There’s a rampant hatred of the five-paragraph essay among academics and writing instructors, and I’ve heard many a teacher express the desire to do away with it completely. The arguments for its destruction usually revolve around students’ stunted writing abilities, especially in terms of writing for a specific audience, but every criticism I’ve found is a criticism of general writing instruction rather than the specific pedagogy itself. To blame poor writing skills on a certain form of essay is to completely miss the forest for the trees. While there is definitely a problem with much modern writing instruction, it generally stems from a lack of understanding on both the part of the student and the teacher. An inability to comprehensively teach writing will lead to poor student writing skills, regardless of what methods are used. And a student who doesn’t care about school will choose to not learn how to write, again regardless of what methods are used. To throw out the five-paragraph essay in the name of bad teaching is to dismiss one of the most powerful tools for writing expository and persuasive essays, especially ones that bring passing grades in college classes.
If you’ve somehow gotten through school without using the five-paragraph essay, here’s the gist of it: an intro paragraph introduces your topic and ends with a thesis statement, the three body paragraphs each discuss a different point proving your thesis, and a conclusion wraps everything up. A quick google search will provide you with many more specific rules and tips, but those tend to vary classroom to classroom.
As a form, the five-paragraph essay is invaluable. As a rigid formula, it’s useless—hence the many criticisms of it. Much like grammar, viewing the five-paragraph essay as a set of inflexible rules will most likely lead to contempt of writing and a failure of an essay. At its base, though, the five-paragraph essay forms the backbone of persuasive writing—which all academic essays are. Whether you’re trying to argue a point of view, explain why an idea is true, or simply convince a professor that you know the material, every essay is going to be proving a point. But if you’re not supposed to strictly follow the rules, how does the five-paragraph essay help?
The five-paragraph essay, like every academic essay, starts with an introduction. You’re introducing your topic, maybe hooking the reader’s interest. Why should they care about what you’re saying? Critics of the five-paragraph essay claim that it eschews writing for an audience in favor of fact dumping. Again, this is the result of nothing but poor instruction. A good five-paragraph essay begins by setting the tone for a certain audience. What the intro paragraph chooses to focus on and include should inform the rest of the essay. A good rule of writing, no matter what you’re writing, is to keep the audience in mind. Who are you writing for? What do they care about? Often in schoolwork, the answers are going to be “the professor” and “that you know the material and did your research,” and that’s a perfectly acceptable audience. That’s why essay instruction frequently calls for cutting personal anecdotes and just sticking to the facts. The professor doesn’t care that your cat gave birth unless it’s somehow relevant to the topic you’re writing about. Of course, expanding this idea out, people reading your dissertation on art theory also do not care that your cat gave birth unless it’s somehow relevant to your point. Everything you write should be relevant to your essay’s purpose and intended audience.
Arguably the most important lesson that the five-paragraph essay provides is that your thesis statement should come at the end of your introduction paragraph. Working as a writing tutor in college, the biggest problem I saw with student essays in any discipline was a lack of focus brought about by the lack of a good, solid thesis statement. While some five-paragraph essay instructions will tell you that your thesis needs to include the three points you’re going to be making, that’s mostly just a tool to keep the rest of your essay on topic. It’s unnecessary to include all of your reasoning in one sentence—and in fact that often gets clunky—but it’s necessary to include some reasoning. The thesis “The five-paragraph essay is good.” is not nearly as strong as the thesis “The five-paragraph essay provides a strong basis for future essay writing.” See the difference? Even though the second thesis doesn’t involve the exact reasons discussed in the essay, it still gives a basis of reasoning to prepare the reader for my arguments.
So, how do you write a good thesis? Write “the point of this essay is to prove that” and finish the sentence with what you’re trying to prove. Then delete the italicized words and you’ve got yourself a thesis. Stay away from lazy, qualitative words that indicate personal preference instead of provable fact (good, bad, stupid, etc.), and make your thesis specific enough that it’s actually provable in the length of your essay. For example, the thesis “School is stupid.” is both an unprovable qualitative opinion—no matter how many good reasons you give, you can never prove that the school system is “stupid,” a subjective adjective that changes meaning slightly person to person—and far too general of a statement that couldn’t possibly be fully covered in the scope of your essay. If, however, you were to change that thesis to “The public education system is in need of academic reform.” then that would be provable as well as limited to the scope of academics in public schools. If your essay were shorter, you might even want to limit it further. Perhaps something like, “By improving science education, the Kentucky school system could provide a more rounded education to high school students.” See all the specifics? How that would easily lead into a few provable points? That’s a good thesis statement.
After the thesis, a five-paragraph essay goes into the body paragraphs. One for each idea. Obviously a college paper is probably going to have more than three ideas, and will almost definitely include more than a paragraph’s worth of information per idea. That’s okay. That’s why the five-paragraph essay is a guide and not a rigid formula. It’s helpful, before writing, to make an outline. It should look something like this:
A. Point or quote to hit in intro
II. Reason or point one
1. Fact to include
III. Reason or point two
IV. Reason or point three
A. Leave ’em with this zinger
If I were to write an outline for this article, which actually follows the basic five-paragraph essay format, it would look something like this:
A. People hate the 5PE
B. Result of bad writing teachers
1. Or bad students
C. 5PE helps with essays
II. What is 5PE and how to use it
III. Focus on intro
A. Setting tone
1. Picking audience
B. How to write a thesis
IV. How to write body paragraphs
B. What content to include
a. Filler words
V. How to write a conclusion
A. Other types of essays
B. I’m not the one giving you a grade
Notice how not all my Roman numerals are purely arguments. Roman numeral two is background info, arguably an extension of the introduction. But since I wanted to introduce my thesis early on, it became one of the body paragraphs. Notice also how the points of the outline don’t always correspond one-to-one to paragraphs. Roman numeral two is split into two paragraphs, because I had more than just one paragraph’s worth of information. The outline can be as loose or as detailed as you want it to be—it’s simply a tool to keep you organized and on track.
So while the five-paragraph essay is probably not going to end up being exactly five paragraphs, the form is still going to help shape your essay into something readable. The more comfortable you are with the form and with writing itself, the more you can play around with it. But if you’re not comfortable at all with it, it’s an easy formula to remember that will make sure all the necessary parts of your essay are there. If we’re being honest, oftentimes the goal is to get the best possible grade with the least possible effort. This will do it for you.
Now, how do you decide what goes in the body of your essay? Well, that’s usually whatever research you’ve done or thoughts you’ve had. Group your research by similar ideas, and those will either go into paragraphs together or go into adjacent paragraphs. Highlight quotes you want to use. Throw out anything that doesn’t prove your thesis. If nothing proves your thesis, rewrite your thesis. Once you’ve got your ideas grouped, organize them into some kind of logical order. This prewriting stage is a lot of trial and error, as I’m sure you know if you’ve ever written an essay before. Your body paragraphs are going to vary depending on what kind of essay you’re writing, but you’re always going to want to make sure that there’s a logical thread from beginning to end, that the ideas somehow build on each other.
The one rule of five-paragraph essays that you’re definitely going to want to forget is transition words. Five-paragraph essay instructions usually advocate beginning paragraphs with words such as moreover, further, therefore, etc., but that’s not a good idea. Those words tend to be filler, and they indicate to professors that you’re uncomfortable with your flow of ideas or relying on “big words” to make you sound smarter. Plus, as I helped students with papers, I noticed they were frequently used incorrectly anyway. If you need to include words like that to organize your thoughts, just go back and delete them later. More often than not, you can just delete the word and the sentence still works.
The final part of the five-paragraph essay is the conclusion. You’ve got your introduction, you’ve written the bulk of your paper and (hopefully) proved your thesis, now you just need to wrap it up. It’s tempting to not include a conclusion, but that will leave your essay feeling incomplete. The common advice for conclusions is to restate your points without actually restating anything, which I’ve always found to be very unhelpful. One way to look at a conclusion is as a mic drop. You’ve said your bit, and this is your one last chance to hammer it home so that people remember. Take everything you said in your article and distill it to the most important things. Write your thesis again in a way you haven’t said before, maybe a way that only makes sense in light of the rest of your essay. Drop one more fact that didn’t fit anywhere else but needs to be in your essay anyway. If your essay is longer, remind your reader of a point you made early on that might have been forgotten. There are a lot of options, but the main goal is to conclude your essay in a way that feels complete. Use new words, but don’t introduce new ideas. It doesn’t have to be long, either. Three or four decent-length sentences is plenty.
So there you have it: a fully formed, five-paragraph essay that will get you through any class in any discipline. Now, of course if your professor specifically requests something different, do that. While the five-paragraph form can be adapted to analysis and criticism as well as personal stories and any number of other essays, there are other forms that may work better for what you’re doing. The more you write, the more you’ll know what works for you and your professors, but when you’re at a loss for how to start, the five-paragraph essay will never steer you wrong, no matter how many people tell you to forget it exists.