What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

I remember the first time I taught the five-paragraph essay. It was in 1979. I was a brand new composition instructor and I had been told what book to use and that I needed to teach this formula. It was strange to me because I had never encountered it in my own education and it had not been part of the “Writing in the Schools” course I had taken. However, I did as the program commanded me to do.

I remember two students from the course. One was a Chinese girl who wrote short gem-like pieces that were more like prose poems than essays. They were unconventionally beautiful. The second was an African-American clarinet player who wrote like he was taking a free-form solo in a jazz tune. He wrote pages and pages in a rapid scrawl on any assignment, but it was pretty much free association without any coherence. On the day that I introduced the five-paragraph essay, some instinct was telling me that the Chinese girl shouldn’t listen. I was right. Her attempts to write this sort of essay were short, formulaic and vacuous. Within a couple of weeks, she disappeared from the course.

The clarinet player came up to me and said, “I think I need six paragraphs.” I said, “Go for it.” His writing became coherent after he had a form to pour it into. He went from being an unintelligible writer to a pretty good one.

So, the first time I taught this format, it hurt one student, helped one student, and left the rest pretty much unchanged. It might have helped some others too, though their writing didn’t change significantly. But the one it helped the most realized right away that he had to modify it to suit his purposes.

Build on What They Know

Now the five-paragraph essay is ubiquitous. It is often all students know how to do. When they get to college, some composition teachers teach it, some accept it, and some hate it. What is clear, however, is that to be effective writers at a higher level in any discipline, they have to outgrow the five-paragraph essay.

However, most students have been so thoroughly drilled in producing five-paragraph essays that we can’t simply eliminate this persistent format. After all, it is possible to write a good five-paragraph essay and, of course, no one wants to be told that everything they know about something is wrong. What we have to do is build on what they know, help them write better essays, and help them grow out of the restrictions of the format.

Without the Romans

I have been suggesting that the Roman Six-Part Speech is a good alternative to the five-paragraph essay (also see the mini-module, “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion“). I think it is, but for the reasons outlined above, we can’t just perform a switcheroo. Here are three principles that I think will help students write better five-paragraph essays without getting the Romans involved:

  • Don’t obsess about the number of paragraphs.
  • Think about your audience.
  • Think about your purpose in writing.

If taken seriously, those three directives will go a long way toward producing better essays.

With the Romans

If we do get the Romans involved, they really do have some insights that will generally fit inside the five-paragraph format, although they put pressure on the five-paragraph limit. I have created a comparison chart:

5para-RomanSpeech-Compared-chartimage

Each section in the Roman pattern has a rhetorical purpose.  These are all purposes and functions that writers of five-paragraph essays should also consider.

I think it is key to move students away from the five-paragraph format step-by-step. The first step might be to include a paragraph of narrative about how the issue developed to the point that we have to do something about it. That is introductory material that might create a need for six paragraphs. Students might think about these questions:

  • What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about?
  • What is the story behind the issue?
  • How did things get this way?

The second step might be to introduce a need to refute counter-arguments. This could take the form of questions such as

  • What will people who disagree with me say?
  • What are the arguments against my position?
  • How can I respond to them?

Putting more emphasis on these concerns, which are not generally part of the five-paragraph essay format and which are likely to expand the essay into six or more paragraphs for reasons that are pretty clear to the writer, will put students on the path to growing beyond the rigid five-paragraph format without having to abandon what they already know.

2 thoughts on “What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

  1. Leonhardyg

    Pudlowski’s “Essays—Write ‘em Right!” Was only three pages long, an instruction manual to keep Little Susie from submitting a wandering diatribe. Every time I go back to that prescriptive commentary, I am amazed that, since 1959, it has been so very popular with textbook manufactures and, like modes, it became a form, a way of learning about writing, a way of thinking that exists beyond Pudlowski. Pudlowski is never mentioned.

    I don’t know that he ever wrote anything else. The same goes with Bain and his prescriptive paragraphing. The prescription overshadowed the originator. It plagiarized and re-plagiarized, dehistoricized. In the commons, Bain and Pudlowski are ghosts, but not their prescriptions, their myths of skeletal standards.

    I always so deeply enjoy your blogging. I want you to know that, now, from time to time, as it was in a submission this morning, a student writes about needing to play more with his/her sentences, play more with the ideas, play more with the descriptive imagery.

    Not every student gets to seeing the joy of writing as a kind of play, but a few do. And I think a few more will over the next few years. I think Montaigne might have appreciated that. He played with his essays after all—over and over again.

    It is strange to me that Pudlowski’s attempt to shoot down the epistemological test flights that would have led Little Susie so naturally right into Montaigne has become the essay defined for public school teachers and students. When, really, just going with the flow and then reshaping would have been so much more fun.

    There is my rambling response to your wonderful blogging. I always remember Victor Villanueva’s lectures on the Romans, on disputatio. And to see your use of the rhetorical swing is, yes, I am going to say it—fun.

    Thanks for the post. Keep ‘em coming!

    Galen

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  2. guitarsophist

    Galen,

    Thanks for the reference to the Pudlowski article. I was unfamiliar with it. Do you think that is the actual origin of the five-paragraph theme? I notice that it also has a list of cryptic correction symbols, so it may in fact be the origin of many evils. So much restrictive, arhetorical, form-oriented practice in three pages! I will have my grad students read it next time I teach the “Teaching Writing” seminar. I hope they will see it as a bad counter-example of good practice, but it must have some sort of persuasive appeal that you and I can’t see. I will have to be careful with it.

    At the Young Rhetoricians Conference in Monterey, CA this year (I am old but they accepted my proposal anyway), I heard a presentation by Randy Fallows and Tamar Christensen from UCLA, who base their course on a 1980 book by Winston Weathers, An Alternative Style: Options in Composition. In this book Weathers presents “Grammar B,” a playful alternative to “Grammar A,” the proper and fastidious grammar. Grammar B celebrates sentence fragments, alternative punctuation, alternative genres and text types, creative layout on the page, all sorts of fun things. Randy and Tamar have their own adaptation of this out in a textbook. Because you like to see writing as a form of play, you may enjoy these books.

    I plan to do a post on Grammar B soon. I do think writing, and rhetoric, should be fun.

    Thanks for the comment!

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