pace John Warner
The five-paragraph essay isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many writers find the form constricting and many teachers are unhappy with the results their students deliver when they try to conform to it. But suppose you absolutely did have to write one, and suppose you wanted to do more than a passable job. How would you go about it? And how would you make sure that it developed your writing chops at the same time? That’s what I’m going to try to explain in this post. Building on my previous post, I’ll show you how to use key-sentences to outline your essay. I’ll also explain how to distinguish your paragraphs from each other by means of their content and, ultimately, how to bring them together to make a single, coherent rhetorical gesture. My aim is to persuade you that, for all its artifice, the five-paragraph essay is a perfectly good occasion to work on your style.
Since every paragraph says exactly one thing, a five-paragraph essay will say five things. Each of these claims will be articulated in a simple, declarative sentence, which we call the “key sentence”. The trick to outlining your essay is to make sure that a simple list of your five key sentences immediately evokes an argument, albeit a somewhat schematic one. For example, this post can be outlined as follows:
- This post explains how to write a five-paragraph essay.
- Use your key-sentences as an outline.
- Distinguish your paragraphs by means of their content.
- Bring them together in a single, coherent rhetorical gesture.
- In this way, the five-paragraph essay becomes a meaningful exercise in style.
This outlining exercise can bring its own rewards. It can be enjoyable to observe your argument at a certain distance — a level of abstraction, if you will — without having to decide whether it has been executed properly. Looking at the whole can give you a sense of what you might accomplish, if only you do a good enough job on the parts. Of course, if already your outline bores you, you should sharpen some of your points, or give the whole thing a larger aim. It’s good to do this before you put too much work into your prose. It’s good for your style to write with a sense of purpose.
It’s too easy to distinguish your paragraphs by their function (or location) in your essay. It’s much better to think of your introduction, your three body paragraphs, and your conclusion as being about different things. The introduction, for example, will be about the essay itself. Each of the body paragraphs will about different aspects or facets of your topic. The conclusion, meanwhile, will be about that topic itself and, therefore, about the intellectual context that makes it meaningful, or valuable. So, for example, my first paragraph situates my essay within a controversy about writing pedagogy. Each of the body paragraphs are about different aspects of a five-paragraph essay, which is an object that exists in the world (if not often, as some critics point out, “in the wild”). The conclusion, when we get to it, will assert the value of the object that the body paragraphs have detailed, it will go beyond the conversation about academic writing to indicate how strong prose makes the world a better place. Being clear about your content will let you bring your style more precisely to bear upon it.
Structure both separates and connects. For example, you may already have noticed that in each paragraph I make a point of mentioning “style”. This will become important in my last paragraph because I want to emphasize that even highly formalized, very artificial work can give you an occasion to develop a unique and powerful style, for use beyond the essay form, and beyond academia altogether. Whatever your subject, when writing a five-paragraph essay, you want to make sure that there’s a thread, or theme, that runs through the entire text — a line along which the reader’s attention moves towards your conclusion. Though the reader should feel like you’re touching down firmly on each separate point (one for each body paragraph), there should also be a sense of moving forward, of making progress. The points should be adding up in some register somewhere in the mind of the reader, perhaps not quite consciously, but enough that the conclusion will seem natural when you get there. This structural through-line is what lets you enjoy the play of language from sentence to sentence. Knowing it’s there, you can add some texture, some style.
The five-paragraph essay is, first and foremost, an exercise — a structured writing activity that puts your prose through its paces. It should take about three hours to write and about five minutes to read. It is often a good way to get your ideas in order, and, with the right kind of reader, it can be an efficient way of communicating those ideas. In the first paragraph the reader is told where you are and what you’ve got on your mind. In the next three paragraphs you carefully unpack your reasoning. And in the final paragraph you reassert your overall thesis and emphasize its importance. The life of the polity depends on our capacity for deliberation, our ability to consider ideas in a calm and orderly way. Writing a five-paragraph essay on a regular basis will get your prose into shape, working on your style from the center of your strength. Your community needs you to be strong.