Five-paragraph essays are like training wheels. They show you the basics and help you get your feet wet, but eventually, they’re supposed to come off. Toss this formulaic approach to writing out the window with five awesome alternatives to the five-paragraph essay.
Think back to the first major piece of writing you did in junior high or high school. It probably involved reading a piece of literature and answering a question about it, right? Something like this?
- Who (or what) is most responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths?
- What final lesson does Scout learn about people in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Or even this?
- Which character is the protagonist in The Outsiders?
Do you remember what you had to do next? Most likely, you had to come up with an answer to the question – a thesis statement. Then you needed three specific points to back up your thesis, each one set for development in a separate body paragraph. You’d sandwich the body paragraphs between an introduction and a conclusion, ending up with the following format:
- Say what you are going to say
- Say it
- Remind everyone what you said by saying it again
I know I wrote tons of these. I taught them, too, for years. It’s the good old five-paragraph essay, the most basic organizational format for expressing an idea. It’s also highly popular, given it’s logical, plug-and-play model. Teachers see its objective structure as the perfect venue for teaching critical thinking and evaluating a student’s grasp of a topic.
Except it isn’t.
Not at all.
One of the biggest shocks of my professional career came two years into my graduate studies. I had been in the classroom for some time and had developed into a pretty solid writing teacher, proudly using the five paragraph format as the basis for my writing program. Imagine my surprise when Don Galleher, founding director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, followed my acceptance into the program with the bombshell that virtually every incoming freshman required remedial writing courses. Even those who had taken Advanced Placement courses.
Let that sink in for a minute. AP students who had passed the exam with threes, fours, and fives were ending up in remedial writing courses.
Because they couldn’t establish a nuanced thesis.
They couldn’t explain the how or the why of their topic.
They couldn’t evaluate a topic from multiples angles, consider gray areas, or make connections between ideas.
What could they do? They could say what there were going to say, say it, and then say it again.
Really darn well.
I don’t blame the teachers, and I don’t blame the schools. But I do point a finger at the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay, a structure that, while it has its place as a tool for training beginning writers, has become the main attraction in the field of writing instruction.
It’s an easy way to teach writing. But the five-paragraph format doesn’t make room for a writer’s critical thinking skills. It bogs the ideas into a repetitive, unimaginative mess. And like anything that’s repetitive, the more a writer churns out these cookie cutter pieces, the more comfortable it is to stay in that mode.
Writing isn’t about comfort. Writing is about creation. That’s why this page links to five separate written alternatives for the five-paragraph essay. Click on the essay type below, and you’ll get an explanation of what it is, what you can do with it, and how it will benefit the writer, the reader, and the ideas clamoring for expression. Each page contains a link to a printable handout with the nuts and bolts of the essay type. Download them, print them, and keep them on hand for quick, easy access.
5 Alternatives to the Five-Paragraph Essay
Looking for more inspiration for your writing toolbox? Read on: