Organized Writing Based on a Tree

How do you make writing organized and easy to understand? There are many options. A standard approach is to make the writing correspond well to a tree diagram.

(I'll talk primarily about essay writing, but the same techniques work with longer or shorter pieces. Just make every part longer or shorter.)

What is your main point? That'd be the root node in the tree version. Tell the audience that first.

Then what are some sub-points? They would be children of the root node in the tree. You can share those second as a brief list so the audience knows what to expect. Then you can go through them in more detail one by one. You can make them sections of your essay or just give a few paragraphs to each one. When you switch points, start a new paragraph and open it with a sentence like "Another point is..." that makes it easy for the reader to know you're switching points. It also helps to end the previous point with a conclusion sentence or paragraph.

When switching points, section headings make it really clear, but you can also use bold or italics. Having some formatting that stands out makes it harder to miss (and easier to find when skimming) compared to just having regular looking text say that you're changing to the next sub-point. You can bold or italicize a whole sentence stating the next sub-point or just a key word or key phrase representing the sub-point.

Each sub-point will be fleshed out by its own sub-points (sub-sub-points relative to the whole essay or the root node) and possibly some more details nested lower in the tree. These are the children and further descends of the sub-point node. They can be done one by one and given sub-sections if you're doing a long essay. At some point, as you get to the lowest level details you're including, it's common to write with less of a clear structure. Things tend to get mixed together more at the most detailed level. The larger the subtree a point has, the more important it is to organize it with a clear structure. When you get to leaf nodes that are only getting one sentence, you can with less concern about structure.

You can make the tree before making the essay. That is largely the same process as outlining. Outlining with nested bullet points is equivalent to making a tree. Nested bullet points show a tree structure and can be trivially converted to or from a tree. (If you don't know how to do that conversion, it's a good thing to learn and practice a bit.) I'll show you the basics:

  • root node
    • sub-point 1
      • details 1a (child 1 of sub-point 1)
      • details 1b (child 2 of sub-point 1)
      • details 1c (child 3 of sub-point 1)
        • lower level details 1c1 (child 1 of details 1c)
        • lower level details 1c2 (child 2 of details 1c)
    • sub-point 2
      • details 2a (child 1 of sub-point 2)
      • details 2b (child 2 of sub-point 2)
    • sub-point 3
      • details 3a (child 1 of sub-point 3)
      • details 3b (child 2 of sub-point 3)

Hopefully that clarifies the connection between nested bullet points and trees if you didn't already know.

A difference is outlines tend to have a conclusion, while trees often don't. But actually, the root node is the conclusion. We talk about the root node for both the introduction and conclusion. The introduction and conclusion sections tend to say some of the same things: they both tend to summarize your main point.

Trees typically show the ideas and arguments, while outlines are typically written to structure an essay (although you could do either thing using either tool). Following the structure of the ideas and arguments is a typical good way to write an essay, so trees and outlines are often similar.

In writing, we want to talk about the main point at both the beginning and end, so it's often there twice in an outline but only once in a tree. If you're writing from a tree, you can think of it like this: start at the top and do your introduction based on the root node idea plus mentioning its children. Then work your way down through the tree explaining the sub-points. Then, at the end, to conclude, go back up through the tree back to the root node. You need to both start and end at the root node, the main point.

So at the start you say like "I will argue [main point] because [reasons 1, 2 and 3]". For an essay, you'll want to expand that to at least a paragraph. You can also say other things in the introduction like why this topic matters or how your solution differs from previous attempts. For a 1-3 paragraph forum post or internet comment, doing the introduction in one sentence is generally good. For a book, the introduction might be a short chapter. The longer the writing, the longer each major part (like the introduction) should be. As a first approximation, all the parts of writing scale proportionally as the length changes. (But that is just an approximation. For example, books often cover more sub-points instead of just making them longer.)

Then in the middle of the essay you go through your sub-points, one at a time, and explain them, including talking about some details related to the descendants in their sub-trees.

Then at the end you say something like "As I've explained, [reasons 1, 2 and 3.] So, based on those, we can conclude [main point]." This is like the introduction but with the order reversed because we're going up the tree instead of down the tree. The main point now comes last instead of first (so it both opens and closes the essay). For an essay, you generally want at least one full paragraph for your conclusion, so you can elaborate a little more. For example, you can remind readers about the logical connections for how your sub-points are logically related to your main point. You also might include a call to action at the end: some kind of next steps such as something else to read to learn more or a way to support a cause. (You don't need to be 100% strict with where things go. Having the main point in the last paragraph, not the last sentence is OK. Or having another paragraph after that with a call to action can work too.)

There are many other ways to write but this is a good place to start that'll help you be organized and understandable. It's easier to branch out more and try other things after you're good and experienced at this pretty standard approach (it's usually done with outlines rather than trees, but that's just a matter of preference).

When writing about topics like philosophy (as opposed to e.g. fiction stories), clarity is a top priority. You generally want to explain your claim and your reasoning, keep it organized, and make it really clear what you're saying and why. Try to write it so someone else could summarize your arguments easily. In other words, make it easy for them to construct the tree (or outline). In other words, the point of the essay (or comment or book) is to communicate the tree to them. You can also just share trees but that is unconventional, may confuse people who aren't very familiar with tree diagrams, and has both upsides and downsides (it's good to share trees sometimes but it isn't a strictly better alternative to writing paragraphs). Sharing both a tree and an essay, together, can be good – there's not much downside to including the tree at the end of an essay.

People don't usually share their outlines (or trees). One reason may be they didn't want to waste paper and ink. The outline is somewhat redundant if you wrote well. But on the internet, sharing extra information at the bottom, even if contains repetition, is very reasonable. It's practically free and you have unlimited pages (vertical scrolling). People may not want to read it, but if it's at the bottom it's easy to skip. Try to make it clear that it's not part of the essay and is optional, so even if someone is skimming they'll know it isn't part of the main essay. One way to do that is link to it on a separate page, which again is something very cheap and easy online but which wouldn't have worked well with paper publications (you wouldn't want to publish the outline as a separate physical document because then you have to publish two things which is more work for both you and readers).