You probably began using the five-paragraph essay when you were a child in school, just learning to organize your thoughts on paper. The premise is simple: Create an outline for an essay that has an introduction paragraph to state your thesis, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph.
You probably also thought that the writing form wouldn’t follow you into adult years — yet, here we are, and online the five-paragraph essay is more common and useful than ever.
Have you noticed? The most common articles online are typically “how-to guides” or listicles. How are they structured? An intro — sometimes a single paragraph, sometimes several — followed by a number of subheads (supporting points) and ending with some sort of wrap-up. Use this article as Exhibit A.
Over the years, academics have offered their fair share of criticism of the five-paragraph essay. Some have likened it to playing amateur sports, which is to say the structure is a good first step for students but should be expanded upon with age and experience. It is hard to disagree with that point — isn’t that the progression goal for any craft?
John Warner, who writes for Inside Higher Ed, went as far as to say “There may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the 5-paragraph essay,” which seems a bit extreme.
Others, like Shane Black, a graduate student at Wright State University, counter this argument with the simple question, “Why do we need to have such a harsh reaction to an organizational tool that is useful for our students?”
Indeed, Dennis Allen, who was a professor at West Virginia University for 35 years, believes that essays longer than five paragraphs are often just expanded versions of the five-paragraph form. In one article, he was quoted as saying, “In other words, the first five pages are the introduction with a thesis near the end, and you have two to five points, and it just expands out.”
There is certainly plenty of room to debate the usefulness of the five-paragraph essay in academia. However, I am far more interested in how the writing form continues to thrive in today’s accessible and growing world of online writing, a much more practical application of the tool.
One of the primary reasons so many instructors have adopted the five-paragraph essay is because of its structure. For as complicating as writing an essay can be, using this method makes it far easier.
Before any prose is written, the writer can get a clear picture of what the essay or article will look like. This makes it easier to develop the main argument of the piece and organize ideas to support it. After all, that’s why the five-paragraph essay was created in the first place.
A blank page can be intimidating to a writer. A page with a clear brainstorm and organizational structure is much less so. When the question of structure is removed from the equation, all that is left is to write a clear and succinct argument. Plainly, the focus is shifted to where it should be — the point of the article or essay, not the design.
Look at so many of the most popular blog posts on the Internet today. They are structured similarly to how this post is — an opening argument, some background info, supporting points (usually broken up with subheads) and a conclusion or wrap-up. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Not only is the five-paragraph essay helpful for writers structuring an article, but it also makes it much simpler for readers to follow along and understand the argument. At the end of the day, isn’t that why we write, to deliver information to our audience?
As students first learn this writing method, it makes it easy on the instructor to evaluate their work — are they able to offer a clear message? But one of the main reasons the five-paragraph essay structure is thriving in our world of digital writing is because it provides a simple formula not only for writers, but for readers as well.
We live extremely busy lives, and while we may enjoy reading a long piece of writing that is well-crafted from time to time, the vast majority of the time readers are seeking top-level information.
“Okay,” they may think to themselves, “You say the five-paragraph essay is thriving, but why?” And then they see that, well, it’s because of its structure, simplicity and its position as a starting point for writers to hone their skills.
Like all writers, I hope that every reader who stumbles upon my work wants to sit and read it in its entirety, word for word. But I am also realistic in understanding that people do not have the time to always do that. And so it’s my job to give them what they need to understand my argument clearly and quickly.
3. Starting Point
Professor Dennis Allen explained this point well in the previously-mentioned article. The five-paragraph essay does not need to remain a constant for a writer’s entire career. Rather, it can serve as a helpful starting point. Eventually, the writing can further develop.
The introduction, which presents the thesis or the primary argument, can be longer than a paragraph. It can be as long as you need it to be, really. From there, you can present supporting evidence — whether that’s a few points or twenty. It’s always good to wrap things up nicely for a reader in the end, summarizing the points you have made.
There are essay structures other than the five-paragraph essay. And I encourage all writers to explore those as well. But understanding the fundamentals of presenting an argument is crucial to being able to coherently explain your position, and the five-paragraph essay is the perfect place for writers to start before growing into their craft.
In my opinion, arguing about whether or not the five-paragraph essay is beneficial to writers is not constructive. Rather, I believe we should embrace it as a useful tool for developing valuable information for a wide audience.
Realistically, it is the most practical way to clearly convey an argument in the world of online writing. Take notice. So many of those blog posts you read are essentially just lists that follow the same general structure as the five-paragraph essay, this one included. It makes it easier on everyone — writers and readers alike.
Quite frankly, I don’t see it going away anytime soon.