Step Three: The Five Paragraph Essay: It’s a Great Place to START

Up for a challenge?  Try staying awake as you read this:

The five paragraph essay is a topic of much discussion.  Some argue that teaching students to write a five paragraph essay is teaching them to be boring writers.  I disagree for the following reasons:  First, the five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts.  Second, students who have mastered the five paragraph essay will do well on the essay portions of standardized tests.  Third, the problems with the five paragraph essay format are easy to solve. For these three reasons, the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing.

The five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts. In the first paragraph, the writer introduces his thesis statement.  The second third and fourth paragraphs each give a supporting idea for that thesis statement.  Each of these paragraphs begins with a topic sentence that states that supporting idea. The fifth paragraph, which is the conclusion, can just restate the thesis statement and summarizes the ideas of the writer.

The five paragraph essay can help students do better on the written portions of standardized tests.  Tests such as the SAT and the Regents exams have essay topics for which knowledge of the five paragraph essay is very useful.  These topics tend to be very general and require the writer to state a thesis, back it up and draw a conclusion – all of which can be accomplished very well using the five paragraph format.

Problems with the five paragraph format are easy to solve. For instance, writers can try to be more flexible in how they use the format.  They might try to use more interesting transitions.  They might try using the active voice.  They might try doing something more with their conclusions than merely restating the thesis statement and its supporting points. 

 Students need a way to organize their thoughts.  They need to master standardized writing tests.  Problems with the five paragraph essay can be easily remedied.  For these reasons, the five paragraph essay should always be taught in schools. 

The previous essay is a good example of what happens when students are taught the five paragraph essay. The resulting writing becomes a little formulaic.  As a result, many teachers have sworn off the five paragraph format altogether. But that’s a big mistake.

 As we have said before, any good piece of communication needs to answer the following questions:

  •  What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up?
  • Why do we need to know it?

 These questions lend themselves extremely well to a five paragraph format:

  • Paragraph 1 (Introduction):   What is my point?
  • Paragraphs 2,3,4 (Body):      How do I back it up?
  • Paragraph 5 (Conclusion):    So what? 

It’s OK for a first draft to sound like it was written by a robot. Just make sure the second draft sounds like it was written by a human. So now, please bear with me as I review this first draft of my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays.  Surely I can do better.

What is the point of my essay?  The point of my first draft seems to be that the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing, and so it should be taught in school.  But actually, the point I meant to make was that to master the five paragraph essay format is to take a major first step toward better writing.

How do I back it up? Now that I have refined my main point, I need to rethink what points I need to make to back it up. As I think about my argument more carefully, I think my three supporting points are:

  • Good writing requires good thinking, and this essay format helps students organize their thoughts.
  • The five paragraph format provides a simple, formulaic structure for beginning writers.  Only after they nail structure can they focus on developing an interesting style.
  • The five paragraph approach is easily expandable for longer writing assignments such as research papers.

Why do we need to know it? In my first draft I never really addressed this question. So let me do it here.  The take away point for my readers is this: To write well, you must write logically, and one of the easiest ways to learn to write logically is to master the five paragraph essay.

With that in mind, let me revise my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays:

Once upon a time in America, teachers routinely taught their students how to write a five paragraph essay.  Beginning when students were in third or fourth grade and continuing through high school, teachers assigned topics for short essays and asked students to write them in a specific format:  an introductory paragraph that stated the main point, three body paragraphs, each of which gave an idea to support the main point, and a conclusion.   Students dutifully followed their teachers’ instructions, and most of them learned to write coherently.  But over time, people decided that five paragraph essays were too boring, so teachers stopped assigning them.  And that’s why students today often write whacky papers that make no sense.  To write well, you have to think well, and there are few tools as handy as the five paragraph essay to help you organize your thoughts. 

The great strength of the five paragraph essay format is that it provides students with an easy way to structure their writing.  Any well- written essay needs to answer three questions:  What’s your point?  How do you back it up?  Why do we need to know it? The five paragraph essay format reminds students to answer those questions; it provides the basis for a solid first draft.  For beginning writers, there is probably nothing more valuable than a formula for a coherent first draft.

Although no writer wants to be boring, it is better to be boring than unintelligible.  Any good writer knows that it is a lot easier to fix an essay that’s snoozy than one that is pointless and rambling.  Once you know how to make your point and back it up in a logical way, it’s actually pretty easy to jazz things up.   On the other hand, trying to revise an incoherent first draft is like trying to knit with a ball of yarn that has become impossibly knotted up — after wasting a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to unravel the mess, you conclude that it would be a lot easier to chuck it all  and start over.

Another really great thing about the five paragraph essay is that it’s easy to build on.  Let’s say you are assigned a ten page paper.  Yikes!  Where do you start?  Well, a fine place to start is with a five paragraph essay that summarizes what your paper will be about.  As you develop your ideas and weave in supporting research, your introductory paragraph will become your paper’s page-long introduction that sets forth what your paper is about.  Your first supporting paragraph becomes a two or three page section that focuses on the first supporting idea you have to back up your main point. Get the picture?

 As writing guru William Zinsser observes, “Writing is thinking on paper.” To write well, you must write logically.  So practice the five paragraph essay often.  Structure your thoughts before you try to make them sound interesting. But once you’ve structured your thoughts please do make them sound interesting.  Remember, it’s OK for an essay to sound robotic –as long as it’s only a first draft.     

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