Paragraph Essay

This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins. 

[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.

As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]

From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.

First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.

Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel,  forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.

Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce.  No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.

Writing assignment series

The Five Paragraph Essay

The five paragraph essay measures a student's basic writing skills,
and is often a timed exercise.

Use this Guide to help you practice and succeed at this form of writing.

Getting started means getting organized:
Analyze the assignment
; determine what is required.
With a highlighter, note important words that define the topic.
Then organize your plan

For example, you have been given this writing prompt:

You have a present that was really memorable. It could have been given for an important occasion or just for no reason at all. Tell us about the present and why it was memorable. Include the reason it was given, a description of it, and how you felt when you got it.

The objective is to write a narrative essay about this present you were given

The subject is a memorable present
The three main subtopics are:

  • the reason it was given
  • a description of it
  • and how you felt when you got it

Outline your five paragraph essay; include these elements:

Introductory Paragraph

General Topic Sentence: memorable present

  1. Subtopic One: the reason it was given
  2. Subtopic Two: a description of it
  3. Subtopic Three: how you felt when you got it
  4. (Transition)

First Supporting Paragraph

  1. Restate Subtopic One
  2. Supporting Details or Examples
  3. (Transition)

Second Supporting Paragraph

  1. Restate Subtopic Two
  2. Supporting Details or Examples
  3. (Transition)

Third Supporting Paragraph

  1. Restate Subtopic Three
  2. Supporting Details or Examples
  3. (Transition)

Closing or Summary Paragraph

  1. Synthesis and conclusion of the thesis
  2. Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.

Write the essay!

Think small; build the full essay gradually.
Divide your essay into sections and develop each piece separately and incrementally.

The Introductory Paragraph

  • The opening paragraph sets the tone
    It not only introduces the topic, but where you are going with it (the thesis). If you do a good job in the opening, you will draw your reader into your "experience." Put effort up front, and you will reap rewards.
  • Write in the active voice
    It is much more powerful. Do that for each sentence in the introductory essay. Unless you are writing a personal narrative, do not use the pronoun "I."
  • Varying sentence structure
    Review to avoid the same dull pattern of always starting with the subject of the sentence.
  • Brainstorm to find the best supporting ideas
    The best supporting ideas are the ones about which you have some knowledge. If you do not know about them, you cannot do a good job writing about them. Don't weaken the essay with ineffective argument.
  • Practice writing introductory paragraphs on various topics
    Even if you do not use them, they can be compared with the type of writing you are doing now. It is rewarding to see a pattern of progress.

Supporting Paragraphs

  • Write a transition to establish the sub-topic
    Each paragraph has to flow, one to the next.
  • Write the topic sentence
    The transition can be included in the topic sentence.
  • Supporting ideas, examples, details must be specific to the sub-topic
    The tendency in supporting paragraphs is to put in just about anything.
    Avoid this: the work you have made above with details and examples will help you keep focused.
  • Vary sentence structure
    Avoid repetitious pronouns and lists
    Avoid beginning sentences the same way (subject + verb + direct object).

The Ending or Summary Paragraph
This is a difficult paragraph to write effectively.
You cannot assume that the reader sees your point

  • Restate the introductory thesis/paragraph with originality
    Do not simply copy the first paragraph
  • Summarize your argument with some degree of authority
    this paragraph should leave your reader with no doubt as to your position or conclusion of logic
  • Be powerful as this is the last thought that you are leaving with the reader.

Edit and revise your essay

Check your spelling and grammar
Subjects and verbs agree, and verb tenses are consistent

Examine your whole essay for logic
Thought builds and flows?
Avoid gaps in logic, or too much detail.

Review individual sentences

  • Use active verbs to be more descriptive
    Avoid passive constructions and the verb "to be"
  • Use transitional words and phrases
    Avoid sentences beginning with pronouns, constructions as "There are....,"
    Example: "There is a need to proofread all works" becomes "Proofreading is a must."
  • Be concise
    though vary the length and structure of sentences

Ask a knowledgeable friend to review and comment on your essay
and to repeat back what you are trying to say. You may be surprised.

Seven stages of writing assignments:

Index | Develop your topic (1) | Identify your audience (2) |
Research (3) | Research with notecards | Summarizing research |
Prewrite (4) | Draft/write (5) | Revise (6) | Proofread (7)

Writing assignments

Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers | Research proposals

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