What's Wrong With The Five Paragraph Essay And How To Write Organically (Animated Video)

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Let's say you're in high school or university, and you have to write an

essay. Where do you start? Is there some magic formula for success? Many people

think there is. They call this the five paragraph essay. As we'll see, the five

paragraph essay can be useful for beginners, but eventually you have to

move on. Let's take a closer look at this model and whether you should use it. The

five paragraph essay includes much more than simply having five paragraphs. It's

really a set of rules that is meant to make writing a bit like plugging

information into a formula. Here is how it works.

Paragraph 1: the introduction. Start with something to grab your reader's attention,

like a dictionary definition, a famous quote, or anything interesting you can

google at 2:00 in the morning. Once your reader is hooked, you can introduce your

topic and explain why people should care. Then after these opening sentences you

can get to your thesis or argument. Now the thesis of a five paragraph essay -- it

should follow some very specific rules. It should be exactly one sentence long,

it should state three arguments that are loosely related to each other, and it

should be the last sentence of your introduction. Follow these rules and your

teacher will love you. Don't follow them and you clearly don't know how to write

a proper essay. Paragraph 2: this is the first of your three body paragraphs.

They're called body paragraphs because everything between the intro and the

conclusion is the body of your essay. Start each paragraph with a topic

sentence. This is where you state the first of your three arguments. Next it's

time to back up your argument with some facts or examples. Wrap up your paragraph

with a concluding sentence or two, and paragraph two is done. Notice that the

beginning and end of a paragraph are more general, which is why people often

compare the shape of a paragraph to an hourglass, or a hamburger, or even a beer

mug. Paragraphs three and four follow the same format.

Each one covers one of the arguments mentioned in your thesis statement.

Before you know it, the body of your essay is done. All that's left is the

conclusion. And the conclusion is easy, because you mostly just have to restate

your arguments. If you want to do more than summarize, you could add a clever

observation, some moral lesson, or maybe a quote. And that is a five paragraph essay.

Once you know the formula, you can crank out essay after essay essay. But is it

a good formula? The answer is both yes and no. The five paragraph model

teaches the importance of structure, which is good, but it also is extremely

rigid, and sometimes does more harm than good.

Here's what's wrong with this model. Number one: why three body paragraphs? Why

three main points? In what other discipline do people come up with such

artificial rules? That's like saying that every math problem must be solved in

three steps, or that every recipe should have three ingredients. But what if you

write a longer essay? What if your essay is 20 pages long? Do you stretch your

paragraphs to be six pages long? And what do your three points have to do with

each other? Are they just generally on the same topic or do they form a

coherent point of view? Second problem: the five paragraph essay is extremely

repetitive. You state your argument in your thesis, repeat it in every topic

sentence, state it again at the end of every paragraph, and sum it all up again

in the conclusion. How much more boring can it get? Third problem: the five

paragraph essay doesn't zoom in enough. If your thesis has three arguments

instead of just one it's likely that your essay will remain quite general.

In addition, students are not always taught to start as close to their topic

as possible. You may feel clever adding some creative hook at the beginning, but

often it's better just to zoom in right away and get to the point. And one more

problem, just to show that we're not limited to three

points, there is little flow to this kind of essay. Each body paragraph feels like

a little mini essay. Perhaps there's some reference to the overarching argument,

but the paragraphs don't show much interaction. Because of these problems we

think people should stop teaching the five paragraph essay. Instead, we would

like to propose a more organic structure. We'll keep some of the core principles

of essay writing, but will relax many of the rules. First of all, we will still use

the basic structure of an essay: the introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion,

except you can now have as many body paragraphs as you need. We'll also keep

the idea that a paragraph is usually more specific in the middle and should

have some kind of topic sentence that explains what the paragraph is about. At

the same time as long as the general direction of the essay is clear we can

be more relaxed about constantly summarizing the overall argument. Next,

the thesis should make just one argument, not three. If you want to have some sub-

points, that's fine, but the focus should be on the one argument that connects

everything. It's usually a good idea to state your thesis at the end of the

first paragraph, but in a longer essay it can come later as well. You also don't

have to cram your entire thesis into one sentence. If it takes you two or three

sentences to get your point across, that's fine. Next, a good essay starts as

close to the topic as possible. Don't waste a lot of time with general

observations or background information, with hooks and catchy quotations ... Just

get to the point. Of course you can add some flavor and creativity, but try to

zoom in as soon as possible. As mentioned, you can use as many paragraphs as

necessary to make your argument. Your average paragraph is between 3 and 12

sentences long. If your paragraph is longer than a page it's probably too

long. But more important than length is what your paragraph is about. In a good

paragraph everything fits together. That's why a paragraph usually explores

just one point. If you find that you're moving on to something new, even if it's

just a slightly different angle or a different example, feel free to start a

new paragraph. And so the number of paragraphs depends entirely on the

argument. Think of writing an essay as crossing a stream, and as the paragraphs

as stepping-stones. The wider the stream the more stepping-stones you need. When you

get to each new paragraph, use your topic sentence to explain how this paragraph

connects to the last. This is called creating a transition between paragraphs.

As you make the transition, try also to remind your reader of the general

argument. But don't overdo it. Most readers will be able to remember

where you're going. And then we get to the conclusion. Conclusions are so hard

to write because you don't want to just restate everything you've already said.

So avoid doing too much summarizing, especially in a short essay. Now that

you've crossed the stream it's okay to look back to where you came from, but

it's also nice to look forward a little and make your conclusion interesting and

exciting. So don't settle for cookie-cutter essays. Allow your essay to

flow naturally as you develop one main argument. If you're used to the five

paragraph essay it may be scary to leave behind such a clearly defined structure,

but we're not getting rid of structure altogether. We just want you to be free

to find the right structure for your essay, and that is going to be different

for each new topic. So write organically and naturally and say farewell to five

paragraph essay!