Saturday, March 21, 2015

Day #75: Five Paragraph Essays Suck

Here's an essay I wrote back in 2006... I rescued it from an old floppy disk, and now I present it to the internet for your reading pleasure. Please spread the word...

Five-Paragraph Essays Suck

By Wade Bradford

            Since the dawn of man, the opening lines of high school essays have reeked with cliché phrases such as “since the dawn of man.”  Why would a student begin her expository writing in such a dull, mind-numbing manner?  Perhaps it is because the student assumes that an essay, by its very definition, is meant to be formal, cold, lifeless and boring.  Or perhaps the student has yet to realize that “since the beginning of mankind” openers have been used 3,982,861,452 times.  Or perhaps, it is merely because teachers at the high school level have been force-feeding students a repressive structure that limits one’s academic and creative skills.  This format, of course, is the five-paragraph essay, or as I like to call it: the cookie-cutter essay.  Now to be fair, wonderful content can be found in many five-paragraph essays; in fact, a master essayist can flourish within the constraints of the five-paragraph form, the way great poets thrive despite the confines of the sonnet.  However, most instructors do not select the format to challenge their pupils; rather many instructors enforce the five-paragraph structure for all the wrong reasons.  Notice how I am nearly at the end of the introductory paragraph?  That means it’s almost time for my thesis statement.  Are you ready?  Many instructors request that the thesis be underlined or emboldened or even italicized.  So to be safe, I am going to do all three.  Still ready?  Here we go.  Five-Paragraph Essays suck because they have become a crutch for lazy English teachers, they burden the writer (and the weary reader) with an overly formalistic style, and finally, they do not allow a student to discuss more than three main points.
            Somewhere, right this instant, there sits a lazy English teacher.  He or she sits at a desk, perhaps staring at his Shakespeare-quote-of-the-day calendar, perhaps thumbing through the first and only twenty pages of an unpublished novel that was started three years ago.  In front of this English teacher is a stack of essays.  Blah. Talk about an afternoon killer!  This person doesn’t want to sift through half-hearted, poorly constructed argument essays.  All this person really wants to do is curl up on the couch, pet multiple cats, drink wine, and spend a sob-filled evening thumbing through the pages of Pride and Prejudice whilst conversing with the ghost of Jane Austen. So, to save time, many English teachers from the eighth grade all the way up to high school (and sometimes beyond) force students to write in the five-paragraph essay format.  This means that students have a thesis statement clearly marked (as I have done mine).  The thesis must be placed in the last sentences of the introduction.  It should also map out the three main points that the essay will discuss.  For example, a student might say, “Apples are different from oranges due to their color, shape, and taste.”  That later part of the thesis is known as an essay map; it prevents hapless readers from getting lost along the way because – God forbid – we don’t want to be surprised by what we find in the third paragraph.  After the essay has been crafted and all of the rules have been followed, a teacher can quickly scan through a student’s introduction, ignoring much of the content, and head straight to the thesis.  From there, the lazy teacher will peruse the body paragraphs, noting grammatical errors or placing enigmatic checkmarks to signify satisfaction; it all depends on how ambitious our pedagogical friend is feeling.  For the most part, the lazy instructor does not make many comments about the ideas expressed, but is more interested in how many sentences per paragraph the student has created.  If there are less than thirteen sentences, the teacher will take out his trusty red pen and mark: “Underdeveloped.”  A fellow student from my high school days once showed me a paragraph he wrote about holding his grandfather’s hand while the poor old man passed away, finally giving into the ravages of Alzheimer’s.  The paper was spotted with the author’s dried tears, and my fellow student had crafted nine eloquent, emotionally profound sentences.  However, the instructor’s comments simply read: “Needs at least twelve sentences.”  If the Gettysburg Address had been composed in today’s classroom, a lazy teacher would have counted the number of sentences and, finding only ten, would have given Abe Lincoln a C-minus.  In short, these lazy instructors of which I speak demand the five-paragraph format so they can evaluate not the student’s writing or critically thinking skills; instead, the teacher can determine whether or not the student has followed the rules.  Are there five paragraphs?  Are there between thirteen and eighteen sentences?  Is the thesis statement repeated in the conclusion?  If so, the lazy English teacher can glance over the words, offer no other commentary than a B-plus at the top of the page, and at long last return to sipping a bittersweet cabernet whilst getting misty over Mansfield Park.
            Secondly, five-paragraph essays burden the writer (and the weary reader) with an overbearing, formalistic style.  For example, the previous sentence has already been stated in the introduction, yet many proponents of the five-paragraph prison insist upon topic sentences that repeat components from the thesis and its essay map, as if the reader might forget the underlined, italicized, bronzed and emboldened thesis statement.  In addition, the overly formalistic style of the five-paragraph essay is repetitive.  In addition, the overly formalistic style of the five-paragraph essay is repetitive.  Moreover, you may have noticed that every sentence within this paragraph begins with a transitional word or phrase.  Consequently, five-paragraph sycophants insist that every idea would be lost if it not be guided by big, pompous words that are usually originated from several smaller words all squished together.  Nevertheless, they are idiots.  Furthermore, excessive transitional phrases should be reserved for those who wish to sound intellectual, to shame those with limited lexicons, and to score at the philosophy department’s Christmas-Doesn’t-Exist party.  Subsequently, transitions can become tedious and meaningless.  Indeedibly, I just made that word up to see if you were still paying attention. In conclusion, all cookie-cutter paragraphs end by restating the same idea expressed in the topic sentence, and in this case I am required to inform you that five-paragraph essays burden the writer with… yawn… oh, you get the idea…
            Now, it is my sacred duty to announce, once again, that the five-paragraph essay format limits students’ self-expression.  And it really, truly does.  See that previous sentence?  It began with the word “AND,” which is a no-no among the inner circle of the wretched five-paragraph essay worshippers.  They would contend that “AND” should never be used to begin a sentence.  However, if you were to peruse the Holy Bible, you would find hundreds of sentences starting with our friendly little conjunction.  Just look on the first page, you’ll find: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen. 3-1). Look on the last page of Revelation (the creepy part of the Bible) and you’ll see: “And let him who hears say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 17-2).  Clearly, these five-paragraph promoters must be Satanists.  And it’s not just “AND.”  There are many other little restrictions within this highly structured style.  Suppose a student wants to write in fragments.  Suppose a student wants to write in fragments.  To create a dramatic effect.  To provide a pause amid the onslaught of prose.  To reflect.  To simply breathe.  Sigh.  Such fragments as these are forbidden in this dungeon known as the five-paragraph essay.  Sorry.  And another thing that bugs me… These English instructors don’t want writers to begin sentences with the word “because.”  Why?  Because they said so.  And because they wish to promote technical obedience, laying to the wayside a student’s ability to freely express herself.  Such petty grievances issued forth from our lazy, demonic English teachers cause young writers to lose faith in their creative ability.  Students believe they will never find their writer’s voice, and very likely they won’t if they are forced to follow the rules, which urge the soulless cookie-cutter structure.  Public schools perform literary abortions each day, preventing the births of future Emersons, Coleridges, Shaws and Shakespeares.  These men were brilliant writers who would have been strangled by a five-paragraph essay and its contraptions.  Heck, those giants of literature didn’t even spell things correctly!  Writing is self-expression.  It is the solidification of thought.  It is an art-form, and thereby should be equated with freedom.  We writers, be we students, amateurs, or professionals, should defy rules.  We should pay little attention to the demands of the prescribed five-paragraph essay format, nor should we fixate ourselves with grammar, nor should we worry so much about spellling. 
            In conclusion, the conclusion of this essay will repeat what has been said in the thesis.  Most lazy, Bible-hating, alcoholic, cat-obsessed English teachers will probably make students repeat the thesis word for word, thus making the essay all the more redundant, boring, and redundant.  Yet, to be fair to my opponents, I should concede that… Oh wait…. I just rechecked my thesis statement.  I was supposed to write about how this form does not “allow a student to discuss more than three points.”  However, since I am now in my concluding paragraph and having used up my mandatory three body paragraphs, I don’t have enough room to make my last brilliant point!  There!  See how these five-paragraph essays suck?


  1. I agree that writing standards don't give an opportunity for students to write in a full manner. They are limited to a few paragraphs and that's all. When I want to correct my paragraph , it can be hard as I need to be careful and don't write more than 5 paragraphs in order to be well-estimated. However, standards are in need because professionals must have criteria to assess this or that work.