Let’s Send Five Paragraph Essays to a Better Place

During my drive time musing the other morning I imagined loading a Viking long boat full of five paragraph argumentative essays, setting them ablaze, and casting them off to the Nine Realms of the Norse Afterlife.

You know the essays I’m talking about, they follow THE STRUCTURE: A one paragraph introduction that says what the author is going to say, a three paragraph body that says it, and a one paragraph conclusion that says what’s been said. Each paragraph has a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence transitioning to the next paragraph.

But I say that no real writer really writes like that. For evidence I looked to authors who know a thing or two about argumentative writing – like Pulitzer Prize winning columnists – and found pieces by recent winners Kathleen ParkerDavid LionhardtMary SchmichBret Stephens, and Stephen Henderson. Their essays were, respectively, 22, 26, 30, 16, and 22 paragraphs long. They make up for lots of paragraphs by making them short. Two or three sentences were the most common. All have at least one (and most have multiple) one sentence paragraphs, and Schmich even has multiple one word paragraphs.

I’m not kidding.

It’s true.

Really.

Now I’ve heard fine teachers say they start out teaching THE STRUCTURE. Then, when students have mastered THE STRUCTURE, they give them more freedom. But there are problems with this line of reasoning.

First, a point everyone agrees on is that authors must be mindful of their audience. But what audience is receptive to THE STRUCTURE? Certainly not anyone in a hurry. Certainly not anyone who reads for pleasure. And most certainly not anyone you’re trying to persuade that the cafeteria should serve your favorite food.

Moreover, it’s backwards to teach the structure, then give the freedom. Architects play with blocks as kids before they design buildings as professionals. A parent once told me she got so frustrated at her kid for always taking appliances apart. But engineers have told me that’s exactly what they did before they built rockets for Raytheon.

So, what would be an equivalent opportunity for a young writer? It matters to me because right now in my engineering classes we’re doing the only focused reading and writing assignments that we do this semester.

I thought I had a good answer last year. In class we read and analyzed The Top 10 Ways To Screw-up Your Engineering Career by Jim Anderson. We discussed how his short paragraphs with bold headings made it easier to quickly write, read, and skim to find what parts you were interested in. I showed other examples to demonstrate that this was a common structure used by real writers. Then students wrote their own essays following this REAL WRITER STRUCTURE.

Results were ok, but my instructions read like a recipe. Whereas, I think the REAL WRITER STRUCTURE is much more authentic than THE STRUCTURE, it’s still too much like telling an architect to build buildings in order to learn how to play with blocks. So this semester as we started working on the same activity, I felt some hypocrisy emerge between the gripes.

Then driving in Thursday morning, I hit on something. I could go even smaller and still maintain an authentic professional writing exercise by having students write a tweet (along with a hashtag) for each of Anderson’s ways to screw-up their careers. (For fun, I’d also have them write six-word stories about ways to sink their futures.)

A digression – Is there a word for having an idea that feels original, but as you develop it, you sense you’ve heard it before? I started feeling that and a Google search for “alternatives to essays” turned up lots of articles, but most are about other types of essays or differently structured argumentative essays. Anyway, I can’t claim that argumentative tweets and six-word stories as argumentative writing assignments are original and would love to hear about any related resources.

Regardless, my classes attempted this Thursday, and it wasn’t as easy for the students as I thought it would be. So Friday I throttled back and had them just write an appropriate hashtag for each of Anderson’s ways to screw-up your career or education. Plus, I let them write their six-word stories about anything at school or work that led to failure or success. Then, time permitting, I encouraged them to complete the tweet.

Results were much more promising. Most their tweets showed they understood Anderson’s content. They revealed plenty of humor in their six-word stories; additionally, it was great fun watching them count their words on their fingers. One student used the same hashtag, something like #careerfail, everytime, showing she got the point of hashtags better than I did.

Now all that was formative – next comes the summative assessment, and I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime, driving home the other night I waved good-bye to the fading embers of the Viking long boat full of the ashes of five paragraph argumentative essays.

Good riddance.

 

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  • ReneeMoore

    The Debate Rages

    Sandy,

    The topic of whether the 5-paragraph essay model is helpful or harmful has been under hot debate among writing/English teachers for at least 25 years—and it still rages. There are those middle and high school teachers who are convinced that the 5P model is the best and only way to prepare students for college writing, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of college writing instructors detest the 5P model and have to spend an extraordinary amount of energy prying students away from it. It doesn’t help the the 5P model (or its evil sibling the 3P model) is what some state high school writing tests require.

    As you can tell, I’m not a fan of the method either. The argument that it is necessary to teach the 5P model first as a scaffold or structure is a fallacy, and it comes from the same place that says students must master grammar rules first, before they can be expected to or even allowed to attempt real writing. It’s the engagement in writing to an audience that drives the need to learn how to manage the grammar and how to make one’s writing understood.

    Of course, among ELA types, we’re still arguing over what counts as a grammar rule and when those should change. There was a pitched battle on the NCTE community forum for a month over modern use of pronouns.

    Some of these rules and battles, however, are more about cultural compliance and control than about how language really works or about how to develop strong writers. 

    • SandyMerz

      Examples all over

      I really hoped you would comment, Renee. Thanks. I knew I’d learn a lot.

      I almost added a paragraph about how different writing structures are discovered along with new tools, audiences, and needs, and I think architecture and engineering are pretty good analogies for writing. 

      It’s funny how surprised I was to see the kids creating a “story” and trying to get it into six-words and asking for help and trying to turn a phrase differently to make it fit. I gave them a lot of direct coaching – more than I would in, say, math where I would normally ask leading questions. They’re just not use to turning words over in their heads and seeing what difference adding or deleting an article or preposition can make. But when they got one, with or without my help, they lit up. 

      Oh, the rules of grammar. I remember arguing with a colleague this summer about one sentences paragraphs. He would have none of it. It was the rule – you can’t have them. The argument started when he criticized the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence because it was one sentence. 

      When I have a question about a rule, I do look it up, but I also pay close attention to what real writers do. It’s kind of off the subject, but I recently read The Cartel by Don Winslow. It’s beautifully written and he does something I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do. In some chapters, or even paragraphs, when he’s writing about a particular character, even in the third person, he’ll make subtle errors in grammar common to the character’s Texan origin. I’ve seen it done more overtly before, but Winslow was so smooth with it.

      Get this in Savages and The Kings of Cool, Winslow will break single sentences in to two paragraphs. It’s jarring but it works. (Our friend Kris Kohl is also a big Winslow fan.)

      I’m rambling now, but I find writng about writing a great deal of fun. So I’ll let it go with one more recommendation – Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is a super book in which the authors talk about how they’ve worked as a writer/editor team for years. It also includes a super style guide at the end.

      Thanks again, Renee.

       

       

  • BobbyDixon

    The End Of Five Paragraphs

    I truly understand what you are saying about those dreaded five paragraph format. It is quite a problem for many, but I guess we could see it like this when we learned to write our letters in the alphabet we had a certain way to make each stroke for each letter. After we learned to write we developed our own style of writing. Could this also be possible of those who write books, articles, stories, arguments, and etc.

  • LaurieSimpson

    Essay no more?

    Sandy:
     
    To your point about five-paragraph essays, I’m concerned that superficial arguments against the five-paragraph essay are dismissing the value of planning and asserting a robust idea and then crafting a discussion of this idea in writing by supporting it with well-organized examples and coherent reasoning.
     
    Essay means “an attempt.” For my students, I think it means an attempt at exploring and figuring out what they think as they encounter new and complex ideas or texts. Sometimes the purpose is to explain what they’ve observed, and other times it’s to persuade someone to agree with their point of view.
     
    Even if I don’t force my students into a 5-paragraph structure, and I do not, I still see the value in developing a central idea, i.e., thesis, over several paragraphs with examples and reasoning to support this idea. When I ask students to write a literary analysis, they are explicating a central idea in response to something they’ve read. In the case of literary analysis, the text provides the “data”; in other content areas, there are different data. 
     
     
    Regardless of the content, academic writers will have to provide sub-points to support their central idea, so they will likely develop their insights over several paragraphs. This is an important skill: To sustain an idea and sell it. They also need to engage their reader (intro), apprise their reader of what they’ll be reading (topic in the intro), let their reader know their perspective (thesis) and when they are finished explicating, leave the discussion with some thought-provoking closure (conclusion).
     
    Maybe I read this the wrong way, but I am concerned that a 6-word memoir or a tweet is presented as an alternative to developing and crafting a robust idea. The former is just summary, and the latter is a more profound “attempt” at fully articulating what student writers observe, think, or feel.
     
    On another note: The six-word summary is a nod to Hemingway’s six-word memoir: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
     
    Thank you for sharing your experience as a teacher and for starting the conversation.