How to Write a Five Paragraph Essay

The history of the 5-paragraph essay is quite interesting and a little turbulent. For a long time this format has been used a useful method for explaining the art of essay writing to students, and it has received both praise and criticism from members of the higher education community. There are those professors who say it is limiting for students because it forces them to try to express their thoughts within a structure that is somewhat artificial. By contrast, others argue that this genre of essay is beneficial to students – both during their educational years and later in life. The reason for this, the latter group say, is that this essay format gives students a mechanism that is easy to apply for expressing themselves in clear and concise terms. In any case, it is essential that students understand the purpose, structure and limitations of the five paragraph essay since a large number of tutors and professors continue to encourage its use.  

A 5-paragraph essay has a reasonably straightforward structure, and virtually every student understands it, at least theoretically. The first of the five paragraphs is the introduction where the topic is presented to the readers. This is followed by three sentences that outline the upcoming argument, and a preview of the conclusion – or thesis.

The three main body paragraphs follow the opening paragraph, and each one begins with a topic sentence that has been mentioned in the introduction. Additionally, these paragraphs should provide evidence or proof to support any ideas or assumptions that are made in relation to the essay’s thesis.

Lastly, the concluding paragraph sums-up the main points or argument, recaps on the thesis statement, and demonstrates how this (the thesis) in some way relates to a broader picture. The last sentence should be relevant, cleverly written and memorable.

Unfortunately, this is often as much information as tutors offer to students on the workings of the 5-paragraph essay. Tutors seldom explain that the roots of this essay go back a long way and it is much more significant than it gets credit for in English classes. Essentially, the 5-paragraph essay format has a tradition that stretches back many years (thousands in fact) and it still impacts modern life in several ways. The tradition behind this genre of essay is its base, which is that of formal logic, a tradition that was introduced to the West by Plato and Aristotle and used by a countless number of scholars since then. Not sharing this fact with students is possibly one of the greatest oversights on the part of teachers, not least because formal logic is the cornerstone of many mathematical, computer science, philosophy and, perhaps surprisingly, music subjects! Of course, most students are knowledgeable in one of these areas at least, and even those who find writing difficult are well able to determine the difference between a “true,” “false,” “valid,” and/or “invalid” statement.      

When using formal logic, one or more premise and one or more conclusion is all that is needed. In a logically constructed argument, premises are statements that are assumed true for the argument’s sake. In the 5-paragraphy essay format, topic sentences are used to express the premises of an argument. If or when the statements in these topic sentences are known or shown to be correct, the writer already has the basis for a good essay. The essay’s conclusion is merely the thesis. Put another way, the thesis statement is what the writer aims to prove on the basis on their premises. Aside from the words that are actually used to express these, true premise statements and good conclusions following from them are all that is required to successfully structure an essay of this type.    

Needless to say, of course, there are some limitations to a 5-paragraph essay. One notable limitation is that students need to be clear about what they are going to write. Because it is important to know what the conclusion will be before writing even commences, it is essential to use effective techniques – such as writing an outline and doing some brainstorming – to ensure the best outcome. These techniques are good for clarifying an argument and, therefore, ensuring the writing progresses in a logical manner. Indeed, writing outlines and brainstorming are techniques that were devised by educational experts when the 5-paragraph essay first started to gain in popularly as an effective teaching tool. It is implied, therefore, that these two techniques are very important stages before any writing process even begins.