The Five-Paragraph Essay (feat. a sports analogy)

Incidentally, today is the thirteenth of August. On the fourteenth, I have the first of several orientation sessions, and on the nineteenth, I attend the first class of my graduate studies.

Incidentally, it isn’t a graduate-level class. It’s ENG 103: freshman composition. I’ll be going to every session, though, because come January, if all goes as planned, I’ll be teaching a section of it myself.

Incidentally, this prospect is terrifying.

It’s also exciting, though, and it has me reflecting on my experiences, good and bad, in English classes—considering what I might borrow and what I want to avoid. I never took a standard freshman composition course, but between high school and college, I had enough classes to give me a wealth of material for contemplation. Of particular interest is …

The Five-Paragraph Essay

The five-paragraph essay is just a Mad Libs where you know the topic ahead of time, and so formulaic that it makes drugstore romance novels look innovative. I say, “Give me a topic sentence. Okay, now give me a supporting point, and another, and another. Now a transition,” and you say, “Cats make great pets. If you’re stuck on a paper and don’t know what to write next, they’ll walk all over the keyboard to help you out. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, they’ll sing you a yowling lullaby. If you’re spending too much time on the computer, they’ll come over and nip at your fingers until you stop and pay attention to them. Cats aren’t just useful as pets, though.” Like communication techniques well-meaning counselors teach badly—e.g., active listening and “I” statements—the five-paragraph essay leaves everyone feeling unfulfilled. To my knowledge, nobody likes to read a five-paragraph essay, and nobody likes to write one.

So we should just ditch the form, right? Well, no.

The way I’ve come to look at it—and the way I wish it had been presented to me—is that the five-paragraph essay is an exercise, a training drill. Will you use it anywhere in the real world? Not unless you’re teaching it (and classifying academia as the “real world” is debatable). Similarly, for a football player, there is (I am told) value in running back and forth across the field, undulating thick ropes, running through tires, and … whatever C.J. Spiller doing over there. It’s not fun to do, and it’s not exciting to watch, but it builds strength and fitness and gets back to those fundamentals everyone likes to talk about.

How, then, do we get back to the fundamentals of the essay?

This is where the five-paragraph essay comes in. To write a successful five-paragraph essay, you better have a very clear idea of what your thesis is. You better be able to boil down what you’re trying to say into a tidy outline. You better be able to cluster your points in a logical way, transition between them, and explain why they combine to support that thesis you came up with.

Once you can do those things, you can begin applying those fundamentals in more useful essays. Of course, the five-paragraph essay isn’t the only way to teach those fundamentals. If I have a choice in the matter, I don’t think it’s the one I’ll use, because I think it’s a clunky and inefficient form of exercise. Still, it has its place—and it’s also worth learning because the fact is, it’s what many teachers/professors expect. (This presents the issue of learning to write badly, in some sense, to satisfy expectations, but that’s another post entirely.)

Really, so much of what we read and write are essays. A blog post is a sort of essay. A magazine article is a sort of essay. Even this, sparse as it is in text, is a sort of essay. When we teach the five-paragraph essay like it’s the only form an essay can take, we do a great disservice to the form, its creators, and its audience. It would be like presenting football as nothing more than running back and forth across the field, undulating thick ropes, running through tires … Although come to think of it, with a little tweaking, whatever C.J. Spiller is doing up there could probably find an eager audience on Wipeout.

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