4.2 THE BIG PICTURE: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

The skills that go into a very basic kind of essay — often called the five-paragraph essay — are indispensable. If you’re good at the five-paragraph theme, then you’re good at identifying a clear thesis, arranging cohesive paragraphs, organizing evidence for key points, and connecting your main idea to the world through the introduction and conclusion.

In college, you need to build on those essential skills. The five-paragraph essay by itself is bland and formulaic. In other words, it is not very interesting to read, and it doesn’t feel very natural. More importantly, it doesn’t get you (or your reader) to think very deeply. Your professors are looking for a more ambitious, arguable, and compelling thesis with real-life evidence for all key points — all in a more organic (less artificial) structure.

What does that look like?

The five-paragraph essay, outlined below in Figure 3.1 is probably what you’re used to: the introduction starts general and gradually narrows to a thesis, which readers expect to find at the very end of that paragraph. In this format, the thesis uses that magic number of three: three reasons why a statement is true. Each of those reasons is explained and justified in the three body paragraphs, and then the conclusion restates the thesis before gradually getting broader. This format is easy for readers to follow, and it helps writers to organize their points and the evidence that goes with them. That’s why you learned this format.


Figure 3.1 The traditional five-paragraph essay structure

Figure 3.2, in contrast, represents a paper on the same topic that has the more organic form that is expected in college. The first key difference is the thesis. Rather than simply presenting a number of reasons to think that something is true, it puts forward an arguable statement: one with which a reasonable person might disagree. An arguable thesis gives the paper purpose. It surprises readers and draws them in. You hope your reader thinks, “Hm. Why would they come to that conclusion?” and then feels compelled to read on.

The body paragraphs, then, build on one another to carry out this ambitious argument. In the classic five-paragraph essay (Figure 3.1), it probably is not important which of the three reasons you explain first or second. In the more organic structure (Figure 3.2), each paragraph specifically leads to the next. If you changed the order of the body paragraphs, then the essay would not make sense.

The last key difference is seen in the conclusion. Because the organic essay has a thesis that does not have an obvious conclusion, the reader comes to the end of the essay thinking, “OK, I’m convinced by the argument. What do you, the author, make of it? Why does it matter?” The conclusion of an organically structured paper has a real job to do. It doesn’t just reiterate the thesis; it explains why the thesis matters.


Figure 3.2 The organic research essay structure

All that time you spent mastering the five-paragraph form in Figure 3.1 was not wasted. There’s an idiom in English: You have to know the rules before you can break the rules. But now is the time to move beyond an obvious thesis, loosely related body paragraphs, and a repetitive conclusion. Now is the time for you to move beyond the five-paragraph essay.

Watch this video to learn more about moving beyond the five-paragraph essay to an organic research essay:


Now practice with this exercise; it is not graded, and you may repeat it as many times as you wish:



Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, milneopentextbooks.org/writing-in-college-from-competence-to-excellence/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA

Video from: The Nature of Writing. “What’s Wrong with the Five Paragraph Essay and How to Write Organically (Animated Video).” Www.youtube.com, 3 Sept. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAlcAGVBEXU. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.


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