I bet 99 out of 100 of my students have been told that every paragraph must contain five sentences, and that every essay must have five paragraphs. This idea is so indoctrinated by teachers that students fear veering from it. One of my best writing students composed an essay for which we thought up a single line zinger after the conclusion. It was perfect—irreverent and definitely humorous. She wouldn’t use it. “I wouldn’t have five paragraphs anymore,” she told me.
Why the five paragraph essay, anyway?
- Formal logic is the tradition upon which essay writing is based, and that tradition goes back to ancient Greece. In formal logic, premises lead to conclusions. In five paragraph essays, the topic sentences of the three body paragraphs lead to believing the truth of the thesis, stated in the introduction and repeated in the conclusion.
- Essay writing began in France in the 1500’s, not as a structure for writing as much as a structure for logical thinking and arguing. Essays then were not confined to five paragraphs, and their purpose was to persuade with clear thinking.
- In the 1800’s in the US, essays—then called themes—became increasingly standardized so that they could be reliably assessed. An introductory paragraph introduces the general idea and ends with a thesis statement which includes the three main points supporting the thesis. Three body paragraphs each begin with an idea supporting the thesis and then go on to bolster that support. The last of those three body paragraphs sometimes defeats a counterargument. The conclusion cements the argument and repeats the main points.
- Standardized testing took hold in the US in the mid to late 1900’s, and with it came formulas for writing essays that could be easily graded.
- Today the five paragraph essay dominates in schools, starting in elementary grades and continuing into high school.
But why five paragraphs? Why not four or six or seven? I think it is the Western World’s preference for the number three. Take away the introduction and conclusion and that leaves three body paragraphs for the essay. Three has long served as an important number in western thinking, starting in the Catholic religion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The number three is important in many fairy tales such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Even Abraham Lincoln enshrined the number three with the phrase “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
This approach to essay writing requires that the writers know their thesis (that is, the conclusion of the logical argument) before they begin writing. As a result, students are taught to brainstorm and to write outlines of their thinking before writing their first drafts. These prewriting strategies help students to see the scope of the issue (brainstorming) and to narrow it down to its most important arguments (outlining).
Is this five paragraph structure good?
On the one hand, students have a pattern to follow which limits the number of paragraphs within which to explain their arguments. It requires conciseness and clarity, two qualities of good writing.
On the other hand, students are forced to conform their thoughts to a somewhat arbitrary pattern. What if students have three excellent points to make, not two? What if there are two excellent counterarguments that need to be defeated? Oh well.
Next we will look at transitions.