Growing Beyond the 5¶ Essay

Many high school students have been trained ("drilled" might be a better word) in making five-paragraph essays. The five is the meat and drink of high school composition programs because it's fairly easy to teach and gives an objective standard the teacher can refer to when the student wants to know "what's wrong with my essay?" If you haven't run into the five paragraph essay, here's what they look like:

  1. Short introductory paragraph, ending with a thesis sentence.
  2. Body paragraph about twice as long as the introduction. It begins with a topic sentence and represents a neat one-third of the thesis.
  3. Body paragraph number two, designed pretty much the same as the previous paragraph.
  4. Body paragraph number three, the same design as before.
  5. Short conclusion that restates the thesis.

One of your first discoveries in college English is that the five-paragraph essay just doesn't get much respect around here. After the very earliest courses, nobody teaches it; in fact, we teachers put a lot of effort into weaning you off that pattern. It was there for a reason, though, so let's see what we can learn from it.

What is Wrong with the Five-Paragraph Essay?

The first obvious problem is that it is small. After about 750 words, the template begins to choke. When you are assigned a six-page research paper (which is about 2000 words), it will be really odd to have each paragraph stretching to 400 words.

The five is small in another sense too—the concept is small. It assumes that every topic worth writing about has three, and only three subtopics. More than one student has come to me with a desperate look because his/her topic only had two natural subdivisions, and to be a "real" essay three are necessary. That's the reason for all those weird thesis statements that throw in something just to make up the sacred number: "My Aunt Effie is an excellent cook, a great housekeeper, and she was born in Iowa." And what will you do if you want to say four things about your thesis? The "small" concept also says that all writing (at least all "good" writing) will announce the thesis up front in a declarative sentence that shows up in a stereotyped location, and the five-paragraph orthodoxy says that all "good" writing will also have the kind of summary conclusion that tells us what we just read, even if the paper is so short that a summary is an insult to our intelligence.

There are no surprises in this kind of writing. A five paragraph essay is dull. There's a cookie-cutter sameness to them. The thesis is in the same place. The topic sentences are in the same place. The body paragraphs are all about the same size. The conclusion is much like all other five paragraph conclusions—who would ever read this one? (Not counting teachers, who are paid to do so.)

  1. A good Boy Scout is supposed to be brave, clean, and reverent.
  2. In the first place, a good Boy Scout is supposed to be brave.
  3. In the second place, a good Boy Scout is supposed to be clean.
  4. In the third place, a good Boy Scout is supposed to be reverent.
  5. And in conclusion, a good Boy Scout is supposed to be brave, clean, and reverent.

Probably the worst thing about the five paragraph essay is that it isn't really writing. It's form-filling. The writer of the five gets to the point of asking, "What can I put in here to make the form work?" That isn't writing—it's like doing your taxes. Look at articles from Time, Newsweek or The New Yorker. None of them are five paragraph essays. Yes, they all have structure, and a good professional writer puts a lot of effort into getting the structure to work, but the structure comes from the content. The content does not exist to make the structure work.

A Related Problem: Stereotyped Writing Strategy

The five-paragraph essay is often taught in conjunction with something called "rhetorical modes." The idea is that an essay will fit into one of seven patterns:

The student is often told to sit down, decide which of the seven to use, write out a thesis, write out some topic sentences, then (again it's like filling in a tax form) flesh out the paragraphs, and the essay is finished.

It doesn't work like that.

This is similar to a cook saying, "I want to cook something that has tomatoes and olives and I want to use a spatula." A real cook is much more likely to say, "I want to cook a genuine Sicilian pizza. Now what do I need to get there?" In the same way, a writer who starts with filling in the blanks and making an essay in a particular mode is mistaking the tools for the content. A real writer is much more likely to say, "How can I get people to recycle their aluminum cans?" If a cause/effect essay is the result, fine. If the essay has five paragraphs, fine. If not, that's fine too. The real question is whether the communication happened.

I suspect that the modes and the five-paragraph format got enshrined because they are pretty accurate descriptions of what expository writers often do. We do often write in one of those modes—though we don't often construct an entire essay in one pure mode. We do often write business letters and scientific papers that have a structure similar to the five-paragraph essay. As a student writer, you just need to understand that "we often do it this way" is not the same as "you must do it this way."

Side comment about writer's block

Writer's block rarely means "I just don't have anything whatsoever to say." I suspect it's much more likely to mean "I have nothing to say that fits into the rhetorical mode straitjacket and comes out in a neat tax-form layout." It probably also means "I don't have anything to say that sounds pretentious enough to be a college paper." I once asked a large number of freshmen how they spent their time writing papers. Almost all of them agreed that if they had two weeks to write a paper, they would spend twelve days trying to think up a topic! Then they wondered just why their papers were usually terrible, considering that they had a whole day to work on them!

Because of this paralysis, I will often assign the topic, but I will expect your treatment of it to flow from the material you wish to say.

What's Good About the Five-Paragraph Essay?

If I ask one hundred students to write a paper about education, at least seventy-five will write a story. I'll read the sad tale of the time a third-grade teacher punished the wrong child. I'll get a story about an uncle who was unable to find a job after dropping out of school. I'll get a moment-by-moment replaying of the writer's high school graduation. The problem with this is that stories are only a small part of the possible world of writing. (Many of my students call every piece of writing a "story," and even though I find it annoying, I guess I should stop complaining. They just have no experience of other kinds of writing. And no, I wouldn't call this piece you're reading a "story.")

One good thing you can learn from your five-paragraph experience is that you can analyze a subject and write something besides a tale. A story is not analytic and does not find what's really important. Your experience with writing five-paragraph essays will help you break out of the limits of telling a story. (If you are asked to compare the leadership styles of General Grant and General Lee, you need to get beyond the tale; you need to ask what is really different and why it is important.) A story always has the temptation to keep throwing in good bits (the name of General Lee's horse and the favorite brand of cigar smoked by General Grant). It doesn't have a built-in mechanism for excluding things that are irrelevant because almost anything can color up a story; an analytic structure always helps you to ask the question "why is this part in here?"

Another good thing about the five-paragraph essay is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Narratives often have a daisy-chain structure: "this happened, then this, then this, then this." The Five ¶ can teach you to set up an idea, talk about it, then wrap things up—and that's more like analysis than story-telling. (I'm sure you have listened to a tiresome relative telling a story that has no end or point—the only way to find out that it's done is that the speaker got tired.)

Finally, the Five ¶ can teach you about writing a thesis. If you can't boil down your essay into a fairly straightforward sentence, you probably have a structure problem. Perhaps you don't want to declare it up front—maybe you don't want to declare it at all—but if you cannot articulate it to yourself, your essay really does lack a main point.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/31/18 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: