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The Five Paragraph Essay Syndrome

Posted by on March 31, 2011

Before I begin my rant, let me establish this qualifier: the five paragraph essay format has its place in composition. It’s a simple formula that helps beginning writers understand the basic structure of an academic essay—introduction and thesis, supporting reasons, evidence, and examples, conclusion. The three supporting paragraphs force beginners to think up multiple reasons and example, helping them achieve two pages of writing when they could barely make a page.

The problem is that this simple formula, meant to teach beginning writers, has become the end-all for essay writing, and we can blame the SAT for that.

Since the SAT added the writing portion in 2005, I have seen a massive increase in the number of college-level essays stuck in the five paragraph format. And it’s no surprise. I remember the intense studying leading up to taking the SAT. Students practice this writing formula until it is burned into their brains.

What happens is that students attempt to fit all writing situations—the square peg—into the five paragraph format—the round hole. I call this the Five Paragraph Essay Syndrome. Typically five paragraphs might fill two pages. But suddenly students have to write a ten page paper. What do they do? Create three main points, and expand these points to paragraphs that are one, two, three pages long.

These are not paragraphs. They are a collection of points, reasons, and examples, all deserving development in individual paragraphs, crammed into a single, convoluted paragraph lacking in unity and clarity.

What if the rhetorical situation calls for six reasons? What if you must define terminology, or summarize information essential to the context of the argument? Where do rebuttals occur?

The essays I read that succumb to this syndrome are typically underdeveloped and simplistic, lacking detailed examples, a variety of evidence, and analytical depth. I think one main reason is that you can no longer see your points.

Think of it this way. If you were to break all of your individual points and reasons out of the single massive paragraph, you would then see how each stands on its own. Does the point fully develop to its necessary conclusion? Is it connecting cohesively with the point that comes before and after? When you see each point as a paragraph on your screen or paper, you visually recognize that it is too short or seems to come out of left field. However, when all your points are jumbled into one long paragraph, you lose them in the mass of text. Your eye no longer sees jumps in logic or abrupt transitions. It misses the fact that you started an idea and then never finished it. All you see is a big, complete paragraph with lots of quotes.

So wipe the five paragraph essay from your mind. Look carefully at the college-level texts that you are reading. How do they structure their arguments and analysis? How does this structure fit each individual rhetorical situation?

Write paragraphs that develop a single point. And develop that point fully, providing vivid examples and strong supporting evidence. Don’t be afraid to explain exactly how everything connects together. And above all, make sure that this paragraph directly develops your argument.

Only when you free yourself from the bonds of the five paragraph essay can you truly begin to develop as critical thinkers and writers.

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