Drop-Kick the Five-Paragraph Essay

How many paragraphs do you need to make an essay? 

How many sentences do you need to make a paragraph?

How many words do you need to make a sentence?

OK, so before I completely blow up the five-paragraph essay, which I totally hate, I will acknowledge that it’s a useful tool for kids learning how to write coherently. Notice I said “kids.” It’s akin to learning your ABCs in kindergarten.

It compels writers to organize their thoughts. Yes, a five-paragraph essay is organized to the point of insane tedium. To summarize:

  • You write an introductory paragraph in which you introduce your topic and tell the reader what you’re going to say. You must end this paragraph with a thesis statement in which you spell out precisely the three things you’re going to say to support your point.
  • You write three body paragraphs in which you tell the reader what you promised you’d tell them. Each of these paragraphs is a mini five-paragraph essay in itself, in that it starts with a thesis that introduces three points, addresses those points in three sentences, and concludes with a summary of those points.
  • Your final, fifth paragraph is a summary of what you’ve already told your reader.

So you’ve told your reader what you’re going to say, you’ve said it, and you’ve told them what you’ve said. If your reader is still awake, they will give you a grade.

You’ve learned to be organized and to make your point (over and over). You’ve learned the most basic of rules: organization. And you’ve probably decided writing is a dreary tedious chore.

Most, or I should say all, of my college students would come into English composition class expecting to write that five-paragraph essay they learned in high school. It was drilled into their heads, after all. Over and over again. They used it on the stadardized tests that helped them get into college.

But the five-paragraph essay is the boringest thing ever invented.

Boring!

In my first class I would tell my students to drop-kick that thing out the window. (Usually at this point their eyes would widen as they felt the center drop out of their universe.)

I would ask my terrified students, “Have you ever read a magazine or newspaper article that’s a five-paragraph essay?” Hopefully they will answer No.

Now it’s time to move on, praise be!

Look again at a good magazine or newspaper article. How many paragraphs does it have? It could have one, it could have 50. It doesn’t matter. When teaching, I steer my students to well-written examples of each extreme. (I suggest you check out the short story “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid which you can find here, and check out “Before the Law” by Jennifer Gonnerman from The New Yorker magazine, which you can find here.  I have a lot to say about both of these writings – see future blogs.)

How long is each essay? How long is each paragraph? How long is each sentence? It doesn’t matter. I point to the Gonnerman essay: where is the thesis statement? Then I chortle like an evil elf.

So throw off the shackles of the five-paragraph essay (unless you’re still in high school and your teacher demands it).

~~~

You learn a lot of writing rules. When you read young writers, you see them trying to obey these rules. (Always fun to read a teenager saying “Moreover.” Evil chortle here.) Writing becomes a joy when you learn that you can break these rules. You’ve learned to organize your thoughts, now you can write them in any format you choose. Ka-boom!

Then you learn that there are a bunch of other rules you never knew about. And I promise to deliver to you a whole lot of rules and I invite you to learn them and then break them.

And I promise to answer all three of questions I listed at the top. I think you can probably guess the answers already.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *