Ivory Tower Writing #20: Composition – the five paragraph essay

In Ivory Tower Writing #10, I discussed some general guidelines on how to compose paragraphs, structure paragraphs, and some tips on how to create “flow” in your essay. In this post, I’ll discuss the classic five-paragraph essay and how it helps students grasp the basics of composition and coherence. I’ll also cover some problems of the five-paragraph essay and how it should ideally be used in instruction.

The five-paragraph essay: why use it?

The five-paragraph essay has been seemingly drilled into every student’s heads through their English teachers. In Indonesia, this template is often known as the “hortatory essay” or “hortatory exposition” format. Another variant also taught in middle school English is the “analytical exposition”. Despite their difference in purpose, both essays tend to be similar in structure. 

Here’s what it looks like, along with the prescriptions that perhaps every writing instructor has taught for the last couple of decades:

So, why do we start off with the classic template? It is actually a quick way to familiarize students to the “feel” of formal academic writing. If you observe any textbook or academic journal article, they essentially are expansions of this classic template. The author starts with an introduction chapter, where they lay out the aim of the book and their main arguments made in later chapters. The book has multiple chapters, which are once again, expansions of the classic template: Chapter 2 is Argument 2, Chapter 3 is Argument 3, repeat as necessary. 

Typical prescriptions in the five-paragraph essay

In the five-paragraph essay, writers are encouraged to follow specific prescriptions to their writing. Here are some which I’ve covered in Ivory Tower Writing #10:

  1. The main idea of the paragraph (thesis sentence) should be up front. This is the assertion.
  2. The following sentences should demonstrate reasoning as to why the thesis sentence is true/false.
  3. Reasoning ought to be followed by evidence, given through analogy or empirical evidence.
  4. Each paragraph should be linked with one another using conjunctions, either to indicate continuity (e.g. “subsequently”, “furthermore”, etc.) or perhaps contrast (e.g. “in contrast”, “however”, etc.)

The five-paragraph essay in action

A sample of a five-paragraph essay may be found here. I’ve modified the linked example into the following image for readability. Notice the bolded sentences.

In the first paragraph, the author makes it clear that the essay is going to be about the difficulties in camping. This is evident in the last sentence. Now, you may think this is weird: isn’t the main idea supposed to be in the first sentence? Well, this is one of those areas where you can bend the rules a bit. In this case, the author sets the tone first by providing us with an overview of what camping looks like in the United States. Then, they start narrowing things down: the essay will only describe three things that may ruin a camping trip. 

Or, think about it this way: you meet a stranger at a dinner party and want to strike up conversation. Do you start with “Hey, here’s three things that can ruin a camping trip!”? Of course not. You might want to ease them in first by asking “You like camping? Me too!” Once you have their attention, then you begin delivering your sermon on three things that may ruin camping trips.

Paragraphs 2-4 expand on what the author lays out in Paragraph 1. Notice how the author always moves from general to specific. For example, in Paragraph 3, the author begins by saying that encounters with wildlife are one of three things that ruin camping trips. They then move towards describing what kinds of wildlife and how they may wreck camping trips. This pattern is repeated throughout Paragraphs 2-4. 

In the last paragraph, the author summarizes the three things that can ruin a camping trip in a series of short, rapid sentences. Notice how everything has already been covered before, from leaky tents to animal encounters. The author ends with their own recommendation, “learn to laugh at leaky tents, bad weather, and bugs”. 

Problems with the five-paragraph essay

The five-paragraph essay, despite its longevity, general usefulness, and widespread practice, is not without fault. However, the fault of the classic template does not lie in the template itself. Like a hammer is useful to nail a coffin but less useful when attempting to slice a steak, the template is a tool that is useful depending on the context in which it is used. As an introductory tool, it is quite useful. But we do not expect to see the template used everywhere. It would be jarring to see someone adhere so religiously to the classic template if they were writing poetry!

According to John Warner, the fault often lies in the way the classic template is taught. As he says in an interview with Inside Higher Education [3 Jan 2019, emphasis mine],

The primary problem is the practices which attach to the teaching of the five-paragraph essay, and the totalizing system of accountability which privileges the teaching of the five-paragraph essay. Prescriptive rules such as: a thesis must be the last sentence of the first paragraph, the last paragraph must start with “in conclusion” and restate the body paragraphs, and each paragraph should have between five and seven sentences do not help students learn the basic skills of structure and argument. They help them create what I call “writing-related simulations” which pass very basic muster on surface-level assessments, but don’t actually help students learn to make better arguments or think in the ways we expect in college.

My interpretation of Warner’s criticism is that Warner criticizes the tendency for teachers to only use the five-paragraph essay as a standardized tool to assess writing, when the essay should ideally be used as a springboard towards better forms of academic writing. Instead of learning how to develop their own “voice” and unique thinking, students only learn how to think using a predetermined template, thus making them “passive and unengaged”.

Conclusion

So that covers the basics of composition using the five-paragraph essay template. I’ve shown how it functions as an introductory tool for students to learn how to structure and compose their essays. Though not the perfect tool, it should serve as an easy introduction for more advanced methods.

Heeding Warner’s criticism, instructors and students should not be content with “mastering” what is essentially a “simulation” of writing and not the practice of writing itself. This may be done by exposing students to examples of “good” (the quality of goodness may still be debated) academic writing that emphasizes conveying unique thinking or argument, instead of “following the template”.

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