It wasn’t until the end of college that I realized essays could have ten paragraphs. Before then, if a paper had any more (or less) than five, it wasn’t a paper. It was a draft.
For you see, the five-paragraph essay wasn’t something I learned. It was something I mastered.
After all, I followed the well-taught formula the way I did with a math problem. Intro + body paragraphs + a conclusion. Make sure your thesis is at the end of your introduction and that you don’t introduce any new points in your last one.
So when an education professor told us to throw it all out, I sat there confused. What did he mean? Did he just want six paragraphs instead of five?
Dr. Carthen took us on a genre-writing adventure and we looked at blogs, journals, newspapers, and emails. There were scholarly articles, Facebook announcements, and even published books. But none of them—not one—featured the five-paragraph essay.
We blinked as if our entire K-12 educational experience was a lie. Because if nobody ever wrote five-paragraph essays after college, why had they dominated writing workshops? Why had we learned them at all?
The answer: standardized testing. Since the ACT, SAT, and AP writing exams are tailored to the five-paragraph rubric style, it’s what teachers teach. It’s what students learn. And not just because colleges require it but because scholarships do. Scholarships that students really, really need.
So during my small time in the classroom, I tried my best to walk the line. I taught the five-paragraph essay. I taught them how to master it as many teachers did with me. But I also tried to show them what Dr. Carthen revealed to me:
The five-paragraph essay is not the father of writing. He’s not the only writing format out there. And figuring out how many sentences a conclusion should have is not a crucial writing question.
Real Writing Questions
Just yesterday, a friend sent me something for editing. She’s beginning to find her writer’s confidence and is thinking about starting a blog. But before I gave her all my feedback, she asked, “Is it okay that this has contractions?”
I wanted to laugh—but I needn’t dare. Not when she truly meant this question. It was just a perfect example of how the five-paragraph essay has warped our perceptions of writing. We think all paragraphs have to have 6-8 sentences. That they should never include fragments. And that they shouldn’t start with a FANBOY.
However, a good writer takes a look at purpose and audience then decides how best to story-tell. “Should this message be delivered to other scholars in a formal journal?” or “Maybe it’s more of an informal message geared toward a younger audience needing pictures and hyperlinks!”
After all, sometimes, writing ends with more questions and has an inferred thesis. Sometimes, writing needs pictures or a 3rd-person point-of-view. And sometimes, writing only needs five paragraphs.
Writing is as diverse as text messages and Sunday church pamphlets. Each has its own audience, structure, and writing rules. But a good writer selects the format that best supports the content—not the other way around.
Featured Image by Tim Gouw