The Five-paragraph Fix: Why it’s needed.

A few days ago, my site stats showed that someone found my blog by searching for “how to write a non five paragraph essay.” Yesterday, someone came here after searching for “why is the five paragraph essay bad?” These searches evoked feelings of both satisfaction and guilt.  I was happy to see the gremlins who run such search engines would send those types of questions my way: those questions are why this blog exists. My guilt came from the fact that I’ve not yet covered this topic. However, given the fact that I did the same Google search and found it didn’t yield many successful results, I suppose it’s time to get on with it. So Anonymous Googlers, this one is for you.

Welcome to the first post in a series that I’m calling the “Five-Paragraph Fix.” To kick things off, let’s answer the second Googler’s question first. Why do we need a five-paragraph fix?

For those interested in doing your own research on the topic, here’s a fun experiment to try: gather a group of college composition teachers, whisper the the words “five-paragraph essay,” and then sit back and observe. Chances are you’ll witness a frenzy punctuated by a flurry of eye rolling, hair pulling, and exasperated sighs. You see the five-paragraph essay hits a nerve with composition teachers, and it does so because getting students to let go of their rigid attachment to this essay style is as fun as weaning a toddler off his binky.

Why is such weaning necessary? Because the five-paragraph essay severely limits the quality and quantity of writing that students produce. A student who is relies solely on the five-paragraph model will struggle to write and sustain longer arguments. Even when students learn to write longer versions of five-paragraph essays, swapping in sections composed of multiple paragraphs for each of the three main points, you’ll find essays that focus too much on just finding three things to say about the topic. In these essays, you’ll find a lot of structures that look like this: “Here’s an idea, and here are three related ideas that support it.” Those papers lack logical flow because they don’t show the reader how those related ideas come together in a meaningful way.

Even bright students may struggle if they aren’t taught how to develop and sustain longer arguments. I’ve seen many students get into upper-level courses by using only the modified five-paragraph essay approach. They find some success at lower-levels because their ideas and writing are good enough to get them higher grades in shorter papers. However, when these courses require them to sustain a longer argument, the lack of logical connection between their ideas becomes more apparent, and the overall arguments suffer.

An overly rigid attachment to the five-paragraph essay further hinder students’ intellectual development because it negatively effects how students do research. Upper-level courses with longer assignments move students closer to the type of research done in the professional world. As such, they require students to consider a number of sources of many different types. When this happens, students sometimes have trouble finding an argument to write about.

If they do find a point to argue, they have trouble bringing all of those sources together. Their template also provides no clear model for what to do with sources, so many students simply try to incorporate them into a fully formed essay. They use outside sources as a way to show that a published author agrees with their argument or another author disagrees with their argument. This behavior shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why scholars read other scholars’ work. Responding to this misconception, many students will write their essays first and then go do research to find quotes to spice up their own argument. Instead of building on the work of other scholars through a natural process of inquiry, these students simply fill in sources until they meet their requirement.

I have personal experience with all of these issues both from watching bright students struggle and also from my own struggles. I was reluctant to let go of the five-paragraph essay myself. I clung to vestiges of it well into my later years of college. When asked to write a longer paper, I usually put forth a weak thesis and three subtopics related to it. I learned to love section headings because it made my papers look like complicated essays, but none of them sustained an argument. I knew that. I wasn’t proud of the papers I wrote, but I didn’t know how to change, and so I didn’t.

In my case, not changing had negative effects through graduate school and eventually lead to so much frustration that I ended my time in my PhD program. As requirements for the number of pages and sources grew, so did my anxiety levels and the doubt I had about my ability to write. When my entire existence in my PhD program depended on being able to write one long, coherent argument, my anxiety levels peaked and I bottomed out.

Eventually, all writers who don’t learn a new method will hit such a wall. Underperforming students have grown accustomed to failing at writing, and so they build their self esteem up in other areas and don’t try as hard in writing. That’s a problem, but it’s usually not caused by the five-paragraph essay, but instead by the misconception that writing is an innate talent which they don’t possess. However, hitting that wall is probably even more dangerous for those who we label bright students. It is frustrating to have smart things to say and not have a platform for them.Ultimately, the five-paragraph model has the potential to erode student confidence in the craft of writing.

Still, the five-paragraph model is a tough habit to kick, and teachers need to realize why it is difficult in order to help out. Ironically, the “bright students” will often be those who show the most reluctance to change because they drew the most benefit from it. They’ve drawn pride from being told they are a “good writer”. Telling them they need to change and abandon the only “teacher-approved” writing model they’ve ever known and the one that brought them success is a lot to take in. For some, they’d rather modify the model they have rather than take the risk of trying to create a new one.

The good news is we don’t have to create a new template from scratch. There are templates readily available that encourages critical thinking and has the ability to be stretched out to much longer lengths. Finding that topic will be the focus of the next post in this series, which hopefully should follow within a few days.

As an additional tease, I’ll also say that template comes from a surprising source: science!


2 Responses to “The Five-paragraph Fix: Why it’s needed.”

  1. 1 Kerry
    April 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    One manifestation of this that I’ve noticed in my classes is the student who has a detailed and well-thought argument in discussion, which then becomes gutted and/or overly-compressed in writing. Such a student seems hobbled by notion that the five-paragraph essay is the only default writing option.

  2. April 3, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Great point. And I think part of the reason that student has those well-thought-out arguments in class discussion is that it is a much more organic environment where students can listen to and respond to peers’ ideas. This environment is precisely what is lost in the research that often happens in the five-paragraph model.

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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