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Writing A Classification Paper

TIP Sheet
WRITING A CLASSIFICATION PAPER

Classification is sorting things into groups or categories on a single basis of division. A classification paper says something meaningful about how a whole relates to parts, or parts relate to a whole. Like skimming, scanning, paraphrasing, and summarizing, classification requires the ability to group related words, ideas, and characteristics.

Prewriting and purpose
It is a rare writer, student or otherwise, who can sit down and draft a classification essay without prewriting. A classification paper requires that you create categories, so prewriting for a classification paper involves grouping things in different ways in order to discover what categories make the most sense for the purpose you intend.

An important part of creating useful categories is seeing the different ways that things can be grouped. For example, a list of United States presidents may be grouped in any number of ways, depending on your purpose. They might be classified by political party, age on taking office, or previous occupations, but you could just as well, depending on your purpose, classify them by the pets they keep or how they keep physically fit. If your purpose was to analyze presidential administrations, you would group information focusing on the presidents' more public actions–say, cabinet appointments and judicial nominations. On the other hand, if you intended to write about the private lives of presidents, you might select information about personal relationships or hobbies.

Make sure the categories you create have a single basis of classification and that the group fits the categories you propose. You may not, for example, write about twentieth century presidents on the basis of the kinds of pets they kept if some of those presidents did not keep pets. The group does not fit the category. If you intend to talk about all the presidents, you must reinvent the categories so that all the presidents fit into it. In the example below, the group is "all U.S. presidents" and the two categories are "those who kept pets and those who did not":

Some U.S. presidents have indulged their love of pets, keeping menageries of animals around the White House, and others have preferred the White House pet-free.

Alternatively, in the following example, the group is "twentieth century U.S. presidential pet-keepers" and the three categories are "dog lovers, cat lovers, and exotic fish enthusiasts."

Among the twentieth century presidents who kept pets, presidential pet-keepers can be classified as dog-lovers, cat-lovers, or exotic fish enthusiasts (for who can really love a fish?).

Developing a thesis
Once you have decided on your group, purpose, and categories, develop a thesis statement that does the following three things:

  • names what group of people or things you intend to classify
  • describes the basis of the classification
  • labels the categories you have developed

Here is a thesis statement for a classification paper written for a Health and Human Fitness class that includes all three of the above elements, underlined:

Our last five U.S. presidents have practiced physical fitness regimens that varied from the very formal to the informal. They have been either regular private gym-goers, disciplined public joggers, or casual active sports enthusiasts.

Ordering categories
Order is the way you arrange ideas to show how they relate to one another. For example, it is common to arrange facts and discussion points from most- to least-important or from least- to most-important, or from oldest to most recent or longest to shortest. The example thesis statement above is ordered from most- to least-formal physical fitness activities. There is no one right way; use an ordering system that seems best to suit your purpose and the type of information you are working with.

For example, suppose you are writing about the last five U.S. presidents for a psychology class. If you wish to show that these presidents' public decisions spring directly from negative issues in their personal relationships, you might order your information from most private to more public actions to clearly establish this connection. Or, if you wish to give the reader the impression that he is moving into increasingly intimate knowledge of personal presidential foibles, you may choose the reverse, ordering your information from public to private.

Signal words
Signal phrases, or transitions, typically used for classification papers include the following:

  • this type of...
  • several kinds of...
  • in this category...
  • can be divided into...
  • classified according to...
  • is categorized by...

These phrases signal to the reader your intention to divide and sort things. They also contribute to the unity of the paper.

Classification requires that you invent (or discover) abstract categories, impose them on a concrete whole, and derive something new-a tall order that you can, nevertheless, manage if you resist the temptation to skip the brainstorming steps. Remember that clinical dissection is never an aim in itself; the point of classification is to reveal and communicate something meaningful.

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