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What If I Want to Write Six Paragraphs?

As a math major1 who struggled with the formality of my English classes (diagramming sentences is a plot worthy of Dr. Evil), I found much to relate to in this post by an English teacher and published in, of all places, the National Council of Teachers of English blog.

The five paragraph essay was a core of my writing instruction from middle school through undergraduate work and I guess it must be still if she’s writing about it in 2016. In case you’ve forgotten (I had to look it up), this is a strictly-enforced writing structure consisting of an introductory paragraph, three paragraphs to support and develop your idea (never more than one idea!), and a concluding summary paragraph. Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, tell ‘em what you said. I always suspected it was an artificial school construct since I rarely saw the form used in the real world.

So let’s just cut through the first two parts of her essay and jump to the last paragraph.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

Yep, that pretty much summarizes my feelings.

Although I produced a lot of written material for my teachers in high school and college, I never really learned to write until I started blogging (we can argue about that “learned to write” part later) and had a good reason to. By that time I had long since forgotten the processes required in those academic courses, as evidenced by the rambling, often poorly thought out posts in this space.

However, I wonder how many students actually use the five paragraph essay format after they leave the academic setting. How applicable is it today in a world where so much material is produced for posting online, not for print?

But I’m a math major, so English teachers, tell me how wrong I am.

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4 Comments

  1. Zarins’ essay seems to be making the rounds even though she’s not offering much of substance. Nor is the post effective satire, it’s just empty, unhelpful mockery. The dinner-plate analogy and the claims that 5P essays stifle critical thinking and artful language are only true for very badly-conceived and poorly written 5P essays, and you don’t need structural limits to write badly.

    The five-paragraph essay is a useful tool to help young writers organize their arguments. By the tenth grade, students should be abandoning the 5P essay and writing thesis-driven essays that have a few or as many paragraphs as needed. I sympathize with college professors who are frustrated with freshmen arriving on campus still fearfully bound to the 5-paragraph structure; they ought to have been weaned from it years earlier. But that does not mean that the format itself is useless in earlier contexts.

    Those who want to kill the 5P essay with fire and scatter its ashes to the four winds seem to struggle to offer a viable alternative. And they tend to assume that the 5P is responsible for ALL of the awfulness in the bad writing they see.

    A thesis-driven essay can be eloquent, nuanced, powerful, and moving if it’s done well. Or it can be a vacuous, plodding, plot summary. Without some sense of structure, students tend to focus on the blinking cursor and the word count glaring at them from an empty screen. Thesis-driven writing provides the shape of an argument. It helps students see what they’re doing. Mandating five paragraphs is a way to help younger writers develop a sense of an argument’s structure. It’s not meant to be a permanent constraint.

    For a much more effective defense of the 5P essay, see Robert Sheppard here:
    http://blog.tesol.org/in-defense-of-the-5-paragraph-essay/

  2. Amy

    Maybe I am teaching the wrong kind of 5-paragraph essay? I see my my beginning students using this form to organize ideas in a coherent fashion, and I see my advanced students developing nuanced, complex ideas through this form. I wouldn’t blame the 5-paragraph for “since the dawn of man” introductions, or for mirthless sentences stacked upon each other.

    With that being said, it’s important that teachers make it clear to students that this is *one* genre of writing (among many genres), and that this form is limited. And I agree that it’s unlikely that many students will write in five paragraphs after college. However, they do need to be able to develop ideas in writing. And I’m not an advocate of only teaching genres of writing that I believe students are likely to use in the future.

  3. DOUGLAS A JOHNSON

    The strictures of the 5P essay are mild compared to those of the Elizabethan sonnet, yet Shakespeare somehow managed to be both creative and effective. I still think about the importance of good organization, stating and re-stating one’s main points, transitional sentence, etc. that I practiced when writing Mrs. Farmer’s 3 p essay in the 1960s. Learn the discipline well enough to know when and how to deviate from it.

  4. It’s possible the 5 paragraph essay isn’t the extreme evil we believe it to be. It doesn’t matter. The way it is deployed in school makes it that. We can talk all we want about how it should be better utilized and how students should know when to use it and when not to, but that’s not happening. Students are entering college writing 5-7 page papers that are only five paragraphs long because that’s what they know. We’d be better off using well-written mentor texts to help students become solid writers than such a rigid form as this. (And yes, poems have far more rigid forms but poems are a completely different universe than essays.)

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