How To Do Essay Shaping

When creating a shaping sheet, think of it in terms of transitions, and point this out to students as they are using the shaping sheet.  Show them that it mainly consists of transitional devices and talk about the structure of the devices.  Are they in a cause/effect format?  Are they in an if/then format?  Identifying the structure is an essential part of the scaffolding process in enabling students to write without shaping sheets… eventually.  Part of the scaffolding process can be to have them create their own shaping sheets from a list of transitional devices.  This is an interesting outlining technique that students can continue to use for their writing assignments across academic subjects.  You can find a handout for Transitions & Transitional Devices attached below.  Click on the image for this FREE DOWNLOAD to use with your students.

The Takeaway

So, what is the takeaway from this story?  I think it’s important not to rule out a single educational approach or method completely.  It’s important to be open to new techniques of doing the same old things.  We need to recognize as teachers that there are MANY WAYS to teach the same skill and MANY WAYS to do it effectively.  If you find your that your students are floundering with a particular writing skill even after you’ve exhausted all the other approaches in your “toolbox,” try out a shaping sheet and see how it works for your students.  You might be surprised at how a shaping sheet can dispel confusion among your student writers.

Do you use shaping sheets in your classroom?  I’d love to hear from you!  Leave a comment below.

Ordering Information in the Body of the Essay

Choosing a Logical Order for Ideas - Once you have your thesis and your groups of supporting information with topic sentence ideas, you can determine the best possible order in which to present them in the essay. To determine the most logical shape or order, ask and answer these questions:

  • Is there a basic topic sentence idea that you should present first, before you explain the others, because the reader needs its information as background and because the other topic sentence ideas build upon it?
  • Are there some topic sentences and groups of information that are more important than others? Can you discern a logical pattern, either in ascending or descending order of importance?
  • Are there some topic sentences and groups of information that normally come first in a time sequence?

Order of complexity, order of importance, and time order are three basic, logical ways of shaping ideas to help the reading audience follow the flow of thought.

For example, consider the sample topic sentence, Adults returning to college face time, study, emotional, and family problems. Assuming that the order of the topic sentences in the support follows the order of ideas in the thesis, are these ideas arranged in a logical order? There doesn't seem to be any idea that has to be explained first. Also, each of the topic sentences that could be developed from this thesis seems equally complex. And the ideas don't exist in any type of chronological order. So how do you determine a logical shape and order of ideas for this essay? One way is to move from the problems that affect just one person, the student, to the problems that affect the whole family (emotional problems-study skills-juggling work and family-changing family roles). Another way is to move from the problems that can be dealt with more directly to those that are more complex to deal with (study skills-juggling work and family-changing family roles-emotional problems). The point here is that there needs to be some rationale or logical connection for ordering the ideas in the essay so that the essay's shape makes sense to others. And, whatever way the writer chooses, he/she then needs to align the order of ideas in the thesis to reflect the actual order of ideas in the support in order to complete the essay's logical shape.

Emphasis as a Means of Ordering Information in an Essay

Emphasis, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is a "special importance or significance placed upon . . . something." You can choose to emphasize different things in an essay by choosing where to place the essay's main ideas (the thesis and topic sentence ideas).

You emphasize main ideas when you place them at the start of the essay or the unit of support. If you place the thesis toward the start of the essay and the topic sentences toward the start of each unit of support, you gear all of the support toward proving those main ideas. Emphasizing main ideas by placing them first is called deduction, which creates a general-to-specific structure in the essay by placing the major information first. Deduction helps you focus on an argument and create a case, as it requires you to develop support around a main point.

For example:

The Impatient Silent Twitchers form an interesting group of line-standers because of their variety. The Wristwatch Checkers are the mildest sub-group of this larger group. Their bodies remain quiet except for the one arm where that powerful necessity, the wristwatch, sits. Maybe that the electric battery in the watch emits tiny electrical impulses to the nerves...whatever it is, something creates a knee-jerk reaction in the arm to make the Wristwatch Checker's elbow defy gravity every minute and a half. Wristwatch Checkers are dangerous only in busy lines that wind back on themselves. As long as you're far enough away from them, though, they can make good line companions on warm, windless days.

You emphasize the method of reasoning and the particulars of the support as opposed to the main idea when you place the main ideas at the end of the essay or the unit of support. Main ideas still remain important when you place them at the end, but you offer them more as logical outcomes than as initial arguments (so the emphasis has changed). Putting the main idea at the end is called induction, which moves from specific information to general conclusions. Induction may help you present a controversial thesis to your reading audience. For example, if you were in favor of banning smoking in the doorways outside of buildings, you'd probably alienate many in your audience by placing that main idea first. But if you presented your support and lead into the main idea, your reading audience (smokers included!) might see the logic of your case (even if they didn't agree).

For example:

Some people stand in line quietly except for one arm which they constantly move up and down. These people check their wristwatches persistently, usually in regular short intervals which seem to become shorter as the line wait gets longer. Their arms jerk upward compulsively, elbows thrust out to the side, while their heads go down simultaneously. As the spasms subside, they usually accompany the arm's return to position by tapping their feet, exhaling loud breaths, or fidgeting in some other way. The Wristwatch Checkers are the subtlest and mildest members of the Impatient Silent Twitchers group of line-standers; they lend variety to a group whose movements usually are more pronounced.

You emphasize major ideas and method equally when you place main ideas in the middle of the essay or unit of support. In this case, the main idea exists neither as a generating point for the essay nor as a logical conclusion. Instead, it's a fulcrum which both grows out of and generates more particular support.

For example:

Imagine a sultry day. Imagine having to stand in a slow line to cash your paycheck afterhours at an ATM. Imagine, all of a sudden, feeling a slight but steady breeze. The trees are not affected; where is the breeze coming from? After a while you realize that you're getting fanned by the arm motions of the Wristwatch Checkers, the mildest group of the Impatient Silent Twitchers, an interesting group of line-standers. Their bodies remain quiet except for one arm where that powerful necessity, the wristwatch, sits. It may be the battery's impulses to the nerves that causes the twitch, but whatever it is, something creates that urge to make the arm defy gravity every minute and a half. On a hot day, though, you'll be grateful for whatever causes their compulsion to make the line move by checking the time.

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