The Five-Paragraph Essay

Structure to help critical thinking

Much of the writing you've been doing has been very informal and personal. There is nothing wrong with an informal, personal essay, but many of your college courses require more. An informal, story-telling approach does not really stretch your critical thinking skills or help your readers work their way through complex topics, so you need a more complex, analytical model for essays.

One good beginning point is the five-paragraph essay. It's not the only way to write a college paper, and it certainly won't work for every topic, but it's a good basic structure. (By the way, it doesn't always have to be five paragraphs, either.)

Here's the basic idea:

  1. An introduction that sets up the topic and contains the thesis
  2. A body paragraph that deals with the first main subtopic of the thesis.
  3. Another body paragraph that deals with the next main subtopic of the thesis.
  4. Yet another body paragraph that deals with the final subtopic of the thesis.
  5. A conclusion that brings closure to the whole essay and somehow points back to that thesis.

Each of those body paragraphs (numbers 2, 3, and 4 in this example) will hold together with a strong topic sentence.


So how long should an introduction be? What about the conclusion? How long should each body paragraph be? The right answer should probably be "whatever the audience and topic require," but that's not helpful. Newspaper and magazine writing uses short paragraphs because of the narrow columns. One recent Newsweek article was around 97 words per paragraph. A Time article was around 93. An academic Internet article aimed at English teachers and researchers came out to 95.

It looks like 90 to 100 words per paragraph is a good beginning point (unless you have a really good reason to write another way). Consider what this means:

Thinking through your strategy

You have three or four body paragraphs to work with (maybe five if you are writing paper over 1500 words). Ask yourself some questions:

A couple of comments and warnings:

A quick sample to show how it works:

Here's a sample five-paragraph essay (Left column, near the bottom of the page) with a discussion of how each paragraph functions (that's the stuff in the lavender boxes).

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/8/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: