In recent posts I have explored alternatives to the five-paragraph essay. The five-paragraph essay is a formidable adversary. It is nearly ubiquitous in educational contexts, and it serves simultaneously as invention strategy, writing process, and pattern of arrangement. It also appeals to what Holcomb and Killingsworth call “the ritual of three” (Performing Prose). What I tell you three times is true. Three points and we are convinced.
So whatever we try to substitute for this ubiquitous form must have at least as many advantages, plus some more.
The biggest disadvantage of the five-paragraph essay is that it does not address an audience. The rhetorical concerns–audience, purpose, situation–are not built into the format. Of course, it is possible to write a five-paragraph essay while considering the rhetorical situation, and such an essay will probably be a superior one, but taking such considerations seriously is also likely to result in a product that has more or fewer paragraphs and a somewhat different organization.
Thinking about the above concerns and both the Roman six-part speech and Ken Bruffee’s Short Course, I decided to combine some things together into a process that is potentially as simple as the five-paragraph essay, but allows for audience and some choices about arrangement. One way of implementing this might be to have students write the paragraphs and other components on 3×5 cards or slips of paper and move them around. It doesn’t call for multiple drafts, which usually don’t happen anyway, because revision happens as part of the built-in writing process. I haven’t used this in class yet, but I will in the fall. It looks like this:
What is your topic? Why is this topic important now? Is it urgent? Are people talking about it? Is it trending on social media? Is it in the news? Write a paragraph about this.
What is your main claim about your topic? Write it down, but save it for later.
What background does your reader need to understand your claim? Write a paragraph about the background.
Should your main claim go after the introduction of the topic or after the background? Which would work better? Try it out both places.
What is your best support for your claim? Is it an example or an argument? Do you have facts, words from authorities, or other support? Write this paragraph.
Do you have more support? Write another paragraph about it. Keep writing paragraphs for each supporting argument until you run out of ideas. You might find later that you can combine some of them into one paragraph. Make sure that each example or argument is related to your main claim in some way.
What would people say who disagree with you? How can you refute their arguments? Write a paragraph about it.
Should your best argument go last, or should you lead with it? Reorder your paragraphs if you think another order would be more effective.
How do you want to conclude? Do you want to remind the reader of something? Do you want to talk about what might happen if he or she doesn’t listen to you? Write your concluding paragraph.
Reread your essay. Are things in the right order? Do you need some transitions to make connections clearer? Did your main claim change a bit as you argued for it? Do you need to restate it? Make the changes you want to make, proofread for errors, and submit your draft.