create a detailed outline. The outline has an additional highly useful function, in revising.

The ancient Greek and Roman teachers of rhetoric collected and classified effective approaches to argument, which they then standardized by teaching to budding rhetoricians, who would use these techniques to make speeches in public life. The argumentative speech had from four to seven parts, with the number varying according to various teachers' definitions. In general, however, the part was defined by its function in the speech as a whole. This differs from the outline approach, which depends upon subdivision of specific subject matter, generating an organization specific to the particular topic at hand. The beauty of a standardized organizational pattern was that it could be applied to any specific subject. We present a five-part division here: exordium, narratio, confirmatio or probatio, refutatio, peroratio.

This is a very cursory overview of arrangement in classical rhetoric. You will note that there is an emphasis on winning the audience to the author's point of view. Traditionally oriented rhetorical teaching places a premium on understanding and moving an audience to accomplish a specific purpose through establishing the author's credibility and advancing rational arguments.

A great deal of information on classical rhetorical techniques is readily available, if you wish to study it further, including translations of the ancient authors' work and textbooks for today's college students based on ancient and medieval rhetoric. It is an interesting area of study in its own right, but a study of historical rhetoric will also aid an English teacher in understanding the arguments posed in ancient, medieval, and early modern literary texts. You will find it very useful to practice analyzing elements of confirmatio and refutatio when you read arguments, whether they're in the OpEd section of your newspaper or collected in textbook anthologies, as well as to practice making arguments in the classical tradition.

Activity: Select a campus, local, or national issue about which you feel strongly. Plan an argumentative speech or essay, organizing to include the five functions described here. Share your argument with class members, and evaluate the effectiveness of each other's arguments.

The ancient rhetorical teachers also classified a set of standard practices that they knew as the commonplaces (loci communi in Latin) or topics (or topoi in Greek). They did not use "topic" in the way that we use it, as subject matter originating with the writer or coming specifically from knowledge acquired through research or study, but rather as commonly shared, communal approaches to thinking about the issues and concerns of the day. Again, once these approaches were learned, the rhetorician could combine them in any specific situation; the aim was always argumentation or persuasion. Commonplaces included definition, division, comparison, cause and effect, and other approaches.

It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the focus of rhetorical instruction shifted from oral argumentation to writing. In the course of this development, a number of influential texts on rhetoric classified the "modes" of discourse as narration, description, exposition, persuasion, and poetry. For practical pedagogical purposes, poetry was divided from rhetorical instruction, leaving the other four modes as the types of discourse in which students were to be instructed. An additional feature of the new focus on written discourse was development of a rhetoric of the paragraph. Today, many handbooks list the commonplaces and/or modes under paragraph development, offering them as means of organizing paragraphs. These organizational patterns have formed the basis of much writing instruction in the twentieth century, in a pedagogical approach known as current-traditional rhetoric. They may be taught as a useful repertoire of strategies for planning part or all of a paper.

Activity: Use a dictionary of quotations to select a succinct statement on a broad topic. Select one or more organizational patterns identified above to plan an essay on the topic. Create a detailed outline of the paper you would write. If you prefer, you may use one of the quotations on peace listed below, found in The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996, available at

".. peace is a militant thing ... any peace movement must have behind it a higher passion than the desire for war. No one can be a pacifist without being ready to fight for peace and die for peace."-- Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966), U.S. journalist and labor activist. A Footnote to Folly, ch. 5 (1935). "Peace is normally a great good, and normally it coincides with righteousness, but it is righteousness and not peace which should bind the conscience of a nation as it should bind the conscience of an individual; and neither a nation nor an individual can surrender conscience to another’s keeping."-- Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), U.S. Republican (later Progressive) politician, president. Sixth annual message to Congress, December 4, 1906. "Peace can endure only so long as humanity really insists upon it, and is willing to work for it and sacrifice for it. Twenty- five years ago American fighting men looked to the statesmen of the world to finish the work of peace for which they fought and suffered; we failed them, we failed them then, we cannot fail them again and expect the world to survive again."-- Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), U.S. president. FDR Speaks authorized edition of speeches, 1933-1945 (recordings of Franklin Roosevelt’s public addresses), side 12, address to Congress on Yalta Conference (March 1, 1945), ed. Henry Steele Commager, Introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, Washington Records, Inc. (1960). Note following citation: "The President appealed to the Congress and the American people to have faith in the planned United Nations organization and not make the same mistake which American leaders made in rejecting the League of Nations after World War I...."

Returning to the prewriting activities that we recommended above, let's look briefly at the transition from prewriting into planning. Any ideas generated through freewriting and brainstorming activities may be arranged to facilitate planning of a paper, using listing or outlining to establish a preferred sequence of ideas, or creating a tree diagram or flow chart as a more visual planning tool. Any questions generated or answered as part of the prewriting process may be arranged to serve as a guide in planning a paper.

Visual prewriting techniques like clustering may lend themselves to more orderly visual planning devices, such as the tree diagram or flow chart, or conversion to a more fully developed verbal plan, such as the outline. The storyboard approach lends itself to shifting about for various organizational patterns as well: cut apart the framed sketches and rearrange them on a table. Envisioning a Webpage similarly results in various possibilities for planning a paper, with various pieces of text, graphics, and links (perhaps with annotations of the links) lending themselves to rearrangement and recombination.

Review and analysis of a transcript of a conversation or role-playing session may help students plan a paper. Giving headings to various topics, or color-coding various topics with highlighters, can impose organization on the sometimes chaotic, often associative flow of synchronous communication. The headings can then be arranged to plan a well-organized paper on the topic.

While we've found these techniques useful in helping students generate ideas and sketch out a preliminary plan for writing, there are always those students who do most of their planning in their heads. When they sit down to work on a paper, they are ready to write. Such students may use the drafting process itself as a planning tool. We'll consider some individual differences in approach to writing tasks as we discuss drafting.

Return to Prewriting Practices or go to Composing Strategies

By Alice L. Trupe, posted Sept. 10, 2001