The Five-Paragraph Essay Study Guide (page 3)
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.
Be flexible in your use of the five-paragraph essay. In some cases, you might not need as many as five paragraphs to make your argument, so use fewer. Or use more. The general structure (thesis → supporting proof → conclusion) is a versatile one that can be adapted to suit numerous assignments.
Planning a Five-Paragraph Essay
To illustrate the construction of a five-paragraph essay, let's assume you have been assigned to write an essay about global warming. Here are the steps you'll need to take in planning and writing your essay using the five-paragraph format.
Part 1: The Introduction
The first paragraph of your essay should include your thesis statement, sometimes referred to as the premise of your argument. (As you learned in earlier lessons, you might want to delay the thesis statement and put it in the second paragraph, which is of course permissible. But for right now, let's assume you are sticking precisely to the five-paragraph rule.)
Within the first introductory paragraph, you need to do several things:
- Introduce the general topic.
- State your thesis or your point of view on the topic.
- Grab the attention of the reader.
It is here then that you will need to have done your preplanning and selected your topic carefully. You cannot possibly contemplate writing a fiveparagraph essay on the gigantic topic of global warming. We'll assume that you've settled on the following narrowed-down thesis statement:
The future existence of polar bears on the planet is in serious danger as a result of global warming.
Once established, the thesis statement must never be abandoned—not even for a single sentence. Every paragraph and every sentence in the remainder of the essay must relate to this introductory statement.
Our writer has staked out a territory, and a position: Polar bears are in danger. The thesis statement has sounded an alarm, and because polar bears are so rare and so universally loved (or are they?), the reader is probably hooked. He or she will want to keep reading and know how and why this is happening, and perhaps what can be done about it as well.
Part 2: The Main Body Paragraphs
The three paragraphs that form the body of the essay should each focus on a different aspect of the argument. Our polar bear writer might want to devote individual paragraphs to ideas such as these:
- statistics about recent declines in the polar bear population
- explanation of the reason(s) for the decline, such as the melting of the ice pack that supports the polar bear habitats
- examples and anecdotes from animal study groups in Canada and Alaska
- quotations from environmental groups seeking to find solutions to the problem
As you have learned in previous lessons, each paragraph must include a topic sentence and supporting sentences that expand on this topic sentence, which is a kind of mini-thesis. As you begin to write each new paragraph, ask yourself how it supports your main thesis.
Be sure to create transitions between your paragraphs. Don't jump from one subject to another without creating a logical bridge between ideas. You can do this with phrases such as:
- on the other hand
- another example of this phenomenon
- even before this situation arose
- more importantly
Try to avoid clunky and clichéd transitional phrases such as In conclusion and To summarize. Instead, make it clear to your readers that you are about to conclude with words and phrases that are an integral part of your argument. For example, you might create a transition to your conclusion in ways such as these:
The single most convincing proof of the problem is . . . In light of all the factors influencing the situation, the only solution possible is . . .
Part 3: The Conclusion
The conclusion of an effective, high-quality five-paragraph essay does not simply restate the introduction's thesis statement. Instead, a good conclusion presents something more, with some originality, such as:
- an explanation of the importance or significance of the topic to the reader
- an explanation of the controversial nature of the issue (for example, perhaps some scientists claim the danger to polar bears is exaggerated)
- an acknowledgment and refutation of the opposing argument by way of emphasizing your own point of view
The conclusion is the writer's big chance to sew up the reader's agreement. It is the place to make a big splash with a strong restatement of the thesis. This is the last chance you have to summarize your argument and convince the reader of its value—and of your value as a writer.
The five-paragraph essay is the format used in many scholarship and college application examinations. And it might be the model your parents are still using when they write memos in their jobs. (Ask them!) So, master this format and you'll find yourself using it again.
Practice: Designing a Five-Paragraph Essay
For this exercise, you can skip doing the research that would be necessary if you were actually writing an essay. Instead, design a thesis statement within the general topic of global warming and then write a rough outline of the five-paragraph essay you could write on your chosen thesis. (Review Lesson 14 if you aren't certain how to construct an informal outline.)