Education, Essays, Writers on Writing

Teaching the five-paragraph essay

English: Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954
Can't you just hear Hemingway mumbling about how bad first drafts suck? | Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, my Written Communication students workshopped their very first essays of the semester. I don’t like to ever ask my students to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself, so I wrote an essay along with them.

Early in the semester, I asked them to write ideas for free writing topics on little slips of paper that I placed in an envelope. We do a 10 – 15 minute free write in every class session. Sometimes I have a topic planned, and sometimes I’ll pull a couple of their ideas from the envelope and let them choose one. Usually, unless I have something I need to do to prepare for the next portion of the class, I’ll sit and free write with them. I think this is a useful activity for any writer.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote on the topic, “If you could have any job, what job would you choose. Why?”

I encouraged my students to choose one of their free writes for their first essay topic so they can see how easy it is to turn a 15-minute free write into an essay. I then chose this free write topic for my own essay. I typed up my free write word-for-word, without making any changes to it, and brought copies for the students to workshop yesterday.

Before we began our workshop, I wrote a nice Ernest Hemingway quote on the board: The first draft of anything is shit.

(Don’t tell anyone I used a curse word in the classroom.)

I thought this quote would give the students a laugh and help loosen them up for the workshop process, which can be daunting at first. They did laugh, and then they workshopped my essay, which I will admit, was total shit (pardon mine and Hemingway’s French.) But the essay I presented to them was a free write, and no real writer would expect such a piece of work to be any good.

First drafts are never good. And this is the lesson that I wanted to impart. I don’t want my students to be intimidated by writing because they think they have to sit down and write something good on their first shot. I wanted to show them that even their instructor’s essays are garbage at first.

After class, I went home and revised my essay and posted it to our online course in eCollege for their review. I’m hoping the students will actually take the time to read my revised essay and examine how it changed from the original. We’ll discuss it in class again next week, but I wanted them to have an example of a good (I think) essay to look at while doing their own revisions over the weekend.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you’ll know that I grab every opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. So I thought, why not share my essay on my blog? That will be one less blog post idea for me to come up with later. However, I sat down this morning to write a quick paragraph introducing my essay and ended up writing an entire blog post just on teaching the 5-paragraph essay.

Repeat: I sat down to write one blog post and ended up writing two. Score.

As you can see, this particular post is already longer than most people want to read. So, check back later to read my essay titled, “My Dream Career.” I’m sure you’re biting your nails in suspense, right? And maybe there will be more essays by me (and possibly by my students if they agree to let me share them) in the future.

Do you teach the 5-paragraph essay in your composition classes? Or, are you a student who is or has been subjected to this process? I’d like to hear about your experiences with the 5-paragraph essay. Please comment below.

~Mandy Webster

5 thoughts on “Teaching the five-paragraph essay”

  1. Hi, thanks for the linking to my post! Yeah, I definitely agree that being able to spit out a crappy first draft AND THEN starting to edit it (rather than editing every sentence as you go) is very valuable. For some reason, I can do that when writing a blog, but not when writing an “essay”.

    1. Yesterday, I also had the students free write about what they thought was the hardest part of the writing process. Then we discussed what they wrote. An overwhelming number of them seem to be caught up on editing in the early stages of writing. I think it’s a hard habit to break.

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