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Rhetorical Organization

The preceding information describes a "generic paragraph," one most likely written as a stand-alone paragraph. In reality, however, paragraphs, especially those undertaken for academic purposes, take on specific forms for specific purposes.

Most discourse can be categorized into one of three types:

1. narrative
2. informative
3. persuasive

"Narrative writing" discloses the writer's experiences, feelings, or perceptions and, as such, is writer-oriented. In "informative writing," the emphasis is on explaining the subject matter. This type of writing is used to convey knowledge, give instructions, or share ideas. While informative writing emphasizes the subject, the focus of "persuasive writing" is on the reader. The purpose of persuasive writing is to influence, frequently with the underlying goal of effecting change (National Assessment Governing Board, 1998).

Each of these types of writing has corresponding "organizational patterns." These organizational patterns provide a structure for relating details to the main idea, thus determining relationships within the paragraph. Understanding these relationships can help readers better understand the information in the paragraph. That is to say, if readers recognize the organizational pattern, they will better know what to expect in the paragraph.

Organizational patterns for rhetorical writing (Atkinson & Longman, 1992; Trimmer, 1992) are as follows:

A. Subject development organization-used in narrative writing
B. Comparison/contrast-used in informative writing
C. Cause/effect-used in informative writing
D. Enumeration/sequence (also called problem/solution)-used in persuasive writing

Organizational patterns vary according to content, topic and purpose. Additionally, each organizational pattern is characterized by its own set of "transition or signal words."

Subject Development

Subject development organization is used in narrative writing. The term "narrative writing" actually includes discourse that describes, explains, or shows a process or a work of fiction. In subject development organization, the topic sentence forms the basis for a collection of details that describe or sometimes define the topic. They relate to the topic but may not relate to each other. This type of organizational pattern can be found in both fiction and nonfiction writing and is also frequently found in text chapters (see enumeration/sequence pattern below).

The following is an example of a narrative paragraph:

Camera movement at the moment of exposure can produce what is known as camera shake. Camera shake, which can cause blurred pictures, can occur for two reasons. Sometimes the camera itself is held incorrectly. To be certain the camera is steady, wrap your right hand around the camera grip and stead your hand by setting your elbow lightly against your body. Use your left hand to hold the lens from underneath. When you are ready to look through the viewfinder, press the camera against your forehead. Even though the camera may be held correctly, camera shake can still occur if the shutter button is incorrectly depressed. To correctly depress this button, always use the center of your finger to touch the shutter button. Be certain you are holding the camera with your entire right hand before depressing the shutter button. When you are ready to take the picture, apply steady but gentle pressure to the button. Following these simple steps will help prevent most cases of camera shake.

The above narration explains the possible reasons for the occurrence of camera shake and offers specific directions on how to prevent it.

Signal words or transitions typically used with subject development paragraphs include: after, as long as, during, then, at the same time, later, since, second, as soon as, at last, until, subsequently, whenever, before, next, finally.


Discourse that is organized to compare or contrast is used to inform. The purpose of this kind of writing is to show relationships between concepts or objects. The pattern may be organized in one of two ways: (1) point-by-point or (2) block.

In the "point-by-point" organization, a detail or idea related to one object is compared with a corresponding detail or idea related to another object. In a "block comparison," all of the cogent details for the first topic are enumerated and then corresponding details for the second topic are enumerated. Visually, a point by point paragraph will be set up as follows:

Visually, a block style paragraph will be set up as follows:

The following is an example of a comparison/contrast paragraph organized following the point-by-point style:

Although no one will refute the simplicity and convenience of a point-and-shoot camera, anyone truly serious about photography will need to purchase a fully manual SLR camera. While the SLR requires a great deal of practice, it offers better control in focusing and better framing precision. With a point-and-shoot camera, focusing is accomplished by the camera. Despite this seeming convenience, the primary subject of the composition may not always be front and center. When this is the case, the subject may blur, since the auto focus hones in on the most central figure in its range. With the SLR camera, focus control remains with the photographer. Since it is up to him to assign focus, the primary subject of the composition may be far left, far right, or even behind a closer object, such as an animal in a zoo behind bars. A second advantage to the SLR camera is precision of framing. With the point-and-shoot, what the photographer sees in the view finder is not identical to what the lens itself sees. While the view finder has etched corners which are supposed to indicate outer margins of the photo, these are less than exact. However, with the SLR, the photographer looks directly through the lens. This enables him to precisely frame his composition. Thus, even though a point-and-shoot camera offers convenience and ease of use, it lacks the control and precision available with the SLR camera.

This paragraph compares a point-and-shoot camera with an SLR camera and is organized point by point. That is, focus control (the first point) is discussed in terms of both the point-and-shoot camera and the SLR camera. Then framing (the second point) is discussed first in terms of the point and shoot and then the SLR camera.

Visually, this paragraph will appear as follows:

Point #1: focus control

topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

topic #2: SLR camera

Point #2: framing

topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

topic #2: SLR camera

If the information in the above paragraph were formatted to fit a block style organization, visually it would appear as follows:

Topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

point #1: focus control

point #2: framing

Topic #2: SLR camera

point #1: focus control

point #2: framing

That is, the writer would discuss the attributes of focus and framing first with the point-and-shoot camera and then these same attributes with the SLR camera.

Signal words or transitions typically used with the comparison/contrast paragraph include: similarly, likewise, however, on the other hand, on the contrary, one difference, unlike, while, both, another similarity.

To use the comparison/contrast pattern, students should be able to (1) identify the signal words that show the comparison or contrast and (2) identify the items to be related (compared or contrasted).


A cause/effect pattern shows relationships between an action or response and a pre-existing reason. Said another way, a cause is what makes an event occur, and the effect is the result of the event. This pattern describes what happened and why it happened. Discourse that shows a cause/effect relationship is informative because it gives information to the reader. This pattern can be organized in one of three ways:

The following is a cause/effect paragraph that represents the first kind of organization:

Although social activities in college can be very tempting, students must know when to resist such temptations and turn instead to the task of studying. To postpone studying at the college level is to court certain disaster. The most immediate consequence of not studying is that the student is ill-prepared for the next class. Not only will the student be unable to participate in discussions, he or she likely will be unable to effectively understand the lecture, especially if it is of a technical nature. Beyond the immediate consequences, not studying on a regular basis means putting in additional work at a later time just to catch up. Compounded, this can lead to an almost insurmountable task, the result of which is cramming. Cramming for exams is rarely effective, producing instead a hazy understanding of the subject matter, overlaid by a heavy need for sleep. A student who has crammed for an exam is almost certain to do poorly, and poor exam scores can lead to failure. Failing an entire course seems a high price to pay for the distraction offered by the many social events offered in college.

The above paragraph represents the first kind of cause/effect organization. In this paragraph, one cause-social activities-leads to a series of results (effects). Note also that the effects are enumerated emphatically. That is, they are ranked according to importance with the most important one, failure, placed at the end of the paragraph.

Signal words or transition words used with the cause/effect paragraph include: therefore, thus, because, as a result, one cause, one effect.

To use this pattern, students should identify whether the paragraph will discuss cause or effect. The cause or effect word should appear in the topic sentence. Students should also rank order either the causes or the effects, or both.


The enumeration/sequence pattern lists major points of support in one of two ways: (1) random order-that is, all items share equal importance with each other; or (2) rank order (also called emphatic order), where the list is sequenced. When support is randomly ordered, the pattern may become indistinguishable from the subject development pattern (see above). However, when the topic support is rank-ordered, any one of several types of persuasive writing is the result. Organization of this type, therefore, is also known as "problem/solution pattern."

In discourse of this type, brief background information is presented, followed by a statement of the problem. The remaining sentences offer solutions. While the step-by-step progression of ideas can be developed using chronological sequencing or even spatial sequencing, emphatic sequencing is the most common organizational structure.

Although this structural pattern offers solutions to problems or answers to questions, its main purpose is to influence the reader into taking action of some kind on the topic. Recognizing this pattern enables the reader to better understand the content. To best use this pattern, the learner should be able to: (a) identify the topic, (b) identify the writer's perspective on the topic, (c) recognize the support points, and (d) identify the signal words that indicate the points (frequently a numerical progression of points).

The following is an example of a enumeration/sequence organization found in a persuasive paragraph:

Despite the dangers we are daily warned against in all kinds of meat and meat products, a strong case can be made against turning to vegetarianism as an alternative. First, it is not convenient to be a vegetarian. Finding foods on many menus that can fill the dietary and sometimes moral needs of a vegetarian can be difficult. The situation is compounded when traveling. While airlines offer food for special dietary needs, arrangements for them must be made well in advance. More important than convenience, however, is the consideration of dietary balance. To be a vegetarian means to learn appropriate and healthy alternatives for protein found in meat and animal products. Not to do so is to risk the vegetarian's very health since protein is an essential part of the human diet.

This paragraph is organized emphatically, with the most important point, that of health risks, left to the end.

Signal words or transitions for this kind of paragraph include: first, third, then, next, finally, above all, best of all, especially, in fact, more important, the last point to consider, worst of all, most important.