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The five-paragraph essay, long a staple of high school and college teaching, has fallen into some disrepute. Writing instructor John Warner (an Inside Higher Ed blogger), for instance, devotes part of the subtitle of his 2018 book, Why They Can’t Write, to “Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay.” English professor Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s concept of the “unessay” (which encourages students to present their findings “any way you please”) has inspired instructors to accept podcasts, craft projects or performances in lieu of essays. Warner, O'Donnell and their fans are right to criticize overly prescriptive assignments, especially those not grounded in writers' actual practices. But five-paragraph essays are not mere vestiges to be taught out of a sense of tradition or a lack of imagination. They do real work in the world.
First, short essays -- 800 to 1,200 words -- are essential tools of communication. Whether they take the form of op-eds, blog posts, executive summaries or business pitches, they are just long enough to provide some evidence for one’s claims while still attracting busy readers. Often, they function as bait, luring interested readers to longer-form works, where the writer can present their ideas in greater depth. An amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, may run 60 pages yet depend on a five-paragraph summary to deliver the key points to the busy clerk. Warner compares five-paragraph essays to bicycle training wheels, which he notes are poor tools for teaching balance. He’s right that training wheels can do more harm than good, but his metaphor fails when it comes to writing. Proficient cyclists do not use training wheels, but proficient writers frequently craft 1,000-word essays. Warner himself credits his years of writing 1,000-word blog posts for making him a more fluent writer, and students could likewise benefit from such practice. Writing at that length is both training and authentic work.
Beyond functioning as stand-alone pieces, five-paragraph essays also serve as building blocks for longer works. Three body paragraphs are enough to get students thinking about how one idea relates to the next, as well as to signal those relationships with appropriate transition words and phrases. Once student have mastered that skill, they are ready to assemble those blocks into larger structures. In her 2017 essay, “The Art and Craft of Review,” Karin Wulf dissects a 3,500-word review essay by Annette Gordon-Reed, finding it to consist almost entirely of three-paragraph sections strung together, with two slightly longer sections (one four paragraphs, the other five) that gain attention by breaking the pattern. Short essays also prepare writers to organize longer works. A 100,000-word book, for example, often consists of an introduction and conclusion, between which are sandwiched chapters that present evidence in support of the book’s thesis. To extend the bicycle metaphor, having learned how to ride across the basketball court, the cyclist can now undertake a 100-mile journey.
And even if today’s student never again sets foot in a humanities classroom, and never becomes a published writer, they will still need to be an expert reader of short essays. Nature, the Harvard Business Review, IEEE Spectrum and comparable specialized periodicals in every field regularly publish 1,000-ish-word columns that college graduates should be able to parse. The more time they have spent crafting such essays themselves, the better they will understand both their structure and function -- how to spot the thesis statement, what kind of evidence to demand, where to expect complications or concessions, how to assess the author’s intentions, and how to learn more.
None of this is to suggest that a short essay should be as rigid in form as a sonnet or a scientific paper. My own preference is not for five paragraphs but for six, splitting the introduction into an engaging lead followed by a thesis paragraph. As a teacher, I often require students to write first drafts that are longer than the maximum length of the final piece to emphasize that revision and trimming are part of good writing. And I appreciate the value of encouraging students to present ideas in other media, especially when accompanied by reflective writing. But reading and writing essay-length compositions remain among the most important skills our students can learn in college. We owe them that opportunity.