The five paragraph essay is a favorite denizen of introductory English composition classes. The form is as follows:

Paragraph One:
Introduction.  The first paragraph tells us what the paper is going to say and, ideally, why we should care.  The final sentence in this paragraph is the paper's thesis.

Paragraphs Two-Four:

Supporting evidence.  These three paragraphs are where the actual arguing occurs and evidence is presented.  Especially quotes.  It seems like the five paragraph essay is made up of quotes like the human body is made up of water.

Paragraph Five:

Conclusion.  Usually the final paragraph is a brief restatement of what the essay has said.  The thesis, rephrased, can always be found lurking around here.  No new information should be presented in the fifth paragraph.

Despite its name, the five paragraph essay can contain any number of paragraphs.  As students progress, they are encouraged to include more evidentiary paragraphs while leaving the rest of the form alone.  As their arguments become more and more sophisticated, this form rapidly becomes unwieldy.

Sadly, most high-school composition classes never progress past the five paragraph essay.  This results in an unfortunately large number of college freshmen getting low marks on their first paper.

Dear English Teachers -

I try to be a good little student. I try to adhere to your guidelines. Even though I am no longer in high school, I try to avoid contractions and avoid sentence fragments. I attempt to connect my lists with commas, and keep the comma before the "and" even though newspapers tell me not to do so. However, some of your rules just do not apply in real life. For instance, starting a sentence with "for instance" or "however" or "but" is not bad. Nor is it wrong to attempt prettier prose by occasionally flouting standard rules of diction. Most importantly, you absolutely must stop with this silly business about "five-paragraph essays."

What is the purpose of the "body paragraph?" Allow me to speculate that this structural convention is an attempt to clearly separate thoughts and ideas into blocks. You are attempting to teach students how to structure their thoughts for maximum effectiveness, and thus the strict code of introduction, quote, analysis, transition, and the like. Certainly this format is appropriate for two or three page essays about one book. It is appropriate when a student is attempting to convey three major ideas with textual evidence. But there are many places when this format is not appropriate.

You may notice that I end each of my paragraphs with a "hook" or "transition" into the next paragraph. Then I launch into the next paragraph with additional explanation leading to a primary point; upon reaching said, I move on to the next paragraph. This format is good and appropriate because it allows both the writer and reader to clearly delineate disparate thoughts and ideas. The eye is not tired by one long stream of text. The reader can easily jump to an appropriate section. The addition of section headers makes this navigation even easier. This is the new way of writing.

The internet is the new way of publishing. Hundreds of thousands of people keep online journals called "weblogs." Millions post in online forums, message boards, and chat rooms. Millions more use instant messages to communicate in real time. All of these formats rely on concise bursts of ideas clearly deliniated. In short, these mediums rely on a style completely in opposition to your standard five-paragraph essay.

The consequences are clear and widespread. People either rebel against the rules of grammar entirely by refusing to capitalize and use correct punctuation or they attempt to confine their online posts to your standard format. Only those who have learned differently (either through college education, by reading, or another method) can break this nasty habit. And those people are forced to endure the stupidity of a format not meant for this world.

When in life will people write essays and reports in five-paragraph form? Never in business, and rarely in academia. I have never found a college professor who demands a five-paragraph essay. I have never found a book, article, report, or study written as one. I have, however, seen online postings where paragraphs go on for pages, where there is no clear break between ideas, where obligatory quotes to useless information are thrown in because people think they should be.

This format is extremely detrimental to a new digital society that is not only prevalent but is saturated into our culture!

By all means, keep your format. Teach the five-paragraph essay. But while you're at it, teach students to write in the same format as they read. For once, teach them to use apostrophe, instead of just reading it. Teach the writing of poetry. For goodness sake, teach them how to write basic prose!

For the good of all humankind, do this for us. Teach students that literary analysis has a purpose, but it is not the only way to write. It is not even the standard way to write -- in fact, it is a method of writing that is very narrowly defined and generally not used in the real world. It is good for teaching the structure of argument, but it is only one tool among many.

If you disagree with me, take your typical news analysis and combine it into five neat paragraphs. See if you can do it, and then see if its more readable than before.

Next, try a dissertation.



P.S. - You really do spend a lot of time obsessing about line spacing and margin widths as opposed to actual content. Why is that?

There's nothing more classic than the five-paragraph essay. They're what people think of when they hear the word: an introduction, a thesis, three body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a bibliography. Everyone has written some in high school before, so they must be the pinnacle of persuasive writing, right? Nope. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that five-paragraph essays are bullshit. They're rigid, they're stifling, and they're too focused on formality to really get their points across. Let's examine.

First, look at the classical essayists such as Francis Bacon. Bacon is usually seen as the "father of essays", but none of his works even come close to fitting the modern idea of a five-paragraph essay. You could argue that his essays were simply in a different style, which is true, but that's hardly honest. When people hear the word "essay", the only thing they think of is the five-paragraph format. Most people don't actually know the real meaning of the word. Granted, the five-paragraph format can be a bit flexible -- I have been asked to write seven-paragraph essays in the past -- but it is always held to the same standards of rigidly-defined structure. Structuring essays in this way will often make them worse. The writer might have more to say than the template allows, or they might have less. A short essay can be every bit as meaningful as a long essay, but the five-paragraph format discourages essays below a certain length.

On top of that, the limits of formality often cause the writers to be verbose. Brevity is one of the defining features of an essay (with a few notable exceptions), but the requirement to be "formal" in the academic style tends to balloon the word count without ballooning the actual content. An essay I wrote in my free time last week was only 614 words long. Shortly after writing it, I was assigned something in school that allowed me to reuse the ideas from that essay. No problem, except that I needed to rewrite it to fit the five-paragraph format. This included adding a weak third point (since the original only had two points), and repeating myself several times in order to accommodate the thesis, introduction, summary sentence, etc. The essay that I ended up handing in had increased from 614 words to almost 1100 words, and it was actually worse thanks to the unnecessary third point and the stifling formal style. I had to replace every instance of generic you with the word "one", which resulted in the most hilariously stilted conclusion I've ever written. I also had to remove all references to myself -- the idea being that I would replace it with an external source -- but since I'd written the essay from my personal experiences, this ended up making the entire thing into an incoherent mess.

Five-paragraph essays still have meaning, of course. A lot of them can be great reading. I just think they do more harm than good when taken past what they're good at. What they're good at is teaching people; they're just a learning tool for people to learn the basics of argumentative writing. Once you know how to argue a point in writing – analogies and repetition being good starting points -- the five-paragraph template becomes a crutch. Truly great writers are flexible, and they experiment with their writing for the best effect. There are better things out there than a format so stifled that you can't even use the word "bullshit". Isn't that a great word to use in an essay? It certainly sums up my feelings.

I'm being facetious in the details, obviously. Gratuitous swearing and sarcasm are good things to forbid in an academic context, and avoiding "personal essays" is probably best if the writer is still in school. But for every good thing about the format, there's one more "oneself", and one more I-statement awkwardly rewritten to use a different person. The five-paragraph essay prescribes to silly -- and sometimes completely arbitrary -- restrictions, and that doesn't make it a good format for people to think of when they hear the word "essay". It stains the name of a great genre of writing.

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