Moving Away from the Five Paragraph Formula through Expansion

By Scout Garrison

If you went to high school, chances are you’ve written five paragraph essays, especially if you participated in any sort of AP course. Many of us simply adopted this format of writing for convenience. If we followed the rules, then we were granted an A. However, many of us never gave a thought about why we use a five paragraph essay format in the first place.

In college, these kinds of essays seem to completely disappear. If that’s the case, then why use them in the first place? Well, one reason we used five paragraph essays in grade school is because of time constraints. The AP tests, for example, were only a couple hours long and required you to write multiple essays that were expected to cover a breadth of topics.

More importantly, we were taught the five paragraph structure to learn about organizing our thoughts and ideas. This organization begins with the first and most important piece of the five paragraph essay: a “three pronged thesis.” Many teachers taught us that our thesis should include a claim and three arguments that support this claim. This structure allowed us to easily organize our thoughts and create an effective road map. An example of a three pronged thesis is “The Civil War occurred not because of slavery but as a result of the Missouri Compromise, westward expansion, and the Southern economy relying heavily on cotton.”

Once we created that thesis statement, the three following paragraphs would talk about the Missouri Compromise, westward expansion, and cotton, but there is opportunity for more expansive writing. A five paragraph essay is designed to be two to three pages, but in college, assignments can easily surpass ten pages. In order to meet this requirement, you’ll need a lot more than five paragraphs, but you can still utilize the same thesis you crafted.

The thesis you created for a five paragraph essay is still relevant for a ten page paper, but instead of one paragraph per “prong,” you can do two, three, or sometimes much more. In fact, a thesis for a longer paper may include only one “prong.” Our previous thesis statement may become “The Missouri Compromise was the impetus needed to start the Civil War.” Now instead of having one paragraph that relates the Missouri Compromise to the Civil War, you create one paragraph defining what exactly the compromise was. You lay out the date it occurred, who wrote it, its purpose, etc. Then perhaps you can identify how it affected different populations. An entire paragraph may be dedicated to the Missouri Compromise and its effects on the North, then a paragraph for the South, then a paragraph for minorities. Soon you’ll find that the Missouri Compromise may breach into all aspects of antebellum America, from politics to religion. Only after you have defined all of these ideas can you properly relate the Missouri Compromise to the Civil War.

After you show how the Missouri Compromise caused the Civil War, you are able to write a conclusion. Luckily, the ten page paper’s conclusion is similar to the five paragraph essay’s conclusion. You will redefine what you wanted to prove, and then you will concisely explain all the ways the Missouri Compromise lead to the Civil War.

And you are done! To recap, the best way to move away from a five paragraph essay format is to write a concise thesis and then expand in every possible direction. Don’t keep yourself limited to those three body paragraphs!

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