In defense of the 5-paragraph essay

The usual attacks on ye olde 5-paragraph essay are a bit like attacks on the sonnet. Are formal constraints really the problem? After all, the vast majority of sonnets ever written—the ones that have mercifully made their way into Time’s recycling bin—were undoubtedly very bad pieces of writing. Instead of criticizing the 5-paragraph essay, shouldn’t we give our attention to the writers’ and teachers’ lack of imagination and art?

Even if we consider the 5-paragraph essay as a ‘mere exercise’, is that so bad? Musicians practice scales and chord changes. Cooks begin by following recipes. The 5-paragraph essay similarly teaches fundamental elements of good writing: beginning, middle, and end; stating a thesis; catching the reader’s interest; organizing one’s ideas; developing them with examples, illustrations, and explanation; constructing a coherent argument; concluding in a way that is both artful and interesting. Along the way, the student practices choosing the right word, crafting an effective sentence, employing rhythm and variety, and so on.

At a certain point in European intellectual history Aristotle became the whipping boy for the new philosophers, who for the most part had never read Aristotle but only the medieval Scholastic distortions of Aristotle. In the same way, I suspect that most attacks on the 5-paragraph essay are misdirected. The real problem is not five paragraphs, but bad teaching.

7 thoughts on “In defense of the 5-paragraph essay”

  1. Piano students practice etudes, but do not play them in concert. Students of the culinary arts learn to make mirepoix, a foundation of great cooking.

    Learning a rigid, academic essay style seems awfully analogous to me. Mediocre writers (like me) learn some useful discipline, and gain a better appreciation of greatness. Good writers learn to flex their muscles in new ways.

  2. Read your comment on Ebert’s blog and followed the link to your site.

    I teach writing at the college level and have always defended the 5-paragraph essay–and as more than an exercise. I remember a twenty-plus-paragraph essay I used years ago to illustrate the “structural integrity” of a five-part essay. The writer–and I want to say it was Norman Cousins–had a clear intro, a three-part body, and a set of concluding paragraphs. There is something about threes that creates an opportunity for balanced thought–dialectical and otherwise.

    I’m at a small liberal arts college now, but when I taught at a big university I would encourage my freshman writing students to take a look at the bound Ph.D. dissertations in the library–especially the ones in the humanities. There’s quite a few five-chapter specimens lurking around in there.

    p.s. And when I teach creative writing everybody has to do some sonnets. And no sprung ones allowed! Have a good one.

    Paul J. Marasa’s last blog post..December 9, 1945 [Fallen Angel]

  3. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for that—made me smile! If you read Pete’s objections (above) and our conversation on his blog, you’ll see that I stepped into an ideological nest of spiders. As usual, ideology and common sense don’t usually travel together.

    I’m going to think about your assertion that there is something inherently sound about the 3-part structure. Musical analogues? Architecture? Very interesting.

    And I’m always happy to meet an Ebert reader!



  4. I think the 5 paragraph essay is great…for the middle school period that is. My beef with it is that teachers continue it all the way throughout high school. In fact, it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that the English teachers told us that it is time to abandon the 5 paragraph system and start writing our essays more in the way they do in your freshman year of college. Now, this would have been great to have started to learn in the earlier part of high school, this way I could have gone into college with much more experience than just 1 measly year of it in high school.

    So its not the method to me that is so much the problem because it is great as a starting point, but keeping that method into the next level is not really teaching us anything knew and doesn’t fully prepare us for college level essays. We are forced to take various levels of math yet, when it comes to English, they basically kept us at the same level with the only difference being which Shakespeare book we’d be reading each year.

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