Friday, 28 June 2013

Against Five-Paragraphing

My plea for ideas in my last blog post brought in, not exactly an idea, but an argument:  from a friend who thinks the five-paragraph essay (which I gave a back-handed slap to in passing) is a fine tool for teaching students to write.

Our discussion over this led me to think, Okay, I’ll write a five paragraph essay myself.  Of course, then there’s still the problem of topics and ideas, but it instantly came to me, à la Kramer in Seinfeld: I will write a Five Paragraph Essay about Five Paragraph Essays.

So here goes.

The Five Paragraph Essay

Amidst the wide variety of writing forms, from sonnets to haiku to novels and non-fiction books to newspaper articles and journal writing, one form stands out as a monster of iniquity, as the most artificial of creations, and that is the five paragraph essay, invented by a textbook writer in a moment of Satanic delight, no doubt (just joking, please don’t sue me).  There are three problems with the five paragraph essay: first, it demands that the writer divide his topic into three parts regardless of whether that makes sense; second, it forces the writer to focus on form instead of content; and third it actually infects the content.

Some topics do not lend themselves to tripartite division.  I know there are those who think that three is a magical number and the key to everything, perhaps even to all mythologies, and there is after all the Trinity for Christians to believe in, but not everyone is a Christian, and not all subjects have three parts.  If asked to explain my solution to a textual problem in Thackeray, I may not have three reasons for recommending a particular word; there may only be one reason, but a very good one.  Or there may be two reasons, or four or five.  The same even with boring topics, like how I spent my summer vacation: maybe I did only one interesting thing or six or seven.  Why is three so special?  If you asked a polygamist to write about his wives, he might be forced to leave one out.

Which should bring me to my third point about this structure infecting the content, but first I will discuss point two: that the structure distracts the writer from the content, from the ideas.  As Orwell suggested, good writing comes from good thinking.  The way to write a good article is to focus on the ideas in that article.  If your concern is about structure and putting a thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph and making sure you have three sub-topics, you are diverting yourself from the natural development of your essay.

And worse that that, and this is point three, you may even be infecting the content of the essay, as in the case of the polygamist with four wives who will have to leave one out to comply with the form.  My friend said, What about sonnet-writing or rhyme?  Those are artificial forms; are you against them?  And no, of course not, though I think only skilled writers (not the beginners who are typically forced to write five paragraph essays) should essay them.  They do, though, create an interesting tension between the ideas and the structure, whereas the five paragraph essay lets the structure conquer the ideas.  A bad poet, I suppose, might let the need for a rhyme dictate the idea he creates, but with the five paragraph essay not only bad writers but good find the structure intruding into the content: Oh, I have to find a third sub-topic.  Why?  Because the structure requires it.  What if that distorts the point of your essay?  So be it.

And thus we see the evils of the five paragraph essay.  It forces writers to come up with three sub-topics when there may only naturally be two in their subject (or four or five, or only one).  It distracts the writer from developing their ideas by forcing them to concentrate on the surface form.  And it can even infect the ideas by forcibly preventing the writer from saying what they want to say.  I see that in some ways this third reason is much like the second, and if I hadn’t had to write a five paragraph essay I might have combined them, but that’s the problem with writing to a structure.

Phew, that was hard, maybe the hardest thing I ever wrote, and I’ve written novels and a PhD dissertation and dozens and dozens of articles, not to mention these blog posts.  And this is what we force our poor children to do, and then we wonder why they are turned off writing.  What criminals we are.

P.S. Something I left out because the form didn’t really let me go down this path was that writing to a strict formula like this means leaving the conscious mind in control and not allowing the creative sub-conscious, the source of delight in writing, to get much of a look-in.  But next time.


  1. 5pe's have some structure, but strict they are not. As you can see by your own paragraphs, there's nothing strict about what goes into a paragraph. You can wander wherever you like. You are even able to talk about 4 wives in a single paragraph! In a single sentence! (In a single word? Quadramony? ) How is that possible? And even if there were such a thing as 10 sentence 5 paragraph essays (5x10spe), the sentences would not be structured, and could be as long as a paragraph or a page -- unless of course you wrote 15 word 10 sentence 5 paragraph essays (15x10x5wspe). But you would be free to choose whatever words you envisage... consider.. foresee... expect, nay await... -- big and small, hyphenated or not.

    I do agree however that structure is a distraction and influences our thinking.That is why, except on special occasions, I never write on a piece of paper -- too structured, those forbidding edges where ideas totter on the brink like lemmings and perish. I generally write on a beach ball, because at least I am free to continue round the globe so to speak, which frees me from the ridiculous convention to halt all thinking and reverse engines every 10 words or so.

    And Its bouncy.

  2. Thanks for the amusing response, wgw.