five paragraph structure
Once you’ve developed your thesis and thought through points supporting and opposing your opinion through what I call a full thesis, it’s time to get started on your essay. This chapter will cover the structure of what we call the five-paragraph essay.
It bears repeating—please don’t read this chapter as instructions for How to Write an Essay. It explains only one way. There is no single right way to write an essay. Masterful essays come in an unlimited array of shapes, sizes and organizational forms.
In fact, the five-paragraph model isn’t even a particularly good way to write an essay. No serious, experienced writer would consider limiting his writing to the rigid parameters we’re about to describe.
But as I explained in the previous chapter, for most students, it’s a good starting place.
Essay writing can be intimidating. It’s hard enough to come up with a strong topic to write about, points to support your opinion, and the words to communicate your message without having to think about how to organize it all.
The five-paragraph essay format is like a coloring book for writing. It provides the structural outline. All you have to do is color inside the lines. If you choose the right colors and handle your crayons with skill, you can create a nice-looking picture.
And once you’ve colored in a few pictures, you can feel free to experiment. You can color outside the lines. You can even toss the coloring book itself and start from scratch on a blank sheet. That’s when it gets fun.
The Writing Process
Before we jump into the five-paragraph format, let’s talk about the writing process.
Wise writers understand that great work rarely happens on a first try. Even the greatest authors in history tend to work through multiple drafts of their stories. This is what we mean by the writing process—thinking of any writing project as a sequence of steps, rather than a single, intimidating task.
The WriteAtHome program builds process into the curriculum. Our students complete multiple drafts of their papers with the assistance and input of a writing coach. But if you are not a WriteAtHome student you should understand that good writing usually happens in stages.
The first stage is prewriting. Simply, prewriting is everything you do to get ready to write. Reading this chapter is a kind of prewriting. There are other techniques, however. You may have heard of brainstorming, clustering, or freewriting as strategies for generating writing ideas. Sometimes research and study are necessary as prewriting activities (not in a WriteAtHome Essay course, however).
A common prewriting activity for essay writing is outlining. I’ll address that below. First, let’s finish going through the other steps in the process.
After prewriting, the next step in the writing process is composing or drafting. Simply, it’s getting a first version of the paper complete. A first draft can be rough. Understanding that the process requires you to go back and make changes removes any pressure to make it perfect the first time. People tempted to perfectionism have a hard time with this, but I recommend writing your first draft quickly. Getting it down on paper is the most important thing. Getting it right can come later.
Next comes revising. Revising means making major, holistic changes to your paper. It might include adding or removing sentences or whole paragraphs. It may mean changing the order of your points or replacing one point with another. It may mean changing the tone of your writing. It may even mean starting over with a whole new thesis. It all depends on what you or your writing coach think is necessary to improve the essay.
The fourth step in the process is proofreading. This is where you focus on the finer points of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other details. In the proofreading stage, you are doing the final polishing to your work.
The final step is often overlooked. It’s the publishing step. I don’t mean formal publication in a book or magazine (although that would be great). I just mean getting your paper to the audience it was intended for. It may simply mean emailing your writing coach or handing it in to your teacher.
Five simple steps. It may sound like a lot, but trust me, following these steps actually makes essay writing less stressful and more effective. Here they are in a nutshell:
Steps in the Writing Process
Next, let’s talk about outlining.
To Outline or Not to Outline
Some people are compulsive outliners. They crave structure and require a detailed plan before they are ready to start any writing project. These people are also likely to keep their rooms tidy and their closets organized. They keep calendars and to-do lists. If this describes you, you don’t need to be convinced of the importance of outlining your essay.
If, on the other hand, you are the messy-room, laid-back, play-it-by-ear type, listen up. You probably see outlining as an unnecessary waste of time. You’d rather jump into the project and let your natural flow of thought carry you through the essay.
On most writing projects, we would encourage you to follow your inclinations. Remember, there is no single right way to write. If outlining comes naturally and makes you feel better, by all means craft a detailed outline before composing your first draft. If you can produce a good essay without an essay, feel free to skip it.
But sometimes it’s the non-outliners who most need the discipline of outlining. If outlining your paper before writing sounds boring and restrictive, you should still consider giving it a try. It may be unpleasant while you are creating it, but I bet you’ll find an outline helpful once the actual writing gets underway.
I won’t insist on it, but I highly recommend at least giving an outline a try.
Remember, the outline is for you, not for your readers or teachers. All that matters is that it helps you organize your points and plan your essay. It doesn’t have to follow the rules of formal outlining with Roman numerals and capital letters. You can use bullets and asterisks if that’s easier.
The Structure of Your Essay
Maybe you’ve heard this analogy before: a five-paragraph essay is like a hamburger. The introductory and concluding paragraphs are the buns, top and bottom, and your supporting paragraphs are the meat (and cheese, lettuce, pickles, etc.) in between.
Let’s take each burger part one at a time.
A good introduction grabs your readers’ attention and points them in the direction the essay is going. Your goal is to gain their interest from the first sentence. Here are a few practical tips for making a big splash in your introduction.
Place your thesis at the end of the introduction.
One component of your introduction must be your thesis. By the end of the first paragraph, your reader should know where the paper is going and what position you will be defending. But that doesn’t mean you should lead off with your opinion statement. In most cases, it is best to start with a broad, interesting sentence that introduces the subject matter of the paper. Save your thesis for the last or close to the last sentence of the first paragraph.
Think of a funnel. You want to catch your readers with your opening sentence and draw them down to the funnel’s narrow end. In the following examples of introductory paragraphs, the thesis is underlined. Notice how the second example does a better job of building interest in the topic before the thesis is stated.
Thesis first:Our society idealizes childhood because of the innocence that children possess. Other characteristics of children like joy, wonder, and simplicity are important but do not compare with innocence.
Thesis last:Our culture has an idealized notion of childhood as expressed in our popular art and entertainment. Children portrayed by Americana artist Norman Rockwell, for example, evoke in adults a longing for simpler times. Of all the qualities we admire in children—joy, wonder, and simplicity, nothing is as appealing as child-like innocence.
Start strong, but don’t get too cute.
Take your time with the opening line. Grab your readers’ attention with the first words. Don’t, however, make the mistake of trying too hard. You want to attract and interest your readers, not startle or shock them. You want to be the party guest who draws a crowd because of his wit and intelligence, not because he’s got a lampshade on his head. Outlandish openers often backfire.
Too Cute: Warning! This essay will shatter your preconceptions of the typical teenager.
Better: The stereotype of a normal teenager is a sullen, apathetic slob with an irresistible desire to rebel against authority. But as with most popular stereotypes, this is an unfair and inaccurate portrayal.
The body of your paper consists of the paragraphs that support your thesis. There is no rule regarding the number of paragraphs in your essay body, but we recommend sticking to a simple rule of thumb: one paragraph for each supporting point.
This is where even the strict guidelines of a five-paragraph essay get flexible. In fact, your five-paragraph essay might only have four paragraphs (They just better be good ones) or even six or seven, if you have more than three persuasive points that illustrate and support your thesis.
We refer to a five-paragraph essay because three is sort of a magic number when it comes to supporting points. Most of us can come up with three good reasons for almost any opinion. Two sometimes seems inadequate and unconvincing. To come up with four or more we sometimes have to include weak and unpersuasive points. Three is a good general number to shoot for. And, of course, if you add an introduction and a conclusion to three body paragraphs, you end up with a perfect five paragraphs.
So, if you have three supporting points, expect to have three paragraphs in the body of your essay. If you have a supporting point that is complex and requires explanation or elaboration, however, don’t hesitate to break it into several smaller paragraphs. In general, readers prefer a few short paragraphs to one or two long ones. It’s easier on the eyes. Avoid discussing two separate points in the same paragraph.
The exact number of paragraphs isn’t really important, which seems to make the five-paragraph essay sort of a dumb name, huh? But, as a general rule, aim for three paragraphs in the body.
A common strategy for persuasive essays is to make a concession early in the paper—usually in the second paragraph. A concession is an admission that those on the other side of the debate have a point in their favor. Writers who concede a point demonstrate that they have looked at both sides of the issue. This makes them seem open-minded and fair.
For this reason, including a concession in your essay may be a good idea. It’s not a required part of a five-paragraph essay, but if you choose to include one, follow these rules:
Place your concession immediately after the introduction. The idea is to concede a point right away, then turn your reader’s attention to the reasons that this particular point is not convincing enough.
Keep it brief. Often one sentence or even part of a sentence is all that’s necessary.
Start with “concession words.” Common transitions that indicate a concession include: admittedly, undoubtedly, of course, undeniably, certainly, and without question.
Include a however. It’s not really the word that matters; it’s the idea. Be sure you show that the point you are conceding doesn’t trump your thesis. Your concession should convey the feeling of “I admit X is true, but X isn’t enough to make me change my mind.”
Here are some examples of concessions:
Admittedly, stricter gun control laws would make it more difficult for criminals to acquire weapons; however, the negative consequences of this legislation outweigh this positive outcome.
Of course there are lots of gloomy, unmotivated teenagers in the world, but they are increasingly outnumbered by hopeful, enthusiastic young people with big dreams and bright futures.
Certainly there are times when caution is wiser than risk-taking; on the other hand, a life without any adventure is hardly worth living.
Organize Supporting Points
Let’s go back to the outline for a moment. The outline we recommend should include your thesis and your supporting points in order of importance.
After you come up with your supporting points, think about them. Which is likely to be most persuasive to your reader? Is one of them obviously weaker? Number them from least to most important. Go with your gut instinct, and don’t waste too much time on this, but do it.
Experience has shown that building from a relatively weak point to a strong, convincing point is the most effective way to construct an argument. That’s why we recommend numbering your points in the outline. When it’s time to compose, you won’t have to wonder which point to tackle first—start with the weakest and end with the strongest.
Regardless of the number of supporting points you use, the first paragraph of your body should discuss your least convincing point, and each ensuing paragraph should address a more convincing point.
At the end of a tiring trip, it’s a nice feeling to finally pull into your own driveway and put the car in park. That's how good essays should feel as they end also—with a graceful and satisfying sense of closure. An essay without a conclusion is like slamming on the brakes a block from home.
Don’t omit the conclusion of your essay. Your last few words can be just as important as the first few. You want to leave your readers with a strong, lasting impression.
Skillfully concluding an essay takes practice. There’s no formula to guarantee success. In general, however, you will do well to keep these two principles in mind:
Start by restating your thesis
This doesn’t mean copying your thesis word for word, or simply changing a word or two. Express the main idea in a completely different way. English is a varied and flexible language. There are countless ways to say essentially the same thing. Here are some examples of ways to restate a thesis:
Thesis: The internet is the 21st century’s most effective means of advancing freedom anddemocracy.
Restated: The world will be freer and more democratic in the next generation because of the powerful influence of the internet.
Thesis: The most courageous people are not those without fear, but those who act in spite of their fears.
Restated:Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the will to keep going when confronted with frightening circumstances.
Thesis: A world without great works of art would be a sad and shallow place.
Restated: Humans are artistic beings with a deep-seated need to express themselves through art;thus, art must be encouraged and protected.
Don’t introduce any supporting points or new information in the final paragraph. Use it to wrap up your essay by reemphasizing your thesis and leaving the reader with something to think about. Use the body paragraphs exclusively for supporting points. The conclusion should be reserved for wrapping things up by way of reminder.
Finish with a broad concluding statement
Remember how your introductory paragraph should be funnel-shaped? Well, think of the concluding paragraph as an upside-down funnel (like the Tin Man’s hat in The Wizard of Oz). After creatively restating your thesis, finish the paragraph with a broader statement that leaves the reader with something to think about.
Example of a Concluding Paragraph:
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the will to keep going when confronted with fearful circumstances. This is true for soldiers facing deadly combat, athletes in high-stakes competition, and regular people confronting everyday challenges. Everyone knows what it is to be afraid, even the bravest among us.
And there you have the structure of a five-paragraph essay—the outline on the coloring book page that you now get to color in.
Chapter Summary: The Five-Paragraph Essay
Start with a grabber sentence, but don’t get too cute.
End with your thesis statement.
If you include a concession, make it in your second paragraph.
Treat each supporting point in a separate paragraph.
Aim for three paragraphs, but don’t be afraid to use more if necessary.
Organize your paragraphs from least to most persuasive.
Start by restating your thesis.
End with a memorable and satisfying final sentence.
Do not introduce any new points or ideas in the conclusion.