The dangers of the five-paragraph essay

Grace Shaw

The five-paragraph essay is a staple of high school education. All words must be siphoned into categories: introduction, point one, point two, point three or conclusion. This structural habit is commonly packed up in suitcases along with toothbrushes and prom photos and carted off to university to be put to work on the first freshman essay. In some cases, it will do so harmlessly, but more often strictly adhering to this template can be detrimental to both quality of writing and quality of grades.

The student essay is bound by certain rules for good reason—structural anarchy would be chaotic, unreadable, and difficult to grade. Colouring within the lines is a tenant of academia. However, it is important to understand why and where those lines are drawn. The five-paragraph structure, while it lends itself to public school writing, or maybe a short personal essay, is constricting. Trying to write a 3000-word research paper in five paragraphs, for example, is nonsensical—not impossible, just inevitably bad. Even in shorter papers, there may be more than three main points to be addressed, and squeezing content into such a tiny space results in ideas being smushed together, which severely affects clarity. The lines drawn by this particular structure are often too confining for the average academic essay.

As well as harming readability, trying to pour words into an unsuitable mold impairs creativity: form and content are inextricably linked. For example, more restrictive forms can serve a purpose in instances such as scientific reports; following a strict, established process allows data to be clearly laid out and easily identifiable. On the other end of the scale, poetry and fiction frequently violate convention—sometimes even the placement of words on the page can be up for debate. The loosening of structural boundaries in these cases also serve a purpose: the form itself acts as a mode of expression. Essays in the Arts disciplines function as spaces in which to bounce ideas around and explore theoretical options, so their form should both allow and reflect this intent. The flexible prose often found in these sorts of papers function best when unhindered by their surroundings—creativity does not fit well in a box.

While it is important to keep in mind the set boundaries established for essay-writing in each discipline, allowing a form such as the five-paragraph essay to dictate content is senseless. Implementing a less restrictive form allows for freer thought. Abandoning the familiarity of five paragraphs in favour of six, or eight, or twelve will do both student and essay good.