Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Topic: The Five-Paragraph Essay

10-second review: There is no such animal as the five-paragraph essay.

Title: “Wrong About Writing.” Jim Sollisch. Philadelphia Inquirer (February 23, 2005), A15.

Summary/Quotes: “The SAT is including a mandatory writing test that will be modeled on the five-paragraph essay. “…which, as a model, makes about as much sense as testing architects by asking them to design buildings using only five rectangles.”

“The five-paragraph essay is not a literary form. The 14-line sonnet is a literary form. The 17-syllable haiku is a literary form. The five-paragraph theme, with its artificial topic [Thesis. RayS.] sentence, three explanatory paragraphs and the obligatory conclusion that restates the topic, is a recipe for mush.”

Comment: It’s a recipe for organizing expository writing of any length. Something must be wrong with the intelligence of people who mistake a model for a literary form.

The five-paragraph essay is a model that puts into practice the old method of organizing expository writing: “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.” The introduction can consist of fifteen paragraphs if the writer chooses. The introduction is always followed by a statement [thesis] of what the writer is going to say in the rest of the composition.

The middle paragraphs can be as many paragraphs as the writer needs to develop the thesis. Topic sentences help the reader to know what follows in each paragraph. Many paragraphs, however, are cut short for the purpose of relieving the reader who is intimidated by page-length paragraphs. Those shortened paragraphs might not have topic sentences, but they continue the content signaled by the topic sentence in the preceding paragraph.

And readers expect a conclusion that summarizes and leaves a memorable thought.

The five-paragraph essay is the model that illustrates the structure for expository prose of any length—introduction, thesis [Tells what I am going to tell the reader] intermediate paragraphs that, for reader comfort, begin with topic sentences and develop the thesis [Tell them], and concludes with a summary paragraph [Tell them what I told them]. The five-paragraph essay is a model that can be grasped in one eye shot.

Every student with whom I ever worked knew that the five-paragraph essay was a model. They all knew that it was not a literary form to be found in published material. They added paragraphs to every part of the five-paragraph essay, which was a guide to help them organize their writing.

The irony of this article by Jim Solliish? It has an introduction, a thesis, middle paragraphs with topic sentences and a summary conclusion. He is following the model of the five-paragraph essay that he calls "mush." .RayS.

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