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.

The Roman Six-Part Speech as an Essay

Update: I now have a student-oriented article and a mini-module on this topic.  See the newer post “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion.”

In a previous post, I discussed the problem that can be created when students combine a rudimentary understanding of Aristotle’s three appeals–ethos, logos, and pathos–with the five-paragraph essay format. Instead of rhetorical analysis it is easy for students to fall into a pattern of a paragraph about ethos, a paragraph about logos and a paragraph about pathos. I think the solution is to teach more rhetoric! However, we might also provide an alternative to the five-paragraph essay.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will go into more detail in this one. The ancient Romans had a six-part format for persuasive speeches that is still used by orators today and which can easily be adapted to essay writing. In fact, most editorials and op-ed pieces follow a similar pattern today. The format is organized by rhetorical purpose and can be expanded or contracted to fit different kinds of content.

SixPartSpeech

If the five-paragraph essay seems too constraining, this pattern is a good alternative. It has several advantages. The “narratio” section provides more background and context for the reader, so that when we finally get to the thesis in the “divisio,” we feel like we are well-informed about the nature of the issue and why it is important at this particular moment. Then we have arguments in favor of the position in the “confirmatio” and arguments against in the following “refutatio.” The result is that when we get to the conclusion, we feel both informed and persuaded, and that the issue has been viewed from more than one perspective.

In a short paper, the first three categories might be combined into a one-paragraph introduction, but if the issue is complicated, the “narrative” section might take two or more paragraphs. The “confirmatio” and “refutatio” form the “body” of the paper, and the “peroratio” the conclusion. Each of these sections might be one or more paragraphs.

This pattern can be taught as a series of questions:

  1. What is my paper about? How can a make my reader interested in it?
  2. 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?
  3. What are the possible positions someone could take on this issue? What position will I take and why?
  4. What are the arguments in favor of my position? How can I support them?
  5. What will people who disagree with me say? What are the arguments against my position? How can I refute them?
  6. What do I want my reader to believe or do after they finish reading my essay? How do I want them to feel?

These are good prewriting questions even if the student ends up writing a five-paragraph essay. They also work well in collaborative activities. Students can help each other brainstorm arguments for and against the writer’s position, and explore different possible positions on the issue.

This pattern can also be used to analyze published editorials and op-ed pieces. We can ask:

  1. What is this piece about? Why is the issue or topic important, according to the writer? What kind of impression does the writer create?
  2. What background information does the author give us? What is the story behind the issue? Does the writer do a good job of putting the issue in context?
  3. What are the possible positions on this issue? Does the writer do a good job of laying them out? What position does the writer take? Is it clear and well-defined, or a little vague?
  4. What arguments does the writer make in favor of his or her position? How are they supported? Do they make sense?
  5. What arguments against the position does the writer describe? Does he or she do a good job of refuting them? Can you think of other arguments against the position that the writer does not deal with?
  6. How do you feel at the end of the piece? Are you persuaded? Why or why not?

These questions, and the Roman pattern from which they derive (Cic. De Inv. 1.7; Cic. De Or. 1.31.143), are useful for organizing discussions of persuasive texts. They can help the student think about the pros and cons of multiple positions rather than simply taking one position and supporting it with one-sided arguments and cherry-picked examples. They also might reveal gaps or problems with a published writer’s position or arguments, allowing the student to see that just because something is in print, it doesn’t mean it is well-argued.

This post is also available as a handout for teachers in .pdf format. I have also included two analyses of op-ed pieces, one about reconsidering the use of QR Codes in mediating between real and online worlds and one by Stanley Fish about whether history professors should speak out politically as history professors.  (For copyright reasons I have only quoted the first few words of each section.  It is best to go to the URL I have provided to see the full article.)  The QR codes article fits the pattern quite well.  The Fish piece less so, but then I find his arguments unconvincing as well.  Doing the analysis reinforced my opinion that he was less than persuasive.  Picking apart the organizational structure leads to insights about the arguments as well.