Structured writing for clarity, brevity, and speed

There's a better way to write persuasively!Way back in high school, one teacher handed out a one-sheet set of instructions at the beginning of the year entitled, "The Five Paragraph Essay"; all our written work in his class was to be submitted in that format.  While I'm normally one to balk at rigid structures imposed on what is to me a creative process, I had to admit a few assignments into the semester that this was a useful tool; it helped me quickly generate work that was clear and concise, and "just right" in length - even when the subject matter bored me to tears.

Now that I'm trying very hard to ramp up my writing output for InfoBarrel and a number of other potential sites and projects, it has occurred to me that reviving this 10th-grade concept might be very helpful  - and that writing about writing this way would be an excellent idea for an IB article!

Not all types of writing lend themselves to this form, of course.  Astute readers will notice that this article about five paragraph essays does not itself adhere to that structure in the slightest; that's because tutorials aren't easily bound in such confines.  But my goals are twofold:  to show you how to take advantage of this form, and to tell you why you should.  This puts me in the unique position of writing a tutorial about how to write an essay to convince you to read my tutorial about how to write an essay to convince you...

I apologize in advance for any disruptions in space and time this spiral may cause, and I deny in advance any responsibility for visits from alternate-universe evil twins.

Tools you'll need

Besides the writing utensils/software of your choice and a functioning noggin, there are just a few items you'll need before you get started.  To be precise, you'll need to come up with:

  • A point you want to make
  • Your three best arguments in favor of your point
  • Coffee (optional if you're not me)

With these needs addressed, you're ready to write.  For my example essay, these items will be defined as follows:

  • The five paragraph essay structure can be a useful writing tool
  • Arguments:
    1. It's persuasive.
    2. It's "just right" in size.
    3. It helps you write more efficiently.
  • What!?  We're out of cream!?

Writing the Introduction

Your first, introductory paragraph must be written with two goals in mind:  to let readers know what the upcoming paragraphs are about - a thesis statement - and to get them to want to read the rest via a "hook".

The thesis statement is simply a summary of the argument you're about to make.  It's even possible to directly summarize your three arguments in this statement, if you can do it in a way that is concise and doesn't sound redundant against the paragraphs that will follow.  The "hook" should grab the readers' interest - point out a possible direct benefit to them from reading further, for instance, or start with some witticism or anecdote, or a quote from a famous person.  These days the competition for your readers' time is fierce and virtually infinite, so you've got to work hard to get them to stick around.

For my example intro, I'm going to directly ask my potential reader a question or two.  In this case, I'm going to blur the lines between thesis and "hook" because it works well stylistically, but there's no specific requirement for this - and in fact I can envision scenarios where separating the two into distinct statements could make a more powerful impression.

Do you need to need to write powerful, concise arguments to persuade others?  Would you benefit from a simple tool that helped you to start with an idea and quickly generate a clear, convincing written case for that idea?  If so, the five paragraph essay may be just what you're looking for!  Use this structure to write efficiently and effectively.

Presumably, with my target audience made up of people who would answer "Yes!" to my questions, I've generated interest in what I have to say, and have proposed a solution to the needs about which I've inquired.  I even managed to sneak in references to the three arguments I plan to make.

An interesting body of work

The next three paragraphs make up the body of your essay, and it's no coincidence that there are exactly as many body sections as there are arguments in your list.  Each of these paragraphs corresponds to one of your bullet-points.

There are conflicting schools of thought about the order of the body paragraphs.  Some sources say that they should always be listed in order of descending importance (i.e. the best argument comes first, weakest last), but it is also sometimes argued that saving the best for last will leave a stronger impression fresh in readers' minds after they finish the article.  I suppose the main lesson is not to put your best point in the middle.

The five-paragraph format is persuasive because it forces you to pare the arguments for your assertion down to the three most effective points.  This allows you to set aside less relevant details and focus on developing your main statements with precision; this focus will make your arguments clear and concise, with few wasted words and an easy-to-read, organized structure.  By clarifying your main points, you avoid distracting tangents while inspiring the readers' interest in further investigation of your subject matter.

Similarly, the three-argument focus helps to shape your essay into a work that is just long enough to get your message across, but short enough that even most casual readers won't pronounce it "too long" and wander away to some other activity.  It lends itself to the production of enough words to meet minimum word count standards in many publication venues, but guides you away from long-winded meanderings that are likely to make the article too long for acceptance in situations where longer articles are impractical or maximum size limitations are enforced.

Lastly, the five paragraph format helps you to write more quickly and efficiently.  By focusing your attention on your primary points before the writing process has even begun, it minimizes trial-and-error in terms of organization and prioritization.  The attention to arguments one through three will save you the time you might have spent writing out arguments four through six (unless, of course, you decide to turn those into a second five-paragraph essay, with links back to your first one!)

I've introduced my idea and made my arguments, so now it's time to wrap things up.

... And in conclusion

The fifth and final paragraph is the conclusion.  It needs to contain a restatement (but not a copy) of your thesis and a summary of your arguments; ideally there will also be a "clincher", a line that will both signal that the essay is ending, and encourage the reader to keep thinking about the topic you've discussed.

While at first glance a structured format like the five paragraph essay might seem limiting to many writers, those who work with it will find that in many cases it is an excellent way to improve the persuasiveness, conciseness, and efficiency of their output - gains in both quality and quantity!  The next time you need to write an article of suitable size and convincing content... give it a try!

So... uh... the next time you need to write an article of suitable size and convincing content... give it a try!