How to Write a Five-Paragraph Essay That Works

In this post, we discuss how to write a five-paragraph essay that works, regardless of subject or topic, with a simple—but effective—plan for completing a successful essay.
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In this post, we discuss how to write a five-paragraph essay that works, regardless of subject or topic, with a simple—but effective—plan for completing a successful essay.

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As a parent of five children (three now in high school), I've helped brainstorm and edit my fair share of essays. In particular, I've spent an inordinate amount of time helping tackle the five-paragraph essay. So I thought I would take a moment to share my tips for other parents and students who are facing this challenge now.

Believe it or not, the five-paragraph essay can be a relatively easy project once you understand how to break it down into pieces. Let's jump into that now.

Do you remember the difference between the 8 parts of speech, and how to use them? Are you comfortable with punctuation and mechanics? No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first-step to having a successful writing career.

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How to Write a Five-Paragraph Essay That Works

Step 1: Choose your subject.

You may have a list of subjects already provided. But if you have to choose your topic, pick one that can support a guiding thesis with three supporting pieces of information that can each support their own paragraphs. For instance, you might think the United States will take home the most medals at the next Summer Olympics. Can you identify three main ideas to support that claim? Or you might want to write a compare-and-contrast essay on why one restaurant is a more family friendly spot than another. Again, can you identify three main reasons to support your thesis?

Step 2: Do your research.

You chose your subject. Then, you dive into your research by looking for any and all information related to your subject. For this step, you want to collect more than you'll need, because it's a lot easier to discard excess than to drum up new material out of thin air—especially if you find yourself backed up against a deadline at the last minute. (Hey, I've been there.) Collect all the information you can, and then...

Step 3: Decide your essay's thesis.

Your thesis may have been your original subject, but it might change or become refined as you do your research. For instance, your original subject might be "the United States will take home the most medals at the next Summer Olympics," but then, you might change that to "the United States will dominate the swimming events," because covering the entire Olympics got too overwhelming—or it weakened your argument. If you nail your thesis, the next part will be easy.

Step 4: Create your essay outline.

This step is so important to writing essays that I continue to use outlines to this day for articles and blog posts, which are usually a lot more complicated than five-paragraph essays. But for your five-paragraph essay, here's a good outline to complete:

  1. Introductory paragraph. Jot down your thesis.
  2. First body paragraph. Identify a main idea or point that supports your thesis.
  3. Second body paragraph. Identify a second idea or point that supports your thesis.
  4. Third body paragraph. Identify a third idea or point that supports your thesis.
  5. Conclusion paragraph. Connect the dots from the previous three paragraphs to show how you proved your thesis.

(Note: This final paragraph does not present new ideas. Rather, it ties everything before it together into one nicely formed essay.)

Step 5: Write your essay.

The nice thing about step four is that you should already know which ideas to put into each paragraph. Now, it's just a matter of filling in the blanks and providing the supporting information that you should have on hand from step two (your research).

  • For the introductory paragraph, try hooking the reader with a provocative sentence followed by a supporting idea or two that leads into the concluding sentence that more times than not will be your thesis.
  • For the three body paragraphs, pick one main idea for each that will be your opening sentence followed by supporting evidence, examples, and explanation. Then, conclude each paragraph in a way that helps transition to your next paragraph all the way to the conclusion.
  • For the conclusion paragraph, connect the dots from the previous body paragraphs to end on a strong note that makes it clear that you've proven your opening thesis, whether you're making a persuasive argument or just explaining the positives and negatives of a certain activity—and letting your readers draw their own conclusions based off their preferences.

Step 6: Edit and proofread your essay.

Many essayists feel like they've climbed the mountain by finishing the first five steps. And yeah, they have in a sense. But mountain climbers know that after the summit comes the descent, and the best essays get a thorough edit and proofread after the first draft.

(When should writers edit their work?)

Here are a few editing/proofreading tips:

  • Give yourself time to "step away" from the essay before editing/proofreading. If you immediately try editing after completing the first draft, it's common to "skip" over mistakes and omissions because you "know what you meant to say."
  • Read your essay out loud. I often do this with my articles and blog posts. It helps me find "missing words" and identify clunky phrases and transitions. If you're able to get someone to help, have a friend or family member read your essay out loud to you. Speaking of which...
  • Get a friend or family member to take a look. If they want to break out the red pen, great. If they don't feel comfortable with that level of editing, just ask them to let you know where things don't make sense or "lost them."

Step 7: Submit it.

In most cases, you're probably writing this essay for a class or contest. If you've gone through the previous six steps, you should have a pretty strong essay. Congratulations and good luck!

This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and to bring readers into the experiences described. Writers learn how to avoid the dreaded responses of "so what?" and "I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learning to trust their writing intuitions, and developing a skilled internal editor to help with revision.

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