The Five-Paragraph Essay

Recently I read someone opposing the use of the five-paragraph essay in teaching writing on two points. One was that "professional writers" didn't use it to organize their ideas. Another implied that extensive reading would be sufficient for people to know how to organize their ideas in a written form.

On point one, professionals in any field do not use the same techniques as beginners. Can you imagine a research chemist or physicist thinking in the same terms as students in first-year introductory courses? The differences between professionals and novices, however, do not speak to the process of learning to become a professional. Whether the five-paragraph essay can be useful in learning to become a professional writer requires more evidence than claims based on irrelevant observations.

With respect to extensive reading, I can imagine some transfer to writing. But there's two problems with this assumption. One is that all, or at least most, students read widely. In today's electronic world, that claim is unlikely. Even if it were true, it's been shown quite convincingly that expertise in one area does not transfer to other areas (see Philip Ross's review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Speaking of my own experience, even after I had been in college for 9 years, my writing was terrible, or so one of my professors suggested one day. Why? Because my writing had been limited mostly to lab reports and translations of dead texts (i.e., Latin, Greek, and Hebrew). but had done little writing outside of lab reports and translations of dead texts. The following semester, I took a course called "Advanced Expository Writing." I had to write 12 essays that semester along with editing every classmate's essay. That intensive writing and editing course improved my writing considerably.

Now, that course didn't mention the 5-paragraph essay. It was a few years later when I began to teach writing in Turkey, that is, teaching the 5-paragraph essay, that I became aware of notions like thesis statement, topic sentence, coherence, and unity of thought. Those notions have also improved my writing. At least others seem to consider my writing clear and well-organized.

Writing is learned much like playing basketball. Both require practice--not watching or reading the work of others. And coaching (i.e., teaching) can help focus one's attention on elements needing work, thus facilitating the learning process faster than otherwise.

I don't know whether teaching the 5-paragraph essay is the best way, or a good way, of teaching writing. Even so, the concepts accompanying it are useful in focusing students' attention on elements of writing, and most beginners would be better off writing a five-paragraph essay than a five-chapter dissertation. As their experience grows, I would expect the type of writing they do to mature, too. Perhaps the five-paragraph essay has a role to play at beginning levels. Perhaps only its attendant concepts. Perhaps not at all. Regardless of our position, we should move past initial emotional reactions toward evidence-supported reasoning.