If you try to think of the greatest challenge that makes college students insecure, the answer would have to involve academic writing. Your professors ask for simple, complex, and sometimes ridiculous papers, but everything starts with the 5-paragraph essay.
When you master its structure, you’ll have the foundational skills to complete any other academic project.
Not all professors find the time to explain to their students how they are supposed to write an essay. If you get any instructions, they will be brief. You’ve probably heard something like “just follow the 5-paragraph structure and you’ll be okay.”
You’re aware that a standard essay should contain five paragraphs, but what exactly are you supposed to write in them? That’s what we’re here for. In the continuation, you’ll find an elaborate explanation of the basic 5-paragraph essay formula. Just follow it, and you’ll really be okay.
The Essay Formula
Before we continue any further, let’s give a brief explanation of the basic essay structure:
- Paragraph 1: an introduction with a thesis statement
- Paragraph 2: argument that explains the first point of the thesis statement
- Paragraph 3: argument that explains the second point of the thesis statement
- Paragraph 4: argument that explains the third point of the thesis statement.
- Paragraph 5: conclusion that brings all points together and restates the thesis statement
Now, let’s dissect all these parts into a comprehensive guide on essay writing.
Paragraph 1: Introduction
The introduction is the part that hooks the reader and holds their attention. It draws the reader into the arguments of your paper. If, for example, you’re writing a paper with a subject “The Dangers of Cinematography for Young People’s Development,” you can start by saying that you’re a movie fanatic, but you’re aware of the hazards cinematography has on modern culture. That will get the reader’s attention because they will understand you’re writing from personal experience, but you also conducted a research and you see the wider picture.
After the brief entrance, the introduction should end with a thesis statement that grasps the very essence of the content. Since we’re talking about a 5-paragraph essay, it means that you’ll have 3 paragraphs for explaining the main points of the thesis statement. In other words, this structure usually imposes the need for a three-part thesis statement.
In our example, the thesis statement could look like this: The inclination of young people to follow examples, the shallow values presented as movie art, and the influence of celebrities on people’s behavior lead to the development of problematic youth.
These are the three points in our thesis:
- Young people follow examples
- The values presented in movies are shallow
- Celebrities have great influence over young people’s behavior
Once you have a powerful thesis statement, you can continue elaborating it in the rest of your paper.
Paragraph 2: First Supporting Statement
In this section, you will connect the first point of the thesis to its conclusion. This first argument is usually the strongest one. It should be supported with clever illustrations, significant examples, and authoritative research.
As our example implies, now we would have to talk about the way young people follow examples and how bad examples lead to the development of troubled youth.
When you’re developing the body of the paper, you have to make your statements believable. Although you can write from personal experience, you need to support the claims with facts from studies, statistics, surveys, and research. Use Google Scholar or ScienceDirect to locate information you could use in the paper. When you write something like “scientists say that children develop their characters in accordance with the examples they follow,” you have to provide and cite a serious source that proves that statement for a fact.
Paragraph 3: Second Supporting Statement
You already have the thesis statement as your guiding point, so it won’t be difficult for you to figure out what the third paragraph should contain. In our case, this paragraph would talk about the values presented in the majority of today’s movies. We could provide examples of violence in the most popular movies, or we could talk about the degradation of women in Fifty Shades of Grey, as an example of an extremely popular film with no artistic value.
Remember to support your claims with examples or citations from relevant and trustworthy sources.
Paragraph 4: Third Supporting Statement
The third supporting argument is usually the weakest one in the thesis statement. However, that doesn’t mean your writing should be any less powerful in this section of the paper. Choose a strong argument and explain how it’s connected to the point of your paper.
In our case the third supporting statement would be related to the way celebrities influence young people’s values and behavior. We can provide examples of daily news that show these people as bad examples, but we can also insert quotes by psychologies to prove that our claims make a point.
Remember: each supporting statement is directly related to the main thesis statement. If you read each sentence as an individual part of the paper, you should immediately find its connection with the thesis statement. That’s a proof that you’ve written a coherent 5-paragraph essay.
Paragraph 5: the Conclusion
Now that you have all points that prove the thesis statement, you just need to connect the loose ends into a logical concluding paragraph. Here are the points your conclusion should contain:
- Reflection on the thesis statement. You should restate it with new words, but the echo of the original thesis statement should still be obvious. In our case, we won’t simply rephrase the statement about the way cinematography influences the development of young people. We introduced new information and facts throughout the body of the paper, so we’ll use some of them to bring new light on the thesis statement. We can include our own experience about the way a certain film influenced our behavior in a specific situation.
- A brief summary of the three main statements from the body of the essay.
- A final statement, which may come in the form of a lesson we learned or a hopeful idea for a change. Whatever the case is, this final part of the essay should clarify that the discussion has come to an end. The reader should be satisfied with the information they got – that’s the effect you want to achieve.
Final Thoughts: Only Practice Makes You a Great Essay Writer
Do you know why most college teachers don’t bother explaining the 5-paragraph essay formula to their students? They expect you to master it through lots of practice. They know that theory won’t make you perfect, but practice will keep making you a better writer. They are partially wrong, because you do need precise guidelines about the standard essay structure. However, they are right from the aspect that practice makes you (almost) perfect.
Now that you have the information you need, you’re only left with one thing: practice essay writing!
Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University