Writing Workshop: The 5-Paragraph Essay

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.

6 Replies to “Writing Workshop: The 5-Paragraph Essay”

  1. Open the essay with the phrase “One of the most….”

    This is probably the most helpful tip I have to give. If you look at the three essays I wrote over the last week, every one of them begins with those four words. Now, partly that was because I’ve been planning all along to write this article, and I wanted to make the example. But, if you went back and found all of the tests I took in College, and skimmed through all of the essay sections on all of those tests, I imagine 95-99% of them start with the phrase “One of the most.”

    This phrase serves several purposes. For one, having a starting point helps you…start. This way, you’re not starting by staring at a completely blank piece of paper. Instead, you’re starting with a very provocative opener that just begs to be finished.

    Second, it forces you to find an aspect of the essay topic to focus on. You can’t write a 5-paragraph essay on Abortion. You can write an essay on the fact that, “One of the most controversial aspects of abortion is the government’s role in…it.” I dunno, that’s an example I just grabbed. But whenever you decide to write about an Idea, you need to boil it down to just a thing before you can make it into an essay. “One of the most” forces you to grab some thing out of it.

    Third, it helps you choose a significant aspect of the thing. If you find yourself writing, “One of the most uninteresting things about igneous rock is that…” then you already know where you’re going wrong. If you start with, “One of the most fascinating things about igneous rock” and you know you’re lying, then you’re working in the wrong direction. This phrase helps you pick a significant aspect of the topic, and forces you to choose an adjective that explains why you think it’s significant. It doesn’t have to be “One of the most interesting” or “One of the most fascinating” or “One of the most significant,” it can be “One of the most overlooked” or “One of the most common” or “One of the most acceptable methods….” Just fill out the phrase.

    Fourth, it’s defensible. Please don’t get confused and start your essay with, “The most….” You’re gonna make a fool of yourself. “One of the most” gives you a place to start, and automatically puts you on the defensive (you have to back up your claim), but it’s going to be a claim you can back up. That’s good.

  2. Illustration or explanation

    Okay, your topic may be something that the average reader has never thought about. So if you say that your topic is fascinating because…whatever, and your reader has never thought about it, you may need to clarify a little bit. “One of the most fascinating things about insects is the number of them.” Ehh. I don’t believe you. “There are more species of insects in existence than there are any other number of countable thing.” See, that explanation suddenly points out what you’re actually saying. You make your topic out of clay in the first sentence, and then you breathe life into your topic with the second sentence.

    Another way of doing this is with an illustration. “One of the most fascinating things about insects is the number of them.” Still a dead thing, but follow it up with, “If the whole world were a football field, there would be an insect for every single blade of grass.” I dunno, something like that.

    The insect thing isn’t a good example, by the way. That’s part of my point. This structure works for whatever you’re trying to say. If you’ve got a good topic, then the structure is a lot easier to fill out. But even with something stupid like the number of insects (okay, okay, someone who actually knew what they were talking about could make a good essay on that topic, but I don’t), just filling in the pieces will make it work.

    An illustration, especially if it’s a good one, will work wonders, because you can carry it throughout the rest of your paper. If your essay is going to be comparative, stating the number of insects compared with the number of people, the different sizes of landmass, and the various climates, then in each paragraph you can say how those things fit in the illustration. Maybe people are the players on the field (far fewer than the number of blades of grass), and the landmasses are the 10-yard chunks, and the climates are, I dunno, the two endzones. If you go this route, though, please remember to continue the illustration throughout the paper. If you take it halfway and then drop it, it looks like you didn’t really think it through.

  3. Outline

    I started this post out with an outline of what your paper should look like. When I’m actually making an outline, I try to just do an A, B, C after each Roman numeral, and leave it at that. You don’t have to write an outline, as long as you can think an outline, but I find I always do better if I go ahead and write it down. I made outlines for each of the three essays I posted in the last week.

    I’m going to include those outlines in the comments of this post. You’ll notice I didn’t follow them perfectly. You don’t need to. Writing is an interactive process. When you get into the deep, dark heart of a paragraph and it’s just begging you to go right, but your outline says to go left…sometimes you can’t help but go right. You might find some really amazing ideas in that direction. Then again, if you just start to wander and get lost, it’s nice to have a written outline because then it’s really easy to backtrack and finish up the path you’d lain out in advance.

    I think that’s all for now. If I come up with more ideas, I’ll post them in comments. Please feel free to respond to this, add your own tips, whatever.

  4. Outline of “God: Interaction with the Father-King”

    Thesis: Father-King relationship establishes interaction with Man.

    I. God as King
    A. God’s authority over Creation
    B. Judaism and legalism
    C. Man’s position within Creation

    II. God as Father
    A. Man’s divine dignity
    B. God’s Providence
    C. God’s forgiveness (Man’s responsibilities)

    III. God as Father-King
    A. Man’s adoption by God
    B. Man’s promotion to Priesthood
    C. Approaching the throne (methods of worship)
    C. Man’s adoption by God

    Thesis: Father-King relationship establishes interaction with Man.

    I. God as King
    A. God’s authority over Creation
    B. Judaism and legalism
    C. Man’s position within Creation

    II. God as Father
    A. Man’s divine dignity
    B. God’s Providence
    C. God’s forgiveness (Man’s responsibilities)

    III. God as Father-King
    A. Man’s adoption by God
    B. Man’s promotion to Priesthood
    C. Approaching the throne (methods of worship)
    C. Man’s adoption by God

  5. Outline of “Government: On Self-Government”

    Thesis: Strong government causes Man’s superiority over Nature
    Central illustration: Self-control (I did make the comparison in the introduction, but I totally lost track of it in the essay — this would have been a good one, though)

    I. Societies are stronger than individuals
    A. A larger pool of resources produces more opportunities
    B. A larger pool of workers produces more productivity
    C. More points of view produce more creativity

    II. Individuals defy societies
    A. Individuals want to spend available resources on self — OR — Individuals want to spend available resources, labor, and insight on self
    B. Individuals want to work toward personal goals — OR — Greater the diversity of the society, the more selfish it will be
    C. Individuals want to express ideas, not hear opposing ideas

    III. Government must find balance
    A. Government should oversee the use of resources but protect property
    B. Government should organize the efforts of many toward society-enhancing projects
    C. Government should encourage exchange of ideas for the good of the society.

    Notes: You can see some of the confusion I ran into in Point II. Here’s the problem: I always try to come up with 3 points, and then 3 supporting ideas that will be the 3 central sentences of each of those paragraphs. It’s easy to set up a parallel structure like I did in this outline, but that doesn’t play out very well in the paper. It’s always too A, B, C, A, B, C, A, B, C. You can hear it in the cadence, and it just sounds like you misorganized.

  6. Transition Sentences

    Okay, here’s one more major tip: write transition sentences! It was the outline for Greatness that reminded me about this. Glance over that outline real fast (especially if you’ve read the essay).

    Easily my weakest point in that outline is III. It’s examples without claims, and kinda flimsy examples at that.

    When I was writing the essay, though, I wrote my topic sentence for III (which, because of the intro, was actually paragraph number 4) as a transition, highlighting ideas from II and showing how they become idea III. I think the result was, actually, a pretty powerful paragraph, because the transition gave shape to the ideas I wanted to bring up, even though the outline items only ended up as parenthetical examples within the actual paragraph.

    Here’s how to write transition sentences:
    Imagine that the whole essay is an argument you’re having with someone not-quite-as-smart-as-you.

    Every time you make a good point, that person tries to interrupt you, so you can’t ever get to your actual, real point.

    Okay, now your real point is the thesis of the paper, but he doesn’t agree with your thesis, so you come up with some supporting ideas. Those are your paragraphs.

    Each paragraph should be a whole point. Completely explain your supporting idea.

    Then, imagine that, right after you finish, your listener starts to interrupt. To stop him doing that, you speak up, quickly, and start right into your next idea. But, to make it sound like you’re not just talking over him, you create a transition to string the two ideas together.

    So you finish arguing that Man is a Creator, and your listener starts to argue, “No he isn’t,” but, to keep him from doing that, you say, essentially, “Not only is he a Creator, he’s also a Sustainer!”

    Hmm…next time you’re having an argument, pay attention to the interruptions (and the thwarted interruptions), and really listen to how interruptions are thwarted. That’s just great source material for transitions, right there.

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