Five Paragraphs: Learn the General Structure for Writing a College or University-Level Essay

Get the Basics of Essay Writing with the Five Paragraph Format!

One of my favorite things about teaching basic writing courses to college students is getting to explain to them that writing is a taught and practiced skill, not an inborn gift. So many students begin college with the ideas that they aren't "good" writers, and that writing is practically magic. If there's one thing that I love shouting to rooms full of fresh-faced university students, it's "Writing isn't magic!"

Writing is work; at times, writing is even hard work. But there are a few tricks of the trade that, once taught, learned, and practiced, can make even the most fearfully self-conscious students feel more confident in their writing skills. And, like most types of work, people don't expect you to simply be great at writing without any training or instruction. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who have had very little by way of intentional writing instruction by the time they reach college. Assigned their first essay, self-conscious writers quake with fear: I'm not in high school anymore... How do I write a college-level essay?! What's a thesis? How many pages should it be? How do I organize information?

It's you folks--you Folks of the Panicked Questions who have done a Google keyword search for "college writing" or "how to write an essay" that I want to talk to right now:

Be calm. You can do this. I'll walk you through a very basic structure that's going to help break this task down into manageable parts, and when we're done, you're going to have the fundamental tools to serve you in writing all your subsequent essays. Now get ready to give this the old "college try!" 

OK, let's go! You're going to put together a basic outline for a standard essay, which a lot of people refer to as the Five Paragraph Essay. In general, and although lots of teachers don't bother saying this out loud, it's a persuasive essay where you choose a perspective to develop and argue throughout the paper.

The Five Paragraph Essay begins with an introductory paragraph, in which you introduce your topic and then state the specific argument you'll be making in your paper. The second, third, and fourth paragraphs are each devoted to arguing a specific facet of that claim, and the fifth paragraph is where you briefly summarize what you've argued in your paper, then either explain a large-scale conclusion that you draw from your argument, or suggest future directions for research / further questions that need to be addressed for your argument to become even stronger. 

An outline of the structure could look like this:

Paragraph #1 - Introduction leads into thesis (your specific argument or claim).

Paragraph #2 - Explain one aspect of your argument. Describe it, and show how it supports your overall claim, as well as how the example adds specific nuances to your claim.

Paragraph #3 - Explain a second aspect of your argument, again connecting it to your overall claim, as well as showing the specific ways that your example makes your argument strong... even irrefutable!

Paragraph #4 - Like the second and third paragraphs, the fourth is space for you to explain another convincing aspect of your argument, or cite another convincing example to support your perspective. You're in the home stretch now!

Paragraph #5 - In the concluding paragraph, you'll want to reference the development of your argument from your thesis through your examples, then wrap it up nicely with either a large-scale conclusion or a suggestion for future research or discussion.

That's the format of the Five Paragraph Essay in a nutshell, so now let's get into techniques for applying the form to two different types of writing assignments that you are likely to see at the college level. These are especially common in humanities and communication courses, where persuasive argumentation, analysis, and critical thinking are highly valued skills.

Persuasive essay: In these types of assignments, you set out to convince a reader that the perspective you're arguing for is the right one. First, you'll need to come up with a thesis that can be argued. That is, come up with something that you can actually imagine arguing FOR or AGAINST.

For example, arguing that vanilla ice cream tastes like vanilla because it's made with vanilla flavoring isn't exactly the riskiest claim to make. It's... pretty much true. A more risky argument would be something like, "Chocolate ice cream should be the flavor served in dining halls rather than vanilla, because chocolate offers college students more nutrition per serving than vanilla ice cream." Now, that's probably not true, so it might end up being a hard argument to follow-through on, but I think you see the big difference between these two examples.

If you can't possibly imagine someone arguing against your thesis, then try to formulate a more daring and divisive thesis for your persuasive essay. It will make your paper much more fun to write and to read, and--who knows--you might even convince someone to introduce chocolate ice cream into the dining halls.

Compare and contrast: In essays where you're tasked with comparing and contrasting things (explaining their major similarities and differences, then showing why those similarities and differences matter, or what their effects are), the Five Paragraph Essay offers a very easy adaptation. Instead of spending paragraphs 2-4 describing examples that support your thesis, you'll simply use each paragraph to examine similar things or different things.

For example, if you want to argue that chocolate ice cream is a fundamentally different treat from vanilla ice cream, you'll likely want to spend the majority of your paper (say, paragraphs two and three) expounding on the vast differences between them. Then, in paragraph four, you may allow yourself to consider the counter-argument, that vanilla and chocolate ice cream are actually quite similar treats. (In your conclusion, you'll ultimately dismiss that generous consideration, but it's a good idea to bring it into your paper in order to show that you've considered the alternative perspective.) Then, you conclude your awesome compare-and-contrast paper by smashing the illusions that vanilla and chocolate ice cream have equal benefits to offer.

Of course, you'll be writing about issues that are more serious, more advanced, and more interesting. But there you have it-- the Five Paragraph Essay form for writing essays. In future installments, we can get into the techniques and details of expanding the form to help you structure more advanced styles of essay.

For now, though, I think I'll take an ice cream break.