Posted on: December 11, 2019
The Five-Paragraph Essay is the essay structure you will use for almost every piece of writing in high school, from term papers to standardized tests. The structure is simple: there’s an introductory paragraph in which you present your argument, three body paragraphs in which you build support for that argument, and a conclusion in which you summarize your argument. Some people call it “the Hamburger Essay,” because the meat of the essay — the body paragraphs — is sandwiched between two more general paragraphs, the introduction and conclusion.
Your introductory paragraph does just that: introduces the reader to your topic. The most important element of this paragraph is a strong thesis statement. This is the main argument of the essay. And, yes, a good thesis should be an argument — something that a reasonable person could disagree with. Pretend you’re writing a paper about the social movements of the 1960s. A thesis statement like, “There were many social movements in the 1960s,” is not argumentative. This is an historical fact. A stronger thesis would look like: “The greatest achievement of the civil rights movement was the passage of legislation to address racial inequalities.” This might not be the kind of argument that provokes heated debates at the dinner table, but it does need to be proved through evidence and reasoning.
Your job in the body of the essay is to prove your thesis. Your body paragraphs should each provide a different point of support for your thesis statement. In our paper on the civil rights movement, the first body paragraph could discuss the pressure activists put on legislators, the second could examine the legislation passed, and the third could explain why this legislation was the most significant achievement of the movement.
Each body paragraph begins with a topic sentence — this is a like a mini-thesis statement for that paragraph. The topic sentence for the first paragraph of our essay on the civil rights movement might be: “One of the main goals of the civil rights movement was the passage of legislation to redress racial inequalities.” The rest of the paragraph should provide concrete examples that support this topic sentence. In this case, you might point to specific marches or use quotes from activists discussing the importance of legislation.
Your conclusion is where you bring all the pieces of your essay together. Think of this paragraph like the closing arguments of a court case — it’s your last chance to prove your case to the reader now that they know all the evidence. In this case, I’ll conclude by saying: While the five-paragraph essay can sometimes feel rote, it also provides the foundation for a clear, well-organized, and compelling essay. As you become a more confident writer, you’ll find that you can go beyond the five-paragraph essay — in college, you’ll write essays with six, seven, even ten paragraphs—but the essential elements of your essay will remain the same. Learn how to master this form of writing now, and you will excel at academic writing in the years to come.
Originally published December 11, 2019