On Writing: Separating Your Socks from Your Underwear

penguinI was teaching an academic writing class a few years back and one of my students came up with a great metaphor for sorting and organizing ideas for the purposes of writing an academic essay. She said that sorting and organizing her ideas was just like sorting and organizing her family’s laundry – something she did a few times a week and had been doing for several years.

The key principles she outlined are these:

  1. Before washing, all of the clothes are usually in one big pile, tangled and mixed up, dirty and in need of cleaning.
  2. You organize the clothes by color (all the whites go together) when you wash them.
  3. If you are doing more than one person’s laundry, you likely organize theirs separately from yours when folding the clean clothes. For example, you might separate their t-shirts from yours.
  4. When you go to put away the clean clothes, it’s likely that you organize them by type — all your underwear goes into your underwear drawer; all your socks (paired, maybe?) go into your sock drawer; all your t-shirts go into your t-shirt drawer.
  5. Also, when you go to put the clothes away, you likely have separate drawers for these items — you probably don’t put all white clothes you own in one drawer, all red clothes in another, for example. You probably also don’t put everyone’s t-shirts in one large family t-shirt drawer.
  6. Then, when you go to get dressed, you look for items that match and select articles from each drawer to put together a whole. Depending on what you want to convey with your “look” for that day (your point – your thesis), depending what you are trying to accomplish that day (purpose), and depending on who will see you (audience), you select accordingly.

I am certainly no fashionista (my husband loves to tell the story of me wearing a turtleneck, cardigan sweater,  jeans, and top siders to a swank New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco one year, and bless his heart, he lies well and says he wasn’t embarrassed), and there are days when I should probably give as much thought to my clothing selection as I do to other things, but I like this metaphor and it works for me when I think about academic writing — or any writing, for that matter.

We often have lots of ideas and information when we begin a writing project, but they may all be in one basket or mound, tangled and confused. We might have to sort them out and “wash” them, and then we can decide to organize them in particular ways when folding them and putting them away for a little while. Later, when putting together the final outfit, we might organize them differently from how we sorted them originally, depending on what we want to say and why. The key here is that the organizing principles can be our decision, and to make the decision takes some consideration and probably several drafts to get it just right.

Wow – if only doing my family’s laundry were this easy! (I wonder what advice my student has for me when I mix the red socks in with the white towels? Perhaps that I should paint my bathroom pink to match. Or she might refer me to this tutorial: How To Sort Laundry, or at least to What to Not Wear. Lord knows I need the help on both fronts!)


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