A Proud Supporter of the Five-Paragraph Essay (or at least logical organization) by Kenzie Page

posted Mar 7, 2018, 2:42 PM by Writing Center
Outlines are not for everyone. Drafting an outline prior to writing can feel restrictive to certain writers. When feeling particularly inspired or passionate, some people prefer to just begin writing their ideas, and figure out the organization later.  Some writers may use colorful maps or bubbles to organize their thoughts. Some writers prefer to start at the beginning with a hook and write chronologically, others like to craft an introduction paragraph only after the rest of the essay is complete. Some writers use notecards for planning.  While everyone has their own writing process, effective structure does not just miraculously materialize.

In grade school, most writers learn the five-paragraph essay format.  In this format, there is a three-pronged thesis statement that contains the main points or arguments of the essay.  These points then correspond to the three body paragraphs which begin with clear topic sentences.  The final paragraph is the conclusion.  While a bit elementary, this structure enables the writer to articulate and the reader to predict what each paragraph is about and how it supports the thesis.  I’m noticing that this basic foundation of a paper is being lost as people develop in their education. 

At the college level, writers can and should attempt to break free of the five-paragraph format, but clear organization is still needed.  During consultations, before reading an essay aloud, I like to have writers verbally explain what each paragraph is about.  As they speak, I jot down the main point of the paragraph and the type of supporting evidence in the margins of the paper.  Answering the q
uestion “what is this paragraph about?” proves to be surprisingly difficult for many writers, especially with lengthy research essays.  When you have a 15 page research essay on the importance of space exploration, all the paragraphs can just blur into being about space exploration.  Without clear organization, writers may find themselves at risk of repeating ideas, getting off topic, or leaving readers craving more explanation.  Sometimes the supporting evidence does not match the claim of the paragraph.  These errors can be prevented through organization prior to writing, be it outlining or otherwise. 

To be honest, I used the basic idea of the five-paragraph essay for all of my undergraduate and graduate papers and it served me well. Obviously, I did not turn in 15 page research papers that were five paragraphs, but the overall concept remains. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that directly connects to the thesis. I always create an outline before writing that contains my thesis, topic sentences, and placement of supporting evidence or quotes.  When I sit down to begin typing, I know exactly where my paper is headed. My favorite types of consultations are those where I get to brainstorm with writers and then assist in the logical organization of ideas.  Even creative pieces need structure.   When feeling stuck, sometimes reverting back to the five-paragraph format can be helpful, even if it is just a starting point.  In a world full of chaos, at least our writing should have structure.