The Big Picture: Hierarchy of Writing Concerns


Here at MCC’s Writing Center, when a student comes in for a consultation, we follow what we refer to as a “hierarchy of concerns.” Simply stated, we focus first on the big picture issues in student writing, such as focus, organization, development and paragraph structure. Lower on our hierarchy of concerns are sentences, words, and style. In the first drafts of our writing, grammar and punctuation is least of our concerns. Why? Because if you will be revising your paper through several drafts, and hopefully you will be revising your paper, we don’t want to focus on spelling errors for words that may or may not be in the final draft. In the beginning stages, it’s more important to get the big picture items clearly defined and save sentence-level concerns until the final draft.

Our last post introduced some of those broad content issues, so let’s more clearly examine exactly what those broad content issues are in relation to a research paper.

Assignment Goals

Most of us overlook the obvious, but failure to follow assignment guidelines is one of the biggest mistakes students make. If your assignment asks you to write a summary and you write an evaluative response, you aren’t doing what the assignment asks. This is the clearest route to a failing grade. Make sure you understand exactly what the assignment asks you to do, and if in doubt, ask your instructor.


For a moment, think of focus in terms of the visual aspect. You are looking at a deer through a pair of binoculars, but the deer looks fuzzy. You know the deer is there, but it’s a blur, lost in a haze of leaves, trees, pasture, and sky, all of which look like one big blob of colored fog. To see the deer clearly, you must focus in on just the deer, adjusting the focus so the deer is sharp, the focal point, and the setting – leaves, trees and other details – are of secondary focus. The setting must exist for the deer to exist, but not your main focus.

Now think of your essay’s focus like the deer scenario; you must focus on one major theme or idea and see it clearly. Everything else supports that theme or idea. If the focus shifts from one idea to another to another, your essay will lack focus. Ask yourself the following questions as you study the focus of your essay:

Do all paragraphs relate to and support my main idea?

Am I veering off-topic in the body of my paper?

Does all evidence and research support one main idea?

If not, revise to tighten your focus.


Organization is tricky. An organizational structure that works for one assignment definitely will not work for another. One good way to maintain a well-organized essay is to start with an outline. If you’ve already written a draft, read through each paragraph and notate each for its main idea. Once your essay’s paragraphs are notated for their main idea, ask yourself the following questions:

Does each paragraph relate back to the thesis – and to one another?

Does any paragraph seem unrelated or irrelevant?

Are any points confusing, or do you need additional information to clarify?

Are paragraphs and ideas clearly linked?

Does each paragraph transition smoothly to the next, or do any seem choppy?

Does all research support your points?

Have you left out any important points?


For research papers specifically, your argument must be fully developed. If your argument isn’t fully developed, the reader might be left with too many questions, or unsure of exactly what the issues are surrounding your argument. A fully developed paper is unified and coherent. The topic is explored fully with details, evidence and examples. Any generalities are backed up with specifics, and specifics are explained in general terms to lead the reader through your points. The argument is reasoned through, with effective support and research in each paragraph. The paper includes opposition, or an antithesis to the argument. No stone is left unturned. No questions are left unanswered.

When considering if your paper is fully developed, ask yourself the following questions:

Do any main points need more or better supportive research to convince the audience?

What is the purpose of the paper?

In the end, has the paper served its purpose?

What do you want to have happen as a result of your argument?

By focusing first on the broader content issues of your essay, you’ll not only be able to identify content problems early in the writing process, but also save time by not line editing before you’re ready.

Do you have a different “hierarchy of concerns” when you revise your paper? Some writers begin with their weakest areas first, and work out from there. What is your process for revision?


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