Since starting work at the UofL Writing Center, I’ve met a lot of students who have struggled with the “Three-Point-Five” or “Five Paragraph” essay, one of the most common formats taught in high schools right now. For anyone unfamiliar with this terminology, the Three-Point-Five, or Five Paragraph, essay encourages students to write an introductory paragraph with a clear thesis statement that outlines the arguments that will be made in the body, followed by a body of three paragraphs, one point (argument) each, which support the thesis, ending in a conclusion that restates the thesis and sums up the arguments made in each paragraph. Three points in five paragraphs; hence, the names.
For those of you who are more visual learners, this is what it looks likes:
Paragraph 1: Thesis
Paragraph 2: Point 1
Paragraph 3: Point 2
Paragraph 4: Point 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
Many students come to the Writing Center after receiving a less-than-satisfying grade on a paper of this kind, hoping that we can help with revision. Or, they turned in a paper like this and were told to do something else for the next paper, and they don’t know what to do. They are frustrated. This is what they did in high school, and they thought their high school classes were supposed to prepare them to write for college. They don’t understand why the professor said they needed to “do more.” Sometimes they’re afraid that they’ll have to throw out everything they learned in high school and re-learn how to write papers.
As a Writing Center tutor, I always try to stress that they don’t need to forget the Three-Point-Five essay; they just need to build on it. The Three-Point-Five essay provides a useful framework. When you build a house, you have to start with the foundation and the wooden frame. This frame gives the house shape; it’s what makes the house look like a house. However, the frame is bare, so you have to add the walls and the roof. The Three-Point-Five is like that frame. You can use it to get started in writing academic essays, but you may not want to stop there.
So what are the Pros and Cons of this type of essay? Let’s start with the Cons.
1) This format gives the reader the basic arguments three times, first in the thesis, then in the body, and then in the conclusion. This can feel repetitive, which is not a great rhetorical strategy. It may seem a little boring, or a little simplistic.
2) This is disjointed. Each body paragraph relates back to the thesis, but they don’t relate to each other. This means that the arguments stand by themselves, instead of working together.
3) A Three-Point-Five Essay is totally self-contained, meaning that it doesn’t connect with a broader topic or make room for more questions. It pretends to be the final word on the subject.
College professors generally don’t want to see this kind of essay because they want to read complicated and interesting papers. They don’t want to read the same thing three times, and they don’t want repetition to be the only strategy students have. Saying the same thing over and over again is not very convincing, after all. Professors would also like to know that their students can makes connections between the different parts of their arguments. So, instead of thinking of each paragraph as one separate argument that has nothing to do with any of the others, they want students to think of the paper as one argument with a lot of paragraphs providing support for that argument. Finally, professors want students to know that there is more to each subject than is given in the paper. No paper is the be-all and end-all of anything. It’s one side of a larger conversation about the topic of study.
Now that I’ve gone into the weaknesses in the Three-Point-Five format, let’s take a look at the Pros.
1) This format teaches students how to support a thesis. That’s an important skill to have. After all, the thesis is like the tip of a pyramid. It needs everything underneath it, like the body paragraphs, to hold it up.
2) The Three-Point-Five essay teaches students how to write a paragraph. It’s true that each paragraph has to connect with every other paragraph in some way, but each paragraph should discuss one idea. Otherwise, the reader gets lost, unsure of what evidence goes with what idea.
3) It teaches you not to bite off more than you can chew. In high school, three pieces of evidence can be enough to work with while learning the other skills I’ve already discussed. However, by the time students reach college, they can handle more. The workload gets bigger the farther in college you go because students get used to writing. However, you don’t want to try to take on more information than you can handle.
So, if you’re having trouble building onto the Three-Point-Five essay, here are some tips:
1) Make sure that your body paragraphs are connected. You can do this by looking for similarities or differences. You can say things like, “[My current point] is similar to [something I talked about earlier] because they both [mean the same thing]. Or, “Unlike [my last point], [my current point does something else].
2) In your conclusion, don’t just restate your thesis and summarize your argument. Bring in a new perspective. Think about new questions your arguments raise. Think about how your paper fits into a larger understanding of the topic you’ve been discussing. Maybe you question a long-held opinion, or maybe you support one. Sometimes writing teachers call the conclusion “the pay-off” because they see the conclusion as the writer’s chance to explain why it was an important use of the reader’s time. It’s the moment when the reader finds out what they’re supposed to take from this paper.
The Three-Point-Five essay is just one method of writing you’ve learned in the past that you can build upon as college writers. Writing for college can be challenging, and sometimes it will feel like past experience hasn’t really prepared you for it, but if you think about it, I’m sure you’ll see that the writing you’ve done in the past can be useful. Just like the Three-Point-Five essay, if you think about what each method has to offer, as well as what it doesn’t, you’ll find a way to use that method as a framework and build it up into a proper house…I mean, paper.