Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay
There may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the 5-paragraph essay.
Let’s just go ahead and kill the 5-paragraph essay at all levels, everywhere.
Seriously. Let’s end it. We can have essays that happen to be 5-paragraphs long, but there shall be no more “5-paragraph essays.”
That just about everyone reading this is well-familiar with the 5-paragraph essay is a testament to why it needs to be retired, and by retired, I mean killed dead, double-tap zombie-style, lest it rise again.
The 5-paragraph essay is indeed a genre, but one that is entirely uncoupled from anything resembling meaningful work when it comes to developing a fully mature writing process. If writing is like exercise, the 5-paragraph essay is more Ab Belt than sit-up.
A significant portion of the opening weeks of my first-year writing class is spent “deprogramming” students from following the “rules” they’ve been taught in order to succeed on the 5-paragraph essay and opening them up to the world of “choice” that confronts them when tackling “writing related problems” that they face in college and beyond. They cannot hope to develop unless and until we first undo the damage done.
There will be some who want to defend the 5-paragraph essay as “training wheels” for the type of academic writing that will come later. You’ve got to know the rules to break the rules, right?
Not really. At least not these rules, and the way students learn them. While a well-done 5-paragraph essay may exhibit some traits that we value in other forms of writing – engaging opening, clear focus/thesis, transitions between ideas, general coherence – the writing of a 5-paragraph essay is primarily approached from a tactical angle, and occurs outside a genuine rhetorical situation (audience/purpose/message). Because of this, students write from a list of rules handed down by their teachers, starting with the form itself (five paragraphs: intro, body, body, body, conclusion), and including specifics like the use of “good” transition words, never using “I” or contractions, and even limits on the number of sentences per paragraph or words per sentence.
The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of an “essay,” something that looks vaguely essay-like, but is clearly also not as it lurches and moans across the landscape, frightening the villagers.
More troublesome is what the 5-paragraph essay does to the writing process. The act of writing is primarily treated as a performance meant to impress a teacher or score well on a standardized exam. It fosters a number of counterproductive behaviors, not the least of which is the temptation to write in “pseudo-academic B.S.,” a lot of academic-seeming sound and fury signifying nothing, which becomes a very hard habit for students to break.
If the 5-paragraph essay were good training for writing college-level academic essays, you wouldn’t hear so much carping from college instructors about the quality of writing from their students.
Mature writers need to navigate choices rooted in genuine rhetorical situations. They must consider audience, purpose, and message. The 5-paragraph essay requires none of this.
Kill it dead.
But what should we replace it with?
The most important essay I ever wrote was in 3rd grade.
My teacher, Mrs. Goldman, told us we needed to write directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She never used the word “essay” because that would’ve been meaningless to us, but this was actually a “process” or “how-to” essay, and to write a good one, you need to think very carefully about what you’re telling your audience.
We were 3rd graders, so of course, we didn’t do this. The extent to which we didn’t became apparent next class when Mrs. Goldman brought in the necessary supplies for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then told us we had to make our sandwiches exactly according to our directions.
If you forgot to mention that you needed bread on which to spread the peanut butter, you smeared it on the plate. If you wrote to spread peanut butter on a slice of bread, but didn’t say to use a knife, we were instructed to use our hands.
I don’t think anyone in the class managed to create an edible sandwich, but we had a lot of fun laughing at the attempts, and the memory is indelible. That day, I learned that writers need to be careful with their words because if someone is asked to follow them, things can go very very wrong.
Mrs. Goldman was teaching us a number of different things, genre awareness, audience, structure and sequencing. None of it had anything to do with a standardized assessment. We were solving a writing-related problem. Most of all, we were absorbing the lesson that above all, writing is done for audiences.
Even the old-fashioned “book report” is superior to the 5-paragraph essay as a tool for developing writers and writing, as it embraces audience and purpose, i.e., tell someone about the book you just read and whether or not they should read it too. A book report is the solution to a genuine writing-related problem.
The steady encroachment of standardized assessment on education and learning has only exacerbated the damage of the 5-paragraph essay. If the 5-paragraph essay was only one genre among many, we could safely contain the contagion, but as it is the easiest form to assess, it is now the monolith at the center of the English classroom.
It is a spirit killer for both students and teachers. For those who are fans of so-called “accountability” in education, it is actually the tool that allows the worst teachers to hide amongst the good, as it’s incredibly easy to game with hacks, tips, and tricks.
So let’s free ourselves from the 5-paragraph essay. Yes, the aftermath may be a little messy and the testing companies will have to think of something else – a feature, not a bug as far as I’m concerned – but we might just realize that good writing requires a lot of curiosity, and at least a little bit of freedom.
At this point, what do we have to lose?
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