Chapter 4: Structuring, Paragraphing, and Styling
A review of the five-paragraph format
Many writers will be able to detail the five-paragraph format.
- The introduction previews the entire essay.
- The thesis statement goes at the end of the introduction and describes what the three body paragraphs will be about.
- The body paragraphs discuss each topic described in the thesis statement in detail.
- There should be transitions between each body paragraph.
- The conclusion repeats key points made in the essay and could be the introduction re-worded in a different way.
These are sample answers from writers who describe what they have learned about the five-paragraph format. The five-paragraph format is a reader-friendly organizational structure that writers can rely on if they need to get information quickly and formally across to a wide audience. For instance, the five-paragraph format might be useful when writing a report to a supervisor with the purpose of explaining progress on a project. The introduction gives the most important information at the beginning and each paragraph is clearly related to one topic. The conclusion leaves the reader with a summary and a possible call to action.
Problems with the five-paragraph format
Donald Murray in his article “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product”argues writing should be taught as “…the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world” (4). However, when writers use writing to discover more about a topic, the five-paragraph format can be limiting because of the following:
- Writers usually decide on the three main body paragraphs before they start drafting.
- With three large topics to change from, writers are less likely to dig deep into a specific topic.
- Writers may use the five-paragraph format in ways that avoid detail and make their essays indistinguishable from other essays on the same topics.
For instance, a writer might want to discuss communication on social media. They decide before they start writing that their three main topics will be Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By the time they write a few details about Facebook, they move on to Instagram. There is not enough space for the writer to get into details and differentiate ideas on their topic and to describe observations, experiences, and research in depth. When writers start with three main topics, it’s also hard to find the space to teach the reader something new.
Discover with writing
Writing is an opportunity to share unique experiences with readers. If writers feel like they are not sharing anything valuable through their writing, they should reconsider their stance on the assignment or schedule a meeting with their instructor so that they can orient themselves more meaningfully to the assignment. Often, five-paragraph format writing is uninspired. Writers race to jot down what they know on three loosely related subjects so that they can finish the essay. The writer is not learning through the writing and neither is the reader. The main problem with the five-paragraph format is that it discourages writers from discovering what they could write on one focused and specific topic.
When to use the five-paragraph format
Published essays, in any genre, that use the five-paragraph organization are very rare. It might be interesting for writers to pay attention to how published material that they read on their own time is organized. Because first-year writing is a context where writers are encouraged to learn and teach through their writing, the five-paragraph format might not be the best choice for organization. However, when writers are in situations that demand them to relay information quickly, the five-paragraph format can be useful. Formulaic writing is not uninventive or inherently bad. Different genres use various kinds of formulaic writing, and it’s important for writers to adhere to conventions and pay attention to how essays are organized in the genre they are writing in.
Murray, Donald. “Teach writing as a process not product.” The Leaflet, vol.71, no.3 (1972), pp. 11-14.