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The Five-Paragraph Essay Study Guide

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Updated on Oct 1, 2011

The Five-Paragraph Essay

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. - EDWIN SCHLOSSBERG (1945–  ) INTERACTIVE DESIGNER AND AUTHOR

This lesson introduces you to the most popular essay format used in school assignments and standardized tests.

In your work thus far, you have learned the importance to your writing of planning ahead, developing your ideas, creating a thesis statement, and, in the actual writing, supporting that thesis statement with relevant and convincing detail. Now it's time to learn about how to tackle the process of an actual writing assignment.

Every writing assignment of course is different. You might be writing an article for the school newspaper, an e-mail to a friend far away, an entry for your Facebook page, or, most often, you'll be writing some type of an essay for a school assignment. We'll concentrate here on school assignments, but the principles you'll learn can be applied to any type of writing that you are doing.

In fulfilling school assignments, you must, of course, follow instructions carefully:

  • Pay close attention to the assignment, and, if instructions are delivered in writing, make sure you understand them before you take them home.
  • If the teacher is giving you oral instructions, be sure you take notes and ask questions about any details of the assignment that you're not certain you understand.
  • Find out if there is a length requirement or any other specific requirements that you need to fulfill in your assignment.

Special Reminder: Pay Close Attention

Understanding the exact assignment may seem an easy task, but failure to do so is one of the most frequent problems in essay writing. Often students haven't bothered to take notes while the teacher was explaining the assignment, and by the time they get around to writing the essay, they're a little fuzzy on what the exact assignment is. So pay attention—you'll be glad you did once you begin the actual writing work.

Once you've gotten absolutely clear on what the assignment is, you're ready to write. Right? No. It's rarely that simple. Your first task is to decide in what format you're going to write. Luckily, there's a classic, time-tested format that you'll find useful in many (if not quite all) of your writing assignments. If you learn this format well now, you'll find writing much less of a troublesome challenge in all your writing years to come.

The Parts of a Five-Paragraph Essay

This essay format is well named. It tells you exactly what you are to write: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. To require exactly five paragraphs may seem rather arbitrary, but in fact, the format is based on ancient principles of logical argument. You already practiced these principles in previous lessons when you learned about creating a thesis statement and supporting it with details that will convince your reader to agree with the premise of your argument. And your previous practice at brainstorming, freewriting, and outlining should help you plan your five-paragraph essay more easily.

The five-paragraph essay has been used by English teachers at all educational levels for decades; they rely on it because it is a simple way to illustrate the principles of sound argument. Some teachers (and some students) criticize the format because they find it too formulaic, too artificially designed. Other teachers defend the format as a valuable tool that can be applied to a wide variety of writing assignments.

Despite the varying opinions about its structure and its applicability, the five-paragraph essay is an essential template for you to master. Throughout your educational career, no matter what the writing assignment, consider first whether or not you can use or adapt this format to your writing project.

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