Bad Habits From High School: The Five-Paragraph Theme
Many writers have been taught in high school that there are very simple formulae for structuring ideas. The most common structure is the five-paragraph theme, or some variation of it. The five-paragraph theme begins with a general introduction; the thesis is always the last sentence in the introductory paragraph; three supporting paragraphs follow, each beginning with a topic sentence that is followed by three to five developing sentences; finally comes the conclusion, which basically restates the introduction. Of course, there can be more than five paragraphs. In fact, some writers produce very long essays that follow this basic structure.
What's wrong with the five-paragraph theme? To start, it's formulaic. Not all ideas fit well into the five-paragraph theme. Imagine, if you will, that a teacher asks you to write an essay on the most important event of your life (or an essay on Hamlet's indecision, for that matter). She requires you to fit your essay into a five-paragraph format, thesis and topic sentences all in their proper places. It seems absurd, no? But when they arrive at college and hear their professors shout, "Death to the five-paragraph theme!" students generally shudder. If not that formula, then which one? And when the professor goes on to say that there is no formula, that in fact each idea must come to find its own form, students collapse in agony. It sounds like a lot of work!
As you know, structuring an essay is a lot of work. Allowing an idea to find its own form takes time, trial and error, diligence, and patience. However, even though you can't give writers a formula for each idea, you can offer them strategies that will make developing its form easier.