Stop Using the 5 Paragraph Structure

5 paragraph structure example

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.

Except for certain tests, introductory paragraphs must introduce the essay topic, lead into the main argument and present the thesis in a smooth flow of sentences. Similarly, concluding paragraphs must end the discussion, but an ending is never the same as the beginning. Conclusions cannot summarize the essay’s main points or restate the thesis statement! This is a major mistake and flaw in the 5 paragraph structure. A conclusion transitions from the final supporting paragraph and is Point B to the thesis’s Point A. It answers the question “What’s next?” and makes a prediction or offers a solution. You cannot repeat or paraphrase any statements you have already made in previous paragraphs; while a conclusion does “hook” back to the thesis and still has to be on topic, it is meant is wrap up the essay and answer any indirect question(s) in the thesis statement – in a meaningful, original way.


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.

Being descriptive and non-repetitive counts, too! Think of each paragraph as a boat, with the sentences as cargo items. Every sentence must add to the development of a paragraph and hold its weight. If not, that sentence should be thrown off the boat! Also, the supporting paragraphs must relate to each other, so using transition words correctly is important to keep the paragraph organization smooth and connected.
What about the number of paragraphs, you ask? Should there be 3 paragraphs? The answer is no! If you create 2 strong supporting paragraphs, that can be sufficient. More on that next!


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.

Is it easier to have 3 shorter paragraphs than 2 long paragraphs? That choice depends on the strength of your supporting reasons. When people use the 5 paragraph structure, their third supporting reason is usually the weakest and shows that they have “run out” of support for their thesis. Therefore, the third paragraph is clearly weaker than its predecessors and falls flat. Most of the time, my students tend to repeat themselves in that third paragraph, sharing more evidence for their two other supporting reasons but no new support. We decide to cut up that paragraph and distribute those sentences to the paragraphs they truly belong to. However, if you have 3 distinct supporting reasons, you can indeed have 3 supporting paragraphs.
On timed essays for tests, it is better to aim for 2 paragraphs because you save time on brainstorming and craft a much stronger rough draft. During any leftover time for editing, you can still insert a third paragraph if it fits well and makes sense. Don’t waste time on that 3rd paragraph for an outline’s sake! You will defeat the purpose of the timed essay(s), which is to show that you can write a college-level essay. Length does not determine how well you write. Instead, it can work against you and show that you are running in circles with nothing new to say.

Conclusion time

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.

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“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

Published by Natalie Gorna

Bookworm, artist, musician. Dreamer and cynic. Writing is my everything.

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