The 5 Paragraph Essay

by Lou Stone Borenstein



    If you are a high school graduate, or even an attentive dropout, you will remember being taught numerous things that seemed like they would never be useful to you.  One of those things was the 5-paragraph essay, and you were completely right.  You were taught to use the same exact structure for essays ranging in subject from the Civil War to the War of the Worlds, from War and Peace to the Pax Romana, from Romanian architecture to Hungarian rhapsodies.  The 5-paragraph essay is not an effective format for making a convincing argument.  It’s major advantage is its ease of use, resembling paperwork easier to fill out than the simplest tax form, and just as fun.  Yet its real world applications are nonexistent and using the same techniques in everyday life can leave you hurt, dead, or worse, lonely.  The ubiquity of the recognizable format will only reveal you as an unimaginative presenter and will discredit your unimaginative presentation.

    There is admittedly at least one good thing about the 5-paragraph essay.  It is considerably easy to learn, use, and reuse, over and over and over again, regardless of the content.  It’s like the TurboTax of argument.  You simply plug in your thesis and strongest arguments into the appropriate lines, surround it with a lot of filler, and conclude the piece by flat out repeating everything you’ve already said (in different words, so as to make it seem academic).  A popular variation of the format calls for a concessionary paragraph, which supposedly strengthens your argument by initially supporting the counterargument.  It’s like giving your golf opponents a handicap.  It’s a polite way of immediately saying you’re better than them.

Given that its simplicity is the only virtue of the 5-paragraph essay, its uselessness should already be evident.  In case that is not yet true, consider that mastering this format will be of no help in the real world.  If you are facing a bully who is about to beat you up, you won’t find it a useful strategy to offer one reason why he should beat you up, but two better reasons why he shouldn’t.  Bullies feed off of reasons they shouldn’t do things, and feed even more off of reasons they should.  If you find yourself in the precarious position of having to talk a friend out of suicide, an argument that lasts any longer than one paragraph, whether written or spoken, will always be at least one paragraph too long.  Suicidal people are known to be selfish, leaving verbose notes behind but only willing to listen to so much “talking down” from others.  When trying to convince a potential suitor that he or she should go on a date with you, you’ll discover that nothing is less sexy than a person who belabors his or her point.  Stop at your thesis.  And don’t use the word “thesis.”

    Whether or not you use the word “thesis” at any point, the 5-paragraph essay format will be as recognized as Mickey Mouse in Japan.  Adults may cling to it, but it will always remain childish.  Being brought back to your childhood is often a pleasant experience, but when it’s used to manipulate your perceptions of the world, it often ends in costly therapy bills.  So a childish format is one that won’t be taken seriously.  If you could mask a childish format in an adult presentation, like a prime-time cartoon sitcom, you may get away with it.  But this particular type of essay is too recognizable, so don’t even try.

    There’s no denying the ubiquity of the 5-paragraph essay, but ubiquity is often the result of cheap labor.  Those seeking to make a convincing argument should consider alternatives to the 5-paragraph essay.  The format is desirable in its elegant simplicity, including its redundant conclusion and conclusive redundancy.  However, this elegance disappears quickly when applied to real world scenarios, in which both physical and emotional pain are very sick-day-inducing consequences.  The elegance also disappears once recognized as a formula that strengthens one’s turnaround time, but only weakens one’s thesis.



    If you spent any time in high school, you’ll probably agree that few things still seem relevant, and a lot of those things were never even on the test.  Whether you passed the test or passed on studying for the test, the 5-paragraph essay is one of those relevant things.  The format can be used to discuss an endless range of topics, from the American Revolution to Dance Dance Revolution, from Dances with Wolves to X-Men’s Wolverine, from the pitfalls of technology to the advantages of tech knowledge.  The 5-paragraph essay is the most effective format for making a convincing argument.  The structure may seem dubious at first, since it so often utilizes a concessionary first paragraph, as if to say that you have no idea what you’re talking about before you even start talking about it.  Yet the two stronger paragraphs that follow relate to real world perceptions that having two or three examples is solid evidence of a coherent case.  When these examples are framed within such a recognizable structure, they are only further amplified, for no focus will be diverted because you got all creative.

    Many 5-paragraph essays begin their body with a concessionary paragraph, in an attempt to present the counterargument and then show its weakness, like a subliminal attack ad without the flash of television.  This is a tenuous method that falls apart when put into the reality of places like, say, the real world.  You would never enter a verbal argument by going straight to why you’re wrong in the hopes of winning back your adversaries.  Sure, Superman can be brought down by one easily attainable substance found on the same planet he was sent to, but -- too late.  Yes, the Bobcats have the losingest record in all of major sports, but -- too late.  Okay, maybe I haven’t at all studied the subject I’m about to discuss, but -- too late.  

    Fortunately, the 5-paragraph essay affords you time to recover from the folly of the concessionary paragraph.  The three paragraphs of the body resonate with readers as the three necessary examples they undoubtedly require to even consider your point-of-view.  Have you ever tried to prove your point with a mere one example?  Nobody buys it.  Two examples is a bare minimum, and three is ideal.  Three of any series provides ample proof of a pattern, and a pattern implies that there’s even more of the same beyond what’s being stated.  Everyone knows that more of the same implies being correct, except in the case of movie trilogies.  Even comedy itself utilizes a rule of three, which is sometimes masked as a rule of two plus a twist.  (And if the concessionary paragraph can’t be considered the twist of the essay, then even Chubby Checker himself can’t define the word.)

    With or without a twist, the recognizable format of the 5-paragraph essay makes your points easier to digest, much in the way we are more accepting of a salad-entree-dessert meal than we are of a dessert-salad-stomachache meal.  Other academically inclined minds will respect your use of a timeless format and will immediately think that you must know what you’re doing.  The structure itself is as recognizable as a well-written novel or screenplay, and similarly places its strongest argument, or climax, at the center.  Most good things are best at the center, such as stadium seating and Tootsie Pops.

    The 5-paragraph essay is used frequently for good reason, a reason better than just being frequent.  Those seeking to make a convincing argument should always use the 5-paragraph essay.  Its unbridled use of a concessionary paragraph may be misguided, but leaves you with enough time to eventually get it together.  The structure is the most relevant one to the real world, in which people can’t resist things that come in threes.  It is also one of the most recognized formats, which in itself, is a powerful tool for tricking people into agreeing with your conclusion.