As a high school English teacher I am constantly asked the same question for writing assignments, “how many paragraphs does it need to be?”
I hate this question. I hate that somewhere students were taught that the number paragraphs dictates the quality of the writing. That someone has quantified how many paragraphs make a good essay. I can name names, but for anyone who knows writing instruction and the theories behind it, you know who I am referring to and probably know the disciples of her method. Perhaps you are one of them, preaching the structure of one paragraph for your introduction, complete with hook and thesis. Three paragraphs for your body, full of topic sentences and transitions. Finally the concluding paragraph, I can’t wait to hear you restate your thesis!
My question is a simple one. When do we see this method at work after high school?
When in a college class would a paragraph essay be sufficient for talking about the effects of over-expansion on the Roman Empire, or how Gatsby’s own selfish desires ultimately lead him to his downfall. How often do essayists only write five paragraphs? When do op-eds written about the difficulties of the Middle East Peace Process only have three body paragraphs? How many of them have hooks at the beginning?
We are dumbing down our instruction of writing in middle school, accepting mediocrity and summary as analysis and critical thinking. We then continue this in high school, scared to change the way that students are writing because, well it's too much work. Writing is rhetoric, regardless of what you are writing about in school, you are proving a point. Teachers come up with all these different “types” of essays, yet they all focus on making an argument and supporting it. I don’t teach types of essays, I teach how to argue. I teach how to win.
Winning is everything. We write essays to prove a point, to convince the person reading it that we are right. A lot has to happen to shape someone’s opinion, and it definitely isn’t happening in 5 paragraphs. I spend the entire year of teaching high school students that paragraphs are just a form of organization, like a sentence. They have no value in the overall argument; it is what is within them that do.
We then go over the basic structure of an argument, which I call (and others do too) claim, evidence, and commentary. I spend 10 months having students write the pieces of it, over and over and over and over. Is this a well written claim? Is this good evidence? Does the commentary explain the relationship between the evidence and the claim? I don't even care about an introduction or conclusion to an essay, I care about the argument.
Of course there are many who will say "we are just trying to teach them some structure first." I get that, but when you teach a student something, and you teach it well, it will stay with them. All they have in their head when they hear the word essay is five paragraphs, that is what they retain. So instead of teaching them a format that they will need to grow out of, why not lay the foundation for the way that they will write in the future? When I teach freshmen how to write, they go from writing 1-2 page essays at the beginning of the year to 4-8 page essays by the end, all along the way saying to me how much they wish they were taught this way from the beginning. So why aren't we?
The next time you are writing an essay, or teaching writing to a student, ask yourself does this argument convince me? Has it gone into specifics about evidence? Has it fully explained why the evidence that is being cited supports the claim?
Does the argument win?