In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Nobody likes how they wrote in high school, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is my defense of the five-paragraph essay. It’s a great way to lend structure to an idea that proves difficult to pin down, it follows modern pedagogical standards, and I think the only reason we don’t use it is out of some sense of shame attached to our past selves, and that when we were forced to use it, most of us were more interested in self-expression than communicating our ideas clearly and concisely, but as we grow older we realize that these are often the same thing.

I’ve talked to countless people about this and have experienced it over and over myself – it’s hard to decide on the right scope for your blog post. A post on the specifics of a single topic tends to transform into unwieldy claims about the universe or else escapes too quickly into interdisciplinarity. None of this is inherently bad, but a single post should attempt to do a single thing. The beauty of the 5-paragraph essay is you only have room to make 3 points. If you, a novice blogger (like myself), can’t provide evidence for your thesis in 3 points, it might be worth choosing a smaller thesis. You can always link back to your current post as a single point in a new post, and in that way become more general in your arguments.

It’s also vital that your writing sticks with your audience. Presenters at conferences know this especially well – in a medium where the persuasion is almost only performed live, it’s important to be able to make your argument in a way that sticks with the audience well after they leave the room. It seems intuitively right that this is also a good idea for written authors – indeed, how many times will someone go back and reference your article during a conversation instead of just changing the topic? Very few, I imagine. So follow the old Aristotelian adage – “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Introductory paragraph about the 3 detail paragraphs, 3 detail paragraphs, conclusive paragraph bout the 3 detail paragraphs. The 5 paragraph essay.

So why don’t people use such a succinct, helpful format, even as a jumping-off point? Why is it universally met with eye rolls and groans? My suspicion is that people associate the format with being told to use it without understanding why. They associate it with their high school, sophomoric writing style. They associate it with having to write essays on topics they’re not interested in, or topics that feel too broad to be useful. But none of these are the fault of the framework, they’re the fault of the system that draconically forces you use it without explaining why.

It seems a worthwhile task to divorce the 5-paragraph essay from our embarrassment over your grade-school selves. It provides a clean and concise template for establishing a persuasive viewpoint using a reasonable amount of both ideas and words. It pushes the ideas into the reader’s mind repeatedly so it can be easily remembered (it would be up to the writer to make sure that the repetition is not too obvious or boring). And our distaste for it seems to come only from contrarians trying to sell us something (usually a book about writing or public speaking) and how we associate these kinds of essays with the dreary concrete rooms of high schools and the SATs. Give it a shot. See how it goes.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, questions, or disagreements, please let me know in the comments!

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