Five-Paragraph Essays

Inspired by an article I read in Publishers Weekly, I am trying to start a new practice where I blog a daily five-paragraph essay. I have a backlog of story ideas floating around and have felt this niggling lack of accountability over the past month or so, despite journaling religiously. Plus, this exploration gives both my semester syllabus planning and work-in-progress campus novel plotting a bit of room to breathe. A five-paragraph-a-day habit, if it sticks, should hone my work ethic and help me become a better writer and teacher.

Rion Amilcar Scott caught my eye when the PW email newsletter opened with his syllabus-as-story-structure piece. I’m toying around with something similar, in both my campus novel and my course planning for fall, so I made sure to read the whole article when I had a moment this morning. I laughed out loud at the line, “One never sees a five-paragraph essay in the wild,” and easily followed his reasoning for using the confines of the five-paragraph structure as a springboard for what turned out to be a novella.

As a professor of Comp 101, Scott draws on a book by John Warner titled Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities to call into question the ubiquitous essay format. I allow the five-paragraph essay in my class, though it is not required, primarily because five paragraphs of one hundred words each make for an easy essay to both write and grade. Other professors demand it, while still others sneer at its very existence. An academic auteur playing with this in the world of fiction, however, tickled my professorial ennui in a way that “I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Write the Syllabus for Your Class” failed to (even though that’s exactly where I am in life and in the school year).

As a fiction writer, Scott’s examination of the essay became even more compelling as he detailed the decision to adopt and eventually abandon that rigidity as a narrative device. He attempted to write his story as a series of five-paragraph essays that tracked the student’s development as a writer over the course of a semester. The exercise did serve to help him get inside the head of his student character, and I hope a similar attempt on my part will allow for more compassion in the classroom (one student has now emailed me six times before the start of the semester).

Ultimately, Scott broke free of the serial five-paragraph structure, though his story appears to build toward one final essay (I have not yet read his collection, The World Doesn’t Require You). Scott’s argument that the five-paragraph essay positions itself “opposite of mature, fully realized work,” underscores the fraught relationship we set up with our students, especially those required to take English Comp (often more is demanded of them than of the students who are exempt). If our own writing is free flowing and intuitive, teaching a stagnant structure, however reliable, can ring false.

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