Tryanny of the Five-Paragraph Essay

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And the award for entertaining & frivolous op-ed of the day (actually, yesterday) goes to ? Crispin Sartwell, for ranting against mechanistic essay-writing instructors. Or, as he calls them, "lobotomized weasels for whom any effort of thought exceeds their strength."

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  1. As a 10th grader, I wrote a beautifully structured five-paragraph essay decrying the stupidity of the structured five-paragraph essay. I was told that what I wrote was “a typical response from a gifted student.” Maybe so, but geez, how demoralizing can you get? I appreciate structure in writing, but that ain’t what it’s all about, kids. To focus on structure at the expense of self-expression is ludicrous, and especially frustrating for a young writer.

  2. I can definitely appreciate that people need to learn to walk before they can run, and five-paragraph essays do just that. But it seems to have gone beyond “do it this way to learn how to do it;” to make things easier on themselves, most teachers just tell students that it’s the way papers are supposed to be, rather than explaining that five-paragraph papers are essentially “training wheels.” The guidelines become rules.

    I’ve been lucky in college for the most part, since I rarely go by the rules for most of my papers. I hate the indention and justification rules; I can understand if the paper is going to be published, but if it’s just for an in-class assignment, there’s no need for it. The same with the rule against contractions; I’ll use contractions when the rhythm of the sentence demands it, not just because I’m lazy. I guarantee you that one of my papers looks and reads better than those written strictly according to the “rules.” There was one class where the professor would downgrade me for such things, but all my other classes have realized that these are peripheral issues.

    I think that Mr. Sartwell has a good point, even if he sometimes doesn’t express it well. It’s easy to get frustrated with people who want hard and fast rules rather than guidelines, which is what has led to some of the stupider rules in English writing (“never end a sentence with a preposition” and “no contractions” being the most heinous in my opinion). Much easier to just say “don’t do it” rather than explain the circumstances in which it’s allowed . . .

  3. I am not particularly concerned about the youth of today; if the world goes to hell I don’t really care.

    Well, it’s nice to know that college professors are still instilling our young people with that sense of wide-eyed wonder and optimism…

  4. Walk before you fly.

    As a high school freshman, I had no real concept of formal writing, of presenting an argument, of careful support of an argument, of writing to a purpose rather than for my own entertainment.

    I haven’t written a five paragraph essay since then, but every piece of academic writing I’ve ever done since has been informed by that very, very strict first teacher. The lesson was not: ‘All writing must be this way’. It was, instead: ‘Writing can be formal, structured, and coherent. Unless you learn the rules, you can’t know when and how to break them.’

    It’s the difference between Picasso, who was a skilled representational artist before he began to break the rules of representational art — and the schmuck with the $20,000 NEA grant to pay for the yams he’s putting up his rear.

    If *all* the various half-educated teenaged slobs learned was the five paragraph essay, it would certainly be an improvement over the nothing they’re learning now.

    It’s true that the very smart and very talented have no use for the 5p structure — but most people aren’t very smart and very talented, and a fundamental level of competence is the best that can be hoped for.

  5. Tim C. pokes Jesse Walker, saying


    I do appreciate the “[X] words or less” assignments. They taught me to be concise. [Jesse]

    Apparently they didn’t teach you that that should read “[X] words or fewer.” [Tim]

    Jesse’s use of quotation marks led me to believe that the phrase within was used by others, and not necessarily the product of Jesse’s own command of English (or, as Tim suggests, the lack thereof). Isn’t that the convention, Tim? Earlier, I had also attributed the phrase “100 words or less” to language Nazis, despite the fact that I certainly know the difference between “less” and “fewer.” If I said that the language Nazis used a phrase that clearly offended the rules of grammar — and if I took pains to put that phrase in quotation marks –which would you suppose were more likely: that I misunderstood the rule myself, or that I had no small antipathy for the so-called experts who routinely employed the offending phrase? (Haven’t we all met at least one?)

    Personally, I’m giving Jesse the benefit of the doubt.

    All that being said, I agree that the five-graf essay is a sturdy and worthy vehicle, like a factory stock automobile. The truly gifted will have no problem in tricking it up to the point that friends and family will be thrilled, while intellectual opponents will be left in the dust; the rest will find that it dependably gets them from point A to point B. Speaking as a libertarian, however, I would no more force people to cram their thoughts into five-graf format (or a 100-word limit!) than I would force all automobiles to conform to a single design.

  6. The next step, of course, is software that writes the essay for the computer to grade.

  7. Looks like there could be a reason editor smackdown in the works…

  8. Looks like there could be a reason editor smackdown in the works…

    Knife fight pending!

    I’m all for teaching writing structure: what a thesis statement is, how paragraphing works, etc. But why five paragraphs? That’s not basic structure. It’s not even a useful rule of thumb. It’s a random number.

    Again, I don’t think any of my teachers even brought up this bizarre idea. If it happened, I must have blotted out the memory.

  9. Why 5 paragraphs?
    Because of the Law of Fives, of course!
    http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/law_of_fives.html

  10. Seriously, I think the idea is to get the students used to using an openning to introduce the idea, develop the idea in a body, and then a closing to sum everything up. You get one paragraph for opening and one for closing, and then three is just a good number for students who will try to write as little as possible. Really, it should only be used for students new to writing and developing ideas, or those who would hand in an old crap unless you forced them to think about some sort of structure. What you tend to get though is students who just break up their essays into 5 parts they claim are “paragraphs”.

  11. Two possibilities for the origion of the the five-paragraph structure.

    Sort of Hegelian device:
    introduction
    thesis
    antithesis
    synthesis
    recapitulation

    or

    My eighth-grade English teacher (and those who taught the subject elsewhere) reckoned that 13-year-olds can only produce three points for an argument at a time.

  12. Jesse:

    Why five paragraphs?

    It’s actually based on the rule of three. (E.g., lists sound best in threes)

    So you have an introduction, three arguments, and a conclusion. The three arguments are supposed to buttress each other and your larger point.

    It’s an artificial device to be sure but it’s really not a bad template for creating passable prose.

    Sartwell is just allergic to authority and narcissistically enamored with his self-conception as a rebel.

    He needs to grow up.

  13. Hmm, the rule of three does make sense. It would explain why my teachers always insisted paragraphs should be at least three sentences. — Three sections, three paragraphs in the middle section, at least three sentences per paragraph. You’d get 100-200 words by default with normal sentence lengths.

    Btw, there’s nothing I hated more than counting the words in my papers. It’s probably why I started getting extremely verbose in my essays. I did have fun with them somtimes though, like writing a paper a certain way just so I could use an unusual word like “transmogrify” or “prestidigitation”.

  14. For what it’s worth, I’m an absolute slave (not one of those “partial” slaves) to the Rule of Three, at least when it comes to listing things in a sentence, converting anecdotes into a trend, and participating in rare intra-Reason comments-thumbwrestling.

    And maybe, like the three-act screenplay, or the three-minute pop song (with strict verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus construction), the three-meat-graf essay Just Works. Still, I usually enjoy people getting very upset about trivial annoyances, especially if their name is “Crispin.”

  15. In tenth grade, I was shown the five paragraph structure but it was really more of a minimum of three arguments structure. I think it may be the only useful lesson I received in high school. If I was going to write a letter to argue a point then I would still use that form.

  16. I’ve never had an assignment of 100 words, but I have read anthologies of 100 word short stories – beautiful, witty, concise. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. I’ve tried writing a few myself, and it’s difficult. An excellent writing exercise.

    I think that highly structured assignments allow talented, mediocre, and poor writers to all develop a sense of organization. Just so long as the talented writers, and some of the mediocre ones, realize that there’s more than one way to make a point.

    I am certainly leery of computers grading papers. I mean, it’s a dangerous precendent, and if everything becomes mechanized, we’ll all be out of jobs and won’t be able to afford computers or internet access ; ) But I don’t think we as a species will ever be convinced that any computer, any AI, will ever equal the human soul. Evolutionarily, an excellent bias, since we will make sure that we as a species remains dominant.

  17. I’ve never had an assignment of 100 words, but I have read anthologies of 100 word short stories – beautiful, witty, concise. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. I’ve tried writing a few myself, and it’s difficult. An excellent writing exercise.

    I think that highly structured assignments allow talented, mediocre, and poor writers to all develop a sense of organization. Just so long as the talented writers, and some of the mediocre ones, realize that there’s more than one way to make a point.

    I am certainly leery of computers grading papers. I mean, it’s a dangerous precendent, and if everything becomes mechanized, we’ll all be out of jobs and won’t be able to afford computers or internet access ; ) But I don’t think we as a species will ever be convinced that any computer, any AI, will ever equal the human soul. Evolutionarily, an excellent bias, since we will make sure that we as a species remains dominant.

  18. What would be really entertaining would be to have access to the AI grading software. With a bit of practice you could write “essays” that would score A grades and make no sense at all. Granted, this is probably the case now with human graders. Still it would be fun.

  19. Jesse’s use of quotation marks led me to believe that the phrase within was used by others, and not necessarily the product of Jesse’s own command of English (or, as Tim suggests, the lack thereof). Isn’t that the convention, Tim?

    So my annotation stands: I didn’t say Jesse doesn’t know the rule (if it is a rule), only that they didn’t teach it to him. And in fact I’ll bet he did learn it somewhere other than grammar or high school. Public school teachers are lousy grammarians. In sixth grade I had an English teacher warn us against using profanity, concluding, “If I ever hear one profound word out of any of you guys, I’ll see you at three o’clock.” That’s a true story, and she wasn’t joking.

  20. It seems to me that the point is missed here.

    This is more or less the same as the debate
    in history education over whether students
    should learn “facts” or focus on interpretation.

    The point is that interpretation is pointless
    without the facts. Similarly, in this case,
    learning to write five coherent paragraphs
    with three arguments, a thesis paragraph and
    a summary at the end is a necessary condition
    for then being able to depart from that form
    and do something more.

    Many of the students I see, including graduate
    students, cannot do the five paragraph thing.
    They should learn that first as it would improve
    their writing by making it organized and
    coherent. Then, when they have the organized
    and coherent thing down, they can do the fun
    stuff and experiment and so on.

    The options contrasted in the editorial are not
    alternatives, they are a logical sequence.

    Jeff

  21. I agree with Jeff. In college, I was very surprised at how many of my peers had no ability to write a five-para essay. Had they learned that basic writing skill, they would have had a much easier time writing expanded 10-page papers.

    I would be a bit skeptical about computer-graded essays, but I’m sure the computers aren’t as stupid as Sartwell is.

  22. …Then there are the “100 words or less” Nazis. Hmm… that would mean five, 20 word paragraphs…anyone for haiku?

  23. I don’t think anyone ever taught me the five-paragraph rule. Sounds asinine.

    I do appreciate the “[X] words or less” assignments. They taught me to be concise. A lesson I sometimes forget, but it’s in there somewhere.

  24. I always saw them as guidelines more than rules, regardless of what the teacher thought. Luckily I always covered the subject without fluff or leaving anything out so I think my teachers didn’t mind if my papers were 7 paragraph instead of 5, 3 page instead of 4, etc. I also had a habit of writing 2 sentence paragraphs, but since my sentences were usually 20-40 words long, I didn’t think it mattered. I guess I was lucky in school since I *knew* I was smarter than my teachers; their opinions and grades didn’t really matter to me. (A side effect of being sent home for a week with chickenpox in 3rd grade and doing a months worth of work in a few hours a day. Since then I never had much respect for school.)

  25. The truth is that I was (am still am) very scatterbrained, and the 5-paragraph essay structure, which I had been taught since 8th grad, gave me a good framework with which to organize my thoughts, and it has served me well since then. When my essays and papers needs to take a different form, I didn’t have any trouble adjusting. You really need to have a keen understanding of language and how to make arguments before you can write good essays, and teaching kids the 5-paragraph essay gives them a chance to do that. It’s like a set of training wheels.

    I suppose for those who have a lot more natural writing talent or, by the beginning of high school, had a lot more experience with polished essays, the 5-paragraph essay might seem ridiculous, but the rest of us have to start somewhere.

  26. I do appreciate the “[X] words or less” assignments. They taught me to be concise.

    Apparently they didn’t teach you that that should read “[X] words or fewer.”

    I’d have more confidence in M. Sartwell’s thoughts on writing if he didn’t deploy feeble phrases like “lobotomized weasels” and “thoroughly fried lambchops” in the apparent belief that these are evocative or colorful pieces of language. What’s next, Crispin, essay teachers from hell? Stylecheck programs that are weapons of mass distraction? Next time they ask for a five-graf essay, just tell ’em, “Don’t go there, girlfriend!”

  27. Tim C. says, “Public school teachers are lousy grammarians.”

    Last week, my seventh-grade son received an English paper back, which had originally dinged him on semicolon usage and the subjunctive case. He argued the semicolon usage with the teacher, who backed down; the verb tense criticism stood. I looked at the paper: seemed fine to me. My own sense of English was particularly offended by the teacher telling my boy that he should be using “was” (as in, “If he was to do it…”) rather than “were.” So I pulled up a web-page that discussed the subjunctive mood — one of many I was able to find in seconds! It (and all the others I could find) clearly disagreed with the teacher. In the webpage I chose, there was an example sentence that was grammatically identical to the one at issue in my son’s paper. I explained the subjunctive to him, showed him how the example sentence corresponded with his own, and sent him back to school, to discuss the issue politely and respectfully with his teacher. (After all, as the webpage explained, the “was” usage was indeed becoming more common in the modern day. Our point was only that my son’s usage was not wrong, and in fact was more well-established.)

    He returned the next day, with news of how things had gone. Faced with the evidence, the teacher agreed on the subjunctive usage, giving him a “+1” on that point, but then “traded” him for the semicolon issue that we all thought had been resolved. Mind you, he had indeed used the semicolon correctly. The bottom line: There was no way he was getting out of there without at least a “-1,” no matter how nice or how right he was. What’s up with that?

    Some educrats just can’t yield, apparently. The kid has a solid A in English anyway, and just ten days to go before summer vacation, so neither he nor I see the point in pushing this matter further. Plus, after this experience, he is all the more skeptical of educational “authority.” That is a very valuable thing to learn (in his Dad’s humble opinion, at least), though I doubt the teacher intended to impart that particular lesson on this occasion.

    As to computers grading papers, let me just say that two weeks ago, Microsoft Word’s spell-checker gave me the same advice regarding a sentence that I had written in the subjunctive mood, as my son’s teacher had given to him. Fortunately, I was able to ignore the machine’s ingorant advice. My son’s experience makes me wonder, however, whether the teacher had typed the sentence into Word to check it, as one might double-check a math problem by quickly punching key expressions into a calculator. Had the teacher done so and gone with the machine’s recommendation in grading my son’s paper? When you have a lot of math papers to grade, a calculator (or even a spreadsheet!) helps get the job done before midnight. Why shouldn’t we expect English teachers to do the same? They need their sleep, too! The problem is, however, that you need some very expensive software, even to get the bare mechanics of sophisticated grammar right, but most teachers just have Word. They also have the power to give grades, however, and we expect them to use good, human judgment in doing that, not just put a human face on the Word spell-checker. I hope that didn’t happen in my son’s case, but it is hard to imagine that it hasn’t already happened SOMEWHERE and that it won’t happen all the more frequently as time passes.

    Even though I agree with Tim about the grammatical skills of teachers, I have to admit that they were much better on this issue just a few decades ago. Not all of my high school teachers could use subjunctive mood correctly, for instance, but ALL of my English, Journalism, and foreign language teachers could. Go back a little further in time, by watching “Reefer Madness.” The character of the high school principal, as ridiculous as he seems today, still used excessively proper grammar, and enunciated correctly and precisely (if a little over-dramatically). The reason he did so was because people back when the movie was made EXPECTED as much from high school teachers, and wouldn’t have begun to “buy” the character as an educational authority figure — even a caricature of one — UNLESS he did so. Teachers were supposed to be expert, at least in “the three r’s,” and to provide a living example of competence in those subjects. Today: not so much. That’s sad.

  28. Isn’t the scarier part of the piece the notion that in some states essays will be graded by a computer?

  29. I wonder if the five-paragraph teachers know the proper spelling of “tyranny?”

    I know there are arguments to be made in favor of Rules and Limits, but get this: my last year of teaching I had an eleventh-grade student who was an absolutely brilliant writer, the kind likely to be studied by high-school students a century from now. I assigned the class a Five-Paragraph Essay mandated by the curriculum; since the kid used an excerpt of dialogue in his essay, and since each new speaker in dialogue warrants a new paragraph of his own, his essay came out to nine or ten “paragraphs” (though no more words than anybody else’s essay). I gave him an A, as usual, and stuck the essay in his Writing Portfolio, as usual.

    A couple of months later an administrator looked at the portfolios, and I got royally reamed for giving the kid an A on an essay with more than the mandated number of paragraphs. Never mind that the kid did an absolutely brilliant job of proving his point; never mind that the kid used language and linguistic techniques far beyond his years; never mind that the kid did not ramble or go off-point, the presumptive reason for the five-paragraph minimum. The Five-Paragraph rule was the most important one of all.

    Christ, am I glad to be out of teaching.

  30. Make that “the presumptive reason for the five-paragraph limit.”

  31. “(A side effect of being sent home for a week with chickenpox in 3rd grade and doing a months worth of work in a few hours a day. Since then I never had much respect for school.)”
    –Madog

    And yet the public educationists are constantly squealing that the school day and school year are too short.

  32. The computer-grading part seems to be the gem of this editorial, but I don’t doubt that their results are just as good as the average hand-checked standardized test essay, where teachers and education students are given something like 10 seconds to grade a hundred-word essay. I hate those things. I have no idea how to “crack” them. All I know is that I do extremely well on any real essays that the instructor manages to actually read, and horribly on these.

  33. I’d like to see how their software grades Shakespeare, Kipling, Conrad, Twain, or Hemingway.

  34. Many of my college acquaintances hate writing five paragraph essay. It seems to me, too, that this has long been an outdated approach.

    Maybe that’s why the essay services became popular? I with my friends have recently launched a website where we publish our reviews on such services. I think for many it will be useful.

  35. You can use this compare and contrast essay topics at your blog. I hope you will find them interesting to explore.

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