Many teachers have students start out writing essays using a five-paragraph structure because it’s a simple way to structure a paper—an introduction, your top three points to make, and a conclusion that ties it all together. Unfortunately, more likely than not, the five-paragraph structure will be more of a hindrance to getting your point across than a helper. Collegiate and professional writing almost always strays from the five paragraph structure that your teacher forced upon you in Freshman year English. Here’s why:
Some topics just don’t fit into three sub points
Let’s take for example, an argumentative essay on the Miranda Supreme Court case. In its decision, the court says that the Miranda warnings are required for cases of “custodial interrogation.” Therefore there must be both custody and interrogation. In order to write an essay on the Miranda decision, you only have two main points to argue, so there’s no reason why you should force a third paragraph. Similarly, you might construct an argument that needs four supporting paragraphs, like an essay on William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” which is a four-stanza poem. These are just two examples, but you can easily see why sometimes arguments just don’t break down neatly into three subtopics.
Some sub points are bigger than others
If you look at how much smaller this sub point is than the one above, it’s pretty clear that one above deserves a full paragraph and the other does not. An unbalanced five paragraph essay looks sloppy—a little like this part of the post.
If you’re moving away from a five paragraph essay format, you’ll still want to use some of the thought processes that were drilled into you in High School. The first step is, of course, to think of your thesis; what’s the main point you want to argue? From there, you can move into flushing out your argument through expertly crafted paragraphs.
How to structure a paragraph
A paragraph, by definition, should be structured around an idea central to supporting your main thesis or argument. An easy way to structure a thesis is through a list, though there are other, more elegant ways. If you use a list then you already know what topics your body paragraphs will be in a general form.
One example of a very good outline template. Credits to NewView Options
Examples are always helpful for illustrating, so if you were writing an English essay on The Great Gatsby, your thesis could be something like: “F. Scott Fitzgerald uses symbolism, figurative language, and Gatsby’s disappointment to criticize the American Dream.” Now say, you are writing about the symbols that Fitzgerald uses in the novel to criticize the American dream, you would not want to structure your entire paragraph around three different symbols that mean different things. Rather than talking about the Green Light and the Eyes of Doctor T.J. Ecklebert in the same massive, page-long paragraph, break it up—one (or multiple) paragraphs devoted to each symbol. After all, each one is an idea and thus deserves it’s own paragraph. Then within each paragraph, use evidence along with analysis to support your thesis. You can start out with interpretive claims (e.g. “the Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburt represent the eyes of God”) and then back it up with specific examples.
In general, here are the DOs and DON’Ts of structure when writing essays:
Link your evidence to the overall idea to prove the thesis (it also helps the essay flow better and make transitions seamless).
Use specific topic sentences—it’s ok to have paragraphs with only one piece of evidence as long as what you have to say about it is important.
Keep related topics close together. The reader doesn’t want to have to flip three pages back to remember what you wrote about earlier.
Introduce sufficient background before your analysis.
Outline and re-outline your topics and points until it all makes sense.
Include analysis! Usually papers that score low do so because they spend too much time on background and don’t include enough analysis.
Put two ideas in the same paragraph (even if they are slightly similar).
Have a paragraph that’s too long. If it’s longer than 3/4s to a full page, it’s probably a run-on paragraph.
Use such advanced sentence structure that no one can understand you. Simple sentences are easy to read and understand.
Judge an essay by its length (alone).
Summary: Developing a paragraph should be as natural as an idea. Essays are, after all, just a way of communicating human thought into an easy to read format. Let the paragraphs and structure of your essay adapt to the size and power of your ideas.