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.
Sally Baggett holds a master’s in literature. She enjoys inspiring students, cooking with her family, and helping others achieve their dreams.
Just like there is more than one way to skin a cat (or so they say), there is more than one way to write an essay. One is not required to produce a perfectly formatted five-paragraph essay every time one composes a piece of writing. There is another type of essay you can write that may just be simpler than the traditional style: the three-paragraph essay. This type of essay might be beneficial for beginning writers as it offers the organizational structure of a longer essay without requiring the length. It also offers a challenge to more advanced writers to condense their points.
The Parts of the Essay and Its Benefits
As with most essays, the three-paragraph essay has three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Yet with this type of essay–unlike its five-paragraph counterpart–each one of these sections has only one paragraph. The three-paragraph essay, therefore, might be ideal for young writers or those who are currently mastering the English language.
Another benefit to the three-paragraph essay could be that it requires you to condense your supporting points into just one, which can be a good exercise. If you had to choose only one point to convince a reader to agree with you, what would it be?
After performing some light prewriting, such as brainstorming or writing an outline, students can move right into composing the essay. While this process is similar across the board for writing academic papers, the three-paragraph essay is unique in that the body will take up less space in the finished product.
An outline for this essay might look like this:
- Introduction Paragraph
- Background Points
- Thesis Statement
- Body Paragraph
- Topic Sentence
- Supporting fact 1
- Supporting fact 2
- Transition Sentence
- Topic Sentence
- Conclusion Paragraph
- Re-statement of Thesis
- Summary of Main Point
- Challenge to the Reader
Paragraph One: Introduction
As with most formal essays, the three-paragraph essay begins with an introduction paragraph. Such paragraphs must, obviously, introduce the reader to your idea and, in most cases, convince the reader that this essay is worth reading. To craft a strong introduction, be sure to open with a solid hook. You want to draw in readers so they are compelled to engage with your writing.
A hook can be something compelling such as a question, a powerful quote, or an interesting fact. Introduction paragraphs also usually contain background information that assists the reader in understanding your topic, perhaps defining it or explaining an important part. Finally, you want to include a thesis statement. Even though your essay only has three paragraphs, there still needs to be a purpose to the writing.
You could structure your introduction paragraph according to this outline:
- Introduction Paragraph
- Hook: Is there no solution for dumping waste in the ocean?
- Background Points
- Explain why trash is dumped in the ocean
- Statistics about dumping trash in the ocean
- Thesis Statement: Dumping waste in the ocean is a problem because it spells disaster for the ecosystem, leading to problems on land.
This structure is not mandatory, though it might be useful in the long run for organizing your thoughts.
Paragraph Two: Body
The second paragraph, as we have discussed, is the one and only body paragraph. This paragraph bears the burden of communicating support for the thesis statement all on its own. As such, it may take more than one rough draft to get this paragraph to communicate everything you want it to.
Your body paragraph needs to underscore the thesis statement. Create a topic sentence for this body paragraph that communicates this and also transitions from the introduction into the body. For example, your body paragraph topic sentence based on the outline above could be:
One of those problems might play itself out as food scarcity where humans live.
This topic sentence reiterates the thesis and moves the reader into a body paragraph that contains a supporting point: that damage to the ocean’s ecosystem could lead to food scarcity. Within the body paragraph, you can quote different sources that support this point.
Again, this paragraph does not have room to contain everything that a full five-paragraph essay might. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fit in some strong evidence to convince your reader to see your perspective, such as is accomplished through quotes and analysis. Don’t forget to end with a strong transition sentence to move the reader seamlessly into the conclusion.
Paragraph Three: Conclusion
The final paragraph in an essay is usually the conclusion. The three-paragraph essay is no exception. In this essay, the conclusion can be just as long as the other two paragraphs, and it can drive home the point made in the thesis statement and body paragraph. As with most conclusion paragraphs, this paragraph ought to restate the thesis in different words. It should then summarize what was stated in the body paragraph before challenging the reader in some way, whether in thought or action.
Editing Before Turning It In
One thing to be sure of in this type of essay (as in any other) is to polish it. Make it flow well. In other words, revise it!
Before beginning the revision process, take a break from your writing so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. Once you start revising, hunt not only for grammar and punctuation errors but for ways to make the writing flow better. Take a look at the sentences at the beginning and end of each paragraph. Do these sentences contain transition words? Do these paragraphs link to each other? Transition words or phrases like “Likewise,” “In spite of,” or “In addition to” can ensure that your paragraphs are coherent. There are also other services that will automatically proofread you paper.
If you used any sources (i.e. websites, books, videos, etc.) to help support your points and write your paper, you need to cite them! Most teachers will ask you to create a bibliography in MLA format. Others may have you one in APA format, or create references in Chicago style. Ask your teacher for guidance on what citation style they prefer.
Don’t forget that you aren’t limited to using this type of essay for just persuasion. You can also use it to relate a narrative tale, using the three parts as the beginning, middle, and end of a story. You can use this to craft an informative essay. See if other types of essays–such as a process analysis or an evaluation–will fit inside the three-paragraph essay format.
In many ways, the three-paragraph essay is similar to the five-paragraph essay. They both make a solid point using an introduction, body, and conclusion. This simpler essay only requires that you condense your points into one body paragraph, perhaps only one supporting point, before reaching a conclusion. Again, this can make a good exercise for beginning English writers, but can also make a challenge for a more advanced writer to select their strongest supporting points.