What this handout is about
This handout will help you figure out what your college instructors expect when they give you a writing assignment. It will tell you how and why to move beyond the five-paragraph essays you learned to write in high school and start writing essays that are more analytical and more flexible.
What is a five-paragraph essay?
High school students are often taught to write essays using some variation of the five-paragraph model. A five-paragraph essay is hourglass-shaped: it begins with something general, narrows down in the middle to discuss specifics, and then branches out to more general comments at the end. In a classic five-paragraph essay, the first paragraph starts with a general statement and ends with a thesis statement containing three “points”; each body paragraph discusses one of those “points” in turn; and the final paragraph sums up what the student has written.
Why do high schools teach the five-paragraph model?
The five-paragraph model is a good way to learn how to write an academic essay. It’s a simplified version of academic writing that requires you to state an idea and support it with evidence. Setting a limit of five paragraphs narrows your options and forces you to master the basics of organization. Furthermore—and for many high school teachers, this is the crucial issue—many mandatory end-of-grade writing tests and college admissions exams like the SAT II writing test reward writers who follow the five-paragraph essay format.
Writing a five-paragraph essay is like riding a bicycle with training wheels; it’s a device that helps you learn. That doesn’t mean you should use it forever. Once you can write well without it, you can cast it off and never look back.
Why don’t five-paragraph essays work well for college writing?
The way college instructors teach is probably different from what you experienced in high school, and so is what they expect from you.
While high school courses tend to focus on the who, what, when, and where of the things you study—”just the facts”—college courses ask you to think about the how and the why. You can do very well in high school by studying hard and memorizing a lot of facts. Although college instructors still expect you to know the facts, they really care about how you analyze and interpret those facts and why you think those facts matter. Once you know what college instructors are looking for, you can see some of the reasons why five-paragraph essays don’t work so well for college writing:
- Five-paragraph essays often do a poor job of setting up a framework, or context, that helps the reader understand what the author is trying to say. Students learn in high school that their introduction should begin with something general. College instructors call these “dawn of time” introductions. For example, a student asked to discuss the causes of the Hundred Years War might begin, “Since the dawn of time, humankind has been plagued by war.” In a college course, the student would fare better with a more concrete sentence directly related to what he or she is going to say in the rest of the paper—for example, a sentence such as “In the early 14th century, a civil war broke out in Flanders that would soon threaten Western Europe’s balance of power.” If you are accustomed to writing vague opening lines and need them to get started, go ahead and write them, but delete them before you turn in the final draft. For more on this subject, see our handout on introductions.
- Five-paragraph essays often lack an argument. Because college courses focus on analyzing and interpreting rather than on memorizing, college instructors expect writers not only to know the facts but also to make an argument about the facts. The best five-paragraph essays may do this. However, the typical five-paragraph essay has a “listing” thesis, for example, “I will show how the Romans lost their empire in Britain and Gaul by examining military technology, religion, and politics,” rather than an argumentative one, for example, “The Romans lost their empire in Britain and Gaul because their opponents’ military technology caught up with their own at the same time as religious upheaval and political conflict were weakening the sense of common purpose on the home front.” For more on this subject, see our handout on argument.
- Five-paragraph essays are often repetitive. Writers who follow the five-paragraph model tend to repeat sentences or phrases from the introduction in topic sentences for paragraphs, rather than writing topic sentences that tie their three “points” together into a coherent argument. Repetitive writing doesn’t help to move an argument along, and it’s no fun to read.
- Five-paragraph essays often lack “flow.” Five-paragraph essays often don’t make smooth transitions from one thought to the next. The “listing” thesis statement encourages writers to treat each paragraph and its main idea as a separate entity, rather than to draw connections between paragraphs and ideas in order to develop an argument.
- Five-paragraph essays often have weak conclusions that merely summarize what’s gone before and don’t say anything new or interesting. In our handout on conclusions, we call these “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it” conclusions: they do nothing to engage readers and make them glad they read the essay. Most of us can remember an introduction and three body paragraphs without a repetitive summary at the end to help us out.
- Five-paragraph essays don’t have any counterpart in the real world. Read your favorite newspaper or magazine; look through the readings your professors assign you; listen to political speeches or sermons. Can you find anything that looks or sounds like a five-paragraph essay? One of the important skills that college can teach you, above and beyond the subject matter of any particular course, is how to communicate persuasively in any situation that comes your way. The five-paragraph essay is too rigid and simplified to fit most real-world situations.
- Perhaps most important of all: in a five-paragraph essay, form controls content, when it should be the other way around. Students begin with a plan for organization, and they force their ideas to fit it. Along the way, their perfectly good ideas get mangled or lost.
How do I break out of writing five-paragraph essays?
Let’s take an example based on our handout on thesis statements. Suppose you’re taking a course on contemporary communication, and the professor asks you to write a paper on this topic:
Discuss the impact of social media on public awareness.
Thanks to your familiarity with the five paragraph essay structure and with the themes of your course, you are able to quickly write an introductory paragraph:
Social media allows the sharing of information through online networks among social connections. Everyone uses social media in our modern world for a variety of purposes: to learn about the news, keep up with friends, and even network for jobs. Social media cannot help but affect public awareness. In this essay, I will discuss the impact of social media on public awareness of political campaigns, public health initiatives, and current events.
Now you have something on paper. But you realize that this introduction sticks too close to the five-paragraph essay structure. The introduction starts too broadly by taking a step back and defining social media in general terms. Then it moves on to restate the prompt without quite addressing it: while it’s reasserted that there is an impact, the impact is not actually discussed. And the final sentence, instead of presenting an argument, only lists topics in sequence. You are prepared to write a paragraph on political campaigns, a paragraph on public health initiatives, and a paragraph on current events, but you aren’t sure what your point will be.
So you start again. Instead of trying to come up with something to say about each of three points, you brainstorm until you come up with a main argument, or thesis, about the impact of social media on public awareness. You think about how easy it is to share information on social media, as well as about how difficult it can be to discern more from less reliable information. As you brainstorm the effects of social media on public awareness in connection to political campaigns specifically, you realize you have enough to say about this topic without discussing two additional topics. You draft your thesis statement:
Because not every voice on social media is reliable, people have become much more critical consumers of information, and thus, more informed voters.
Next you think about your argument’s parts and how they fit together. You read the Writing Center’s handout on organization. You decide that you’ll begin by addressing the counterargument that misinformation on social media has led to a less informed public. Addressing the counterargument point-by-point helps you articulate your evidence. You find it ends up taking more than one paragraph to discuss the strategies people use to compare and evaluate information as well as the evidence that people end up more informed as a result.
You notice that you now have four body paragraphs. You might have had three or two or seven; what’s important is that you allowed your argument to determine how many paragraphs would be needed and how they should fit together. Furthermore, your body paragraphs don’t each discuss separate topics, like “political campaigns” and “public health.” Instead they support different points in your argument. This is also a good moment to return to your introduction and revise it to focus more narrowly on introducing the argument presented in the body paragraphs in your paper.
Finally, after sketching your outline and writing your paper, you turn to writing a conclusion. From the Writing Center handout on conclusions, you learn that a “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it” conclusion doesn’t move your ideas forward. Applying the strategies you find in the handout, you may decide that you can use your conclusion to explain why the paper you’ve just written really matters.
Is it ever OK to write a five-paragraph essay?
Yes. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where somebody expects you to make sense of a large body of information on the spot and write a well-organized, persuasive essay—in fifty minutes or less? Sounds like an essay exam situation, right? When time is short and the pressure is on, falling back on the good old five-paragraph essay can save you time and give you confidence. A five-paragraph essay might also work as the framework for a short speech. Try not to fall into the trap, however, of creating a “listing” thesis statement when your instructor expects an argument; when planning your body paragraphs, think about three components of an argument, rather than three “points” to discuss. On the other hand, most professors recognize the constraints of writing blue-book essays, and a “listing” thesis is probably better than no thesis at all.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Blue, Tina. 2001. “AP English Blather.” Essay, I Say (blog), January 26, 2001. http://essayisay.homestead.com/blather.html.
Blue, Tina. 2001. “A Partial Defense of the Five-Paragraph Theme as a Model for Student Writing.” Essay, I Say (blog), January 13, 2001. http://essayisay.homestead.com/fiveparagraphs.html.
Denecker, Christine. 2013. “Transitioning Writers across the Composition Threshold: What We Can Learn from Dual Enrollment Partnerships.” Composition Studies 41 (1): 27-50.
Fanetti, Susan et al. 2010. “Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations.” The English Journal 99 (4): 77-83.
Hillocks, George. 2002. The Testing Trap: How State Assessments Control Learning. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
Hjortshoj, Keith. 2009. The Transition to College Writing, 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St Martin’s.
Shen, Andrea. 2000. “Study Looks at Role of Writing in Learning.” Harvard Gazette (blog). October 26, 2000. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2000/10/study-looks-at-role-of-writing-in-learning/.
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