I have gotten to know an English teacher at a local college who is waging a campaign against the evil of the “five-paragraph essay.” This campaign has led me to wonder about my dear alma mater, specifically whether the aforementioned “five-paragraph essay” has worm-wooded its way into the Calvin campus, either as something, heaven forbid, taught by the English department or as something which students bring with them to Calvin. And, finally, what if anything does the “five-paragraph essay” have to do with the five points of Calvinism?
First, the five-paragraph essay has its natural habitat in the middle-school and high-school writing classroom. It can also be found in the developmental writing classroom at the college level, but it does not have a permanent home there. It was probably created as a means for teaching a student a basic structure of an essay, but its value beyond that purpose is quite limited.
Second, its somewhat artificial nature becomes obvious when it is contrasted with published writing in what we sometimes refer to as the real world. It may happen that an essay or article encountered in a magazine, a newspaper or a textbook is made up of five paragraphs, and it could happen that its development follows the classic introduction-three-paragraphs-of-development-and-a-conclusion format. But it doesn’t happen very often. Look around, and you’ll see that I’m right.
Third, most of our writing requires a little more flexibility, playfulness and scope than the five-paragraph essay allows. This fixed form gives the Procrustean bed a worse name; the classical bed was at least a little more adjustable.
In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay may have found its way onto the college campus, but it probably lives a life of frightened if not anxious insecurity, waiting to be banished, shamed or scorned when brought to the light of day.
But do you really think that this critter is evil? Is it necessary to wage a campaign against it? I suppose that the writer who never discovers that effective writing doesn’t develop in such tidy packages is dealing with a less than fully useful paradigm. It may also be the case that writers who cannot break free from the limitations of the five-paragraph syndrome will be somewhat limited in their writing. But evil? What about the bad behavior of those who persist in the use of unnecessary quotation marks? What about the failure to maintain the that/which distinction? And those who heedlessly flaunt the greengrocer’s apostrophe? What about the writer who allows a preposition to turn up at the end of a clause or, even worse, at the end of a sentence? Next we’ll be thinking wistfully of the advantages of having enforcers and goon squads to maintain public and private grammatical order, and we know where that impulse leads. Rhetoricians on a campaign—look out for them, if you know what’s good for you.
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