The 5 paragraph structure is a timeless teaching and brainstorming tool to show young students how to form an essay. The first paragraph is the introduction with the classic thesis statement, while 3 middle paragraphs are the support and the fifth, final paragraph is the conclusion. Hence, the 5 paragraphs. The name is self-explanatory!
However, this outline is not meant to be used beyond high school.
Many college students and adults I tutored were all under the false impression that there is no other way to write essays. Furthermore, the 5 paragraph structure became an obstacle hindering the development of their writing potential. How did a simple technique turn into such a problem?
Introductions and conclusions do not mix
First of all, introductions and conclusions are tricky to write well. My theory is that most contemporary teachers do not understand or do not know how to correctly build either paragraph type. In this way, when they teach children or even college students, they are leading them down the wrong path. The main consequence is that these same people will never be able to ace a test with a timed writing section or move forward from composing college level essays to submitting undergraduate or graduate level academic papers. The 5 paragraph structure has specific advice for introductions and conclusions, but the results are insipid, monotonous paragraphs that weaken their parent essays.
Supporting paragraphs do’s and don’ts
Support is the heart of any essay or writing assignment: you must have a reason for the way you think or how you have drawn your conclusions. Supporting paragraphs are meant to be a direct response to and backing for the thesis statement in any essay. Whether you are taking a side in an argument or tackling an analytical prompt, you must show logical reasoning and development in each paragraph.
Remember, length is not strength
Finally, what is the necessary length for each paragraph type? This is a hard question to answer because there is unfortunately no right answer. Generally, a paragraph must have at least 4 sentences but no more than 8 sentences. Test essay rubrics differ, but I recommend that introductions and conclusions have no more than 4 to 5 sentences, while supporting paragraphs should be about 6 to 8 sentences long. Like I previously mentioned, it is better to aim for 2 supporting paragraphs at first, but they do need to be bulky, around 8 sentences long.
Do I ever recommend the 5 paragraph structure? Yes, since I also use it as a teaching tool! Again, the 5 paragraph structure is not a bad method, but it has flaws. Teachers use it to guide students through essay writing, but no one can rely on this structure forever. Critical writing is the stellar technique you need to use after you have mastered the 5 paragraph structure. You don’t write more than you need to express yourself, and you evaluate your thoughts to form succinct, clear sentences that build strong, interrelated paragraphs.
Some final pointers:
- Write the way you think, not how you speak. The latter works great in creative writing, but not in academic writing. You must consider your audience to use the right tone (formal or informal) in your essay. Essays are generally formal and academic in tone. Focus on translating your thoughts into words, not monologue. Would you ever talk the way you write? Likewise, you cannot write like you talk.
- The cardinal rule of all essays is to never, ever use the word “you.” Essays cannot directly address their audiences. You are not writing an article, blog entry, or advertisement when direct connection with your audience is necessary to be persuasive. Essays only use first person (I, we, my, our, us, me, mine, ours) or third person (he/she/it, his/hers/its, him/her/it, they, theirs, them) POV, i.e. point of view. Even so, first person is only used if a prompt poses a personal question or requires a personal response.
- Aim for strong sentences that “show” and do not “tell” your audience what happens. This is harder to do in argumentative and analytical essays, which mostly have statements. However, I recommend that you always start a sentence with the actual subject, use a precise verb (avoid “is,” “do,” “have,” and horror of horrors, “get”) that means exactly what you want to describe, colorful adjectives, and a minimum of adverbs (none at all if possible). Complex, compound, and compound-complex sentences show your skills as a writer, but remember to vary your sentence length and use short, simple sentences as well. Do not use weak setups like “there is/are,” “it is,” “this is,” or “these are.” Avoid common phrases like “very,” “fun,” and “a lot [of],” all which weaken your writing.
- Transition words are so important. Most of us think of fancy words like “however” and “moreover,” but simple conjunctions like “while” and “since” can also work brilliantly to make the reader keep reading your writing. See a full list.
“My first experience with Natalie went well! She assessed my writing and gave me points to work on. I shared with her my goals and I appreciate her patience and quick assessment of my opportunities to improve my writing. I look forward to working with Natalie.”— Kim, 4 lessons with Natalie