The Five-Paragraph Essay Myth

If your writing looks professional, so do you.

  • Nancy Tuten

    28 April 2020

    The Five-Paragraph Essay Myth

    In our educational journey, we likely learned some myths about writing.  One pernicious myth is the bane of many college English professors’ existence: the belief that writers should always employ the five-paragraph essay template—a rigid model compelling the writer to have a single-paragraph introduction containing a thesis, three body paragraphs addressing three distinct points, and a single-paragraph conclusion. John Warner, in his pithy article “Kill the Five-Paragraph Essay,” rightly notes that “there may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the five-paragraph essay.”

    Here we explain why the five-paragraph essay formula is problematic and argue instead that the number of paragraphs in any document—including the argumentative essay—depends on the content the writer is trying to convey. (Scroll down to the bottom of this article for a video version of this article.)

    In an effort to help beginning writers, many teachers encourage the five-paragraph essay template. Starting with a simplistic format is not inherently a bad idea, but often students aren’t told the “rest of the story”: The five-paragraph essay model is certainly one possible structure for conveying ideas, but it is not the only one. Often it is not the best option, and at other times, it doesn’t work at all.

    What about Writing Outside of Academics?

    In academic settings, the thesis-driven essay works well for papers and tests that include discussion questions because it enables students to present both the knowledge they have gained and the critical thinking necessary for making sense of that knowledge.

    But the essay (five-paragraph or otherwise) is not always the most appropriate model for professional writing outside the academy.  For example, similar to other journalistic writing, blog posts (such as this one) typically include short paragraphs, many of which are only a sentence long. In a world dominated by tweets and Instagram or Snap Chat captions, the fully-developed paragraphs that essays demand are inappropriate.

    But while not all professional writing is thesis driven, some of it surely is; reports, proposals, and analyses, for example, benefit from being focused and organized logically into paragraphs that clearly support a central idea.

    When the Five-Paragraph Essay Works Fine

    If a writer has only three points to make, and if each of those points can be adequately argued or depicted in a single paragraph, then the five-paragraph structure works perfectly.

    For example, suppose I want to assert that a gym membership is better than exercising at home. I might have three points to make in defense of that statement:

    • First, gyms offer more equipment.
    • Second, there are trainers at the gym who can assist me.
    • Third, having others around who are also exercising might motivate me.

    In this case, because I have three points to make, the five-paragraph essay works fine; the writer can support each of these three points in a separate body paragraph, adding examples and explanations to convince the reader that each point is valid.

    Why the Five-Paragraph Essay Usually Doesn’t Work

    But what if a writer wishes to make only one or two points—or perhaps four or five or seventeen points?

    Or what if one point really needs more than one paragraph to be adequately developed and should be broken down into two or three or more sub-points?

    In most writing situations, the five-paragraph essay simply does not work.

    Rigid adherence to the five-paragraph essay model often results in an essay that includes one or two weak paragraphs. A writer who has only two strong points to make but believes the essay must have three will end up writing a flimsy, underdeveloped and unconvincing third body paragraph that weakens the entire essay.

    What Is the Appropriate Number of Paragraphs?

    The appropriate number of paragraphs in the body of an essay is the number it takes to fulfill the promise made to the reader in the thesis. Writers must adequately address the thesis.

    The body of an essay is shaped not by an arbitrary fixed number but by the content.

    Instead of trying to force everything you write into a five-paragraph essay model, let content be your guide about how to organize and develop the body of an essay.

    Once you have a thesis, first ask yourself what points you need to make in order to convince your reader that the thesis is true. Each of those points will be a “section” of your essay’s body consisting of one or more paragraphs.

    Next, ask yourself what details you can include as evidence in support of each of those points.

    Finally, ask yourself if any of those points are so complex that they should be broken down into more than one paragraph.

    Once you have answered those three questions, you’ll have a rough idea about the appropriate number of paragraphs necessary to adequately address the essay’s thesis.

    Writing is Discovery, and Drafting is Recursive

    But you won’t know for certain how many paragraphs you’ll need until you actually try to write them.

    We say that writing is discovery because the act of writing often helps us figure out what we know and don’t know.

    Maybe you will find that one of the points you thought you could make doesn’t work after all. Maybe in the process of writing about one point, you’ll think of another one. Maybe a point you thought could be developed in two paragraphs really needs three or more—or only one.

    Drafting is a recursive process: writers must go back and forth, fine-tuning the thesis and the support of that thesis until they work successfully together to produce a unified, coherent piece of writing in which every word contributes meaningfully to the message and in which the organization of paragraphs and sentences flows logically.

    Not Every Essay Needs a Separate Conclusion

    The five-paragraph myth also assumes that an essay always needs a conclusion paragraph. While we typically do need a separate introductory paragraph, sometimes we don’t really need a separate conclusion.

    Consider for example, an essay that traces the development of a character in a story.

    The thesis might look something like this:

    At the beginning of the story, Jane Doe considers herself superior to most of her fellow townspeople because she is educated and because her family is wealthy, but when her father becomes gravely ill and in need of a kidney transplant to save his life, Jane discovers that neither a college degree nor money determine a person’s goodness and worth.

    • The first body paragraph would provide evidence from the story that Jane considers herself superior.
    • The second body paragraph would explain how her father’s illness begins to challenge Jane’s personal beliefs.
    • The third body paragraph—presenting evidence that Jane has been changed by her experiences—could double as the conclusion if the writer touches on all the previous points and feels that a separate conclusion would simply be repetitive.

    Once again, the five-paragraph model—which assumes a separate concluding paragraph—does not always make sense.

    The Number of Paragraphs Is Merely One Consideration

    Determining the appropriate number of paragraphs is just one step of many required to produce a good essay. Writers must also have a strong thesis and write well-developed paragraphs—two topics discussed in other posts.

    © 2020 Get It Write.

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