I assume most of you have, at some point, learned how to write the 5-paragraph essay. If you haven’t…well, here’s how. For the rest of you, this is just a refresher, but with some helpful hints thrown in.
I really wish I’d written this up years ago (like, right after my junior year in high school), because I’ve been surprised how many people have found this information useful. Just last month I was helping Trish prepare for the GRE and I was trying to throw together a quick lesson on how to write a 5-paragraph essay, with examples (we used the questions from her practice exam as the examples).
It boils down to this: an essay is a medium for expressing an idea, with supporting arguments. The whole point of having a pre-defined thing called “essay” is to establish a framework in which to express your ideas. The structure of an essay should not be an artistic expression — that’s not the point. In other words, don’t bring your e e cummings nonsense here.
In fact, the entire value of the essay is that you already know its shape, so you don’t have to waste time and energy on that. Instead, you can focus on filling in the pieces to make your idea available. In graduate school, this shows up in the paper structures, where every single table of contents (and, yes, the papers have tables of contents) looks the same, the only difference being the actual titles of the chapters.
The simplest (practical) form of the structured academic essay is the 5-paragraph essay. When you see an essay question on a test, this is the safest way to answer it. Particularly any of those esteemed tests that come from the College Board, like the ACT, SAT, GRE, PSAT and et cetera.
So! How to write a 5-paragraph essay? The structure is, as I said, pre-defined. It looks like this:
I. Introduction – this paragraph should be 5-6 sentences in length, including the following:
A. Theme statement – what is the paper about?
B. Illustrative or example sentence – clarifying the idea you mentioned in A.
C. Argument 1 – a brief argumentative statement about the topic
D. Argument 2 – a brief argumentative statement about the topic
E. Argument 3 – a brief argumentative statement about the topic
F. Thesis statement – an arguable claim that you will defend, concerning the topic. The arguments from C, D, and E should, combined, prove F.
II. First argument – this paragraph should be 4-6 sentences in length, and present an idea that helps prove your thesis. Examine the sentences carefully, and make sure that each one leads into the next and, most importantly, that all of them combined work as a single argument supporting your thesis.
III. Second argument – same as II.
IV. Third argument – same as II.
V. Conclusion – this paragraph should be 4-7 sentences in length, and it should point out how the last three paragraphs proved your thesis. It might look something like this:
A. Restatement of thesis, using language established during the essay.
B. Statement of how the point from paragraph II supports that thesis.
C. Statement of how the point from paragraph III supports that thesis.
D. Statement of how the point from paragraph IV supports that thesis.
E. How these things tie to together.
F. Forward-looking statement, either examining what this proven thesis means (that is, how will it affect human behavior), or possibly suggesting what future research needs to be done on the topic.
So, there’s the basic structure that you probably all know. I’ve added several helpful tips on how to make that happen, in the comments for this thread. I’m also adding outlines for the 5-paragraph essays I posted over the last week.