Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 8, 2010

Many high-school and college age students have been required to write a five-paragraph essay. I myself have written dozens. This essay is purportedly the only way to write an essay, but this is obviously not true. So why is this format so often used in schools, and what are its pros and cons?

The format itself involves writing an essay that is five paragraphs long. More specifically, there is an introduction and a conclusion; the last sentence in the introduction is the thesis statement, which is the driving point of the whole essay. A good thesis divides the topic into three categories, one for each paragraph.

One major advantage to this type of essay is that it is very structured. This makes it easy to grade, and helps many students to organize their thoughts when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to come up with an essay that had any sort of logical flow. In addition, this format barely inhibits the quality of the essay (depending on the topic); it is possible to write a great essay and still follow this format.

What are the most significant difficulties with this format? Well, most obviously, sometimes you simply cannot say what you need to say in five paragraphs alone. Sometimes you just need more space. Another difficulty with this format is that it is for some purposes too rigid. A flexible format can encourage a type of thinking that is not restricted to an introduction, three main ideas, and a conclusion. An adept essay writer would often feel restricted by the five-paragraph format. At the same time, though, an adept essay writer would be able to be completely expressive in any decent format. And the five-paragraph format is, if not anything else, decent.

I can certainly understand why the five-paragraph format is frequently used, but it is not always the right solution. Students should be encouraged to diversify their writing styles. As I went over in a previous post, essayist Paul Graham denounces the five-paragraph essay as “really a list of n things for n = 3 . . . [where students are] not allowed to include the numbers, and they’re expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions (“Furthermore…”) and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay.” I don’t loathe it quite as much as Graham seems to, but it is certainly not the be-all end-all of essay formats.

By the way, it was a complete accident that I wrote this post in almost-five-paragraph essay format. Honest. You’ll notice a lack of a thesis statement, though, because those are hard to do in blog posts (and also kind of useless, since with blog essays I usually make it up as I go along).

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