This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins.
[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.
As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]
From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.
First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.
Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel, forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.
Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce. No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.
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.
Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.
What Is a Five-Paragraph Essay?
A five-paragraph essay is the basic essay form, consisting of an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. If your assignment doesn’t tell you specifically how to write an essay you need to come up with, it is implied that you are expected to write a 5 paragraph essay. This staple essay is most often found in high-school and junior college years, and as an academic complexity of studies goes up, essay writing assignments get more sophisticated too.
Why are five paragraph essays important?
It has been conventionally agreed that a five paragraph essay is a basic essay format. Its simple structure allows students to practice effective and organized writing by following an invariant logical pattern, which eventually results in increased ability to explain a problem or a phenomenon. The ability to write logically following a set essay format will on later stages evolve in clear and logical research and academic writing. Therefore the skills for writing a five-paragraph essay are essential for your academic success.
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What is the basic essay structure?
Generally speaking, five paragraph essays have a fixed structure. As its name suggests, a five-paragraph essay will contain five logical sections: introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction is always the opening paragraph in your essay and you will need to include such elements as the thesis statement and the three sub-topics which are called ‘body’ paragraphs. The last paragraph is the conclusion and you will have to sum up the ideas expressed in previous paragraphs.
A good introduction has the ultimate power in either grabbing the readers’ attention or losing it. With thousands of essays out there, your reader will make a reading decision by reading the first couple of sentences and skimming through the body of the paper. Consequently, writing a good, eye-catching introduction is of ultimate importance to an effective composition.
Tips for writing an effective essay introduction
Make a general statement and then narrow it down. Generally, the way of starting an essay is the least interesting for the reader; however, it’s a proven technique that is effective. This would be the most appropriate beginning for most academic essays that do not allow starting an essay otherwise.
Use a quote that is relevant to the topic. This is generally a good and a powerful beginning for an essay that is written during high school and early college years. A quote from someone who is respected in a society will add weight to your paper and will provoke readers’ interest in the paper. However, you should bear in mind that subsequent text needs to be straight to the point and support the initial claim.
Use a rhetoric question. A rhetoric question is, in essence, a disguised statement that requires no response; however, it will set your reader wondering about an issue. All you need to do is elaborate on the topic and provide convincing examples. Initial readers’ interest won’t last long if the text that follows doesn’t support the initial claim. Again, this type of starting your essay is not universally acceptable, and you will need to take into account the kind of essay you are working on and its purpose.
Start with an example: use statistics or another example relevant to the topic. This is the opposite of the technique that’s been mentioned first – in this case, you go from the specific to the general. Provide an example and try to establish a general pattern based on that example. Ideally, you would need several such examples to make a generalization, otherwise, you can make a false conclusion (this is called a sample, generally the more examples you have, the better the sampling, and the more accurate is the conclusion.
The list of good and catchy ways of introducing your thoughts in an essay isn’t limited to the ones mentioned above. You can you any of them or any combination thereof – anything that is interesting to the reader will work. Remember that your goal is to catch your reader’s attention and retain it during the next several paragraphs, which will convey the main points to your reader. Once you have started with a strong introduction, it is high time to write the body paragraphs themselves.
Writing body paragraphs can be quite a straightforward process if one bears in mind their basic structure. Most writing experts suggest that a typical body paragraph should take the following format:
Topic sentence. This is the first sentence that introduces the main idea of the paragraph. This idea is going to be further elaborated within the same paragraph.
Details or examples supporting the idea from the topic sentence. The topic sentence should be supported with some piece of evidence that would get your essay more ‘weight’ and will sound more convincing. In a case of an academic paper, you will need to mention the source of the information.
Comments/Analysis. Add two or more sentences with a commentary of the idea expressed in your main essay. If this is an essay that requires your evaluation, this can be your thoughts, ideas, impressions, judgments etc. If this is an academic essay, you will need to base your judgment on previous research to gain credibility.
Conclusion. Paragraph conclusion recaps the main paragraph idea. It also serves the purpose of connecting the previous paragraph with the next one.
Essay conclusion should be the logical finale of your writing. Once you are done writing your body paragraphs, look at the ideas expressed in the introduction and body paragraphs, you will need to restate each of them individually and then relate to the thesis statement. In this part of your essay, you will need to pay special attention to the initial requirement and see if it needs you to summarize your key elements or analyze them. Whenever you are required to do an analytical part, you are expected to dig in a bit deeper, not just merely restate the items mentioned previously.
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