Friday, January 27, 2012

The five-paragraph essay

A lot of English teachers absolutely loathe the five-paragraph essay. The form is unoriginal, stifling, and most of all boring. And they are, of course, correct. The five-paragraph essay — an introductory paragraph with a hook, background, and thesis statement plus essay map; three body paragraphs with a topic sentence, supporting details and concluding sentence; and a concluding paragraph that restates the thesis and argument — gives the writer no opportunity to surprise or delight the discerning reader with her mastery of form. Just as there are few if any enduring works of classical music that slavishly follow the sonata form, an essay that strictly follows the five-paragraph form cannot rise above mediocrity. But because it offers students a starting point, makes explicit the elements required for a successful expository essay, and provides a structure that can be usefully employed when brilliance is impractical or unnecessary, the five-paragraph form, if used judiciously, can be a valuable tool for the instruction of English composition.

There is a time in each student's life when she first begins to organize her thoughts in a coherent manner. Not knowing how to do a task "right" commonly causes anxiety in any endeavor, including English composition. The five-paragraph form allows a student to focus on her thoughts about a subject without worrying about how to present those thoughts. We can assure the student that (at least for now) the five-paragraph form is one "right" way to present her thoughts. Once she has become proficient in thinking coherently, she can move on to presenting her thoughts with greater subtlety of style.

However presented, almost every expository essay must contain specific elements. A writer must engage the reader, provide context and background, inform the reader of what her opinion is, argue her opinion, and explain and support her argument with facts and details. The five-paragraph essay gives an explicit spot for each of these elements. The introductory paragraph engages the reader, provides context, and states the writer's opinion. The body paragraphs argue the thesis in the topic sentences, provide supporting facts and details, and tie the topic sentences back to the thesis. Finally, the concluding paragraph summarizes the thesis and argument; a reader will view as important only those elements the writer emphasizes with repetition. The five-paragraph essay gives a student a way to become proficient in identifying and expressing these elements.

Every writer must sometimes sacrifice style to expediency. The five-paragraph form is perfectly suited, for example, to an in-class essay that must be composed in only an hour. For most writers, excellence of style requires revision, and no one can usefully revise an essay in an hour. Anyone, however, can learn to write a five-paragraph essay in an hour, confident that all the necessary ingredients of exposition will be present. Furthermore, good enough is often good enough. The five-paragraph essay will rarely be excellent, but it will almost always be, at least stylistically, good enough. If a student learns nothing but how to compose a five-paragraph essay in her sleep, she can be successful at many college disciplines.

We must achieve mediocrity before we can aspire to excellence. The mediocrity of the five-paragraph form is its strength, not its weakness. Instructors would not, of course, do justice to English composition by teaching the five-paragraph form as the acme of style and organization, but it gives the inexperienced and anxious student a starting point, and it makes clear and direct the necessary elements of exposition. Students "destined" for brilliance in composition will quickly grow bored with the limitations of the five-paragraph form, and students who prefer to direct their aspirations elsewhere will have a skill that will serve them through not only academia but their professional careers. As a step, the five-paragraph form serves every student well.


  1. Just as there are few if any enduring works of classical music that slavishly follow the sonata form,

    OK, tell me where Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik or first Movement of Jupiter Symphony depart from it?

  2. After reading half-way through the first paragraph I decided, just out of curiosity, to count the number of paragraphs in this post


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