Kevin Drum is doing a lot of writing about writing of late. First was this send-up of the Texas five paragraph format. Then came a vicious assault on the humble apostrophe. And then yet another thrashing of the five paragraph meme.

While I actually tend to agree with him on the apostrophe and much of what he has to say about the nature of writing, I’d take some exception to this:

[A]lthough I have no problem with mechanical aids to guide young minds, my real problem with the five paragraph format is that it seems so limited: even on its own terms it only applies to a very specific kind of writing. The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?

Writing a company newsletter? Nope. Technical writing? Nope. A college term paper? Nope. What you did on your summer vacation? Nope. Penning a postcard? Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a newspaper op-ed, a piece of advertising copy, or an argument for a voter pamphlet, I suppose it might come in handy. But how often do any of us do that?

As one of his early commenters noted, most good writing is in fact expository at some level.

I don’t think it’s that a five paragraph format is a great idea so much but that that basic structure makes sense as a heuristic device. It may take several paragraphs or even chapters to do the job of each of the five “paragraphs” in other applications, but the student now at least grasps the idea of organization and flow.

When I was involved with Toastmasters a couple years ago, they taught a three point formula for writing speeches. It quickly became amusing to those of us who were a bit more advanced because of previous experience–and it looks a bit clumsy while people are learning to do it with a bit of deftness–but people quickly made progress toward logical presentations others could follow.

One has to start somewhere. When I was teaching my undergrads–and even grad students–to write better papers for me, I talked about the classic “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them” structure. I think the five paragraph meme is pretty similar. It forces students to learn to organize their thoughts. It’s amazing how rare that skill is–even among college graduates.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kevin Drum says:

    “Expository” is not the same thing as “persuasive,” is it? Maybe I’m missing something here.

    Actually, I really don’t know how the 5-paragraph format is actually taught, so you may be right. And I certainly have no objection to the general advice to figure out what points you want to make and then expand on them. I hope that’s how it’s really being taught, rather than as a “3-point” straitjacket.

  2. apostropher says:

    But those seventeen syllable haiku – now those are just downright fascist.

  3. When I worked for my college’s writing lab, the five paragraph standard, which was one introductory paragraph with a three-part thesis, then three paragraphs to support that thesis, followed by a conclusion, was central to teaching undergrads — whether remedial or otherwise — how to organize their writing in a logical manner. Very few people actually write well right off the bat, and the five paragraph format is an invaluable teaching tool for novice or weak writers. Once they got past the basics, the faculty would move them into more complex and personal forms of writing, but the logic of the five-paragraph essay would simply expand, not be done away with, in the process. The average college term paper is still introduction w/ thesis, supporting paragraphs for thesis points, and a conclusion, after all.

  4. triticale says:

    Haiku is useless
    No one can convey meaning
    In so few syllables

  5. hln says:

    My mother sums up writing quite nicely. Defend, justify, and explain. It’s closer to your tell cubed philosophy.

    And, yes, it’s extremely rare to find good writing. Except among your fine readers…and mine, of course.