Verbal Remedy AKA Denise

Verbal Remedy AKA Denise
Del Mar, California, The One That's In A State Of Steep Decline
January 18
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APRIL 15, 2009 11:54AM

How To Write Very, Very Badly

Rate: 68 Flag


In High School, I was "taught" to write five-paragraph essays (and when I say "taught," I mean "forced.") The five-paragraph essay was the only form allowed in Sophomore English class. Any deviation from the five-paragraph essay form was punished with a low grade. For example, the parenthetical aside in the first sentence of this paragraph is not specifically on-topic and would have resulted in a half-grade reduction on the essay. As a result of the instruction I received in writing essays, I concluded it is a very stupid way to teach young people to structure their thoughts.

Each paragraph of a five-paragraph essay must contain at least five sentences. The sentences may be as long or as short as you want to make them, but they must all relate to the same common theme. Even if you have nothing more to say about a particular idea, you may not end a paragraph until you have written five sentences. If you end your paragraph before you have composed five sentences, you will receive a negative red comment and a lower grade. I know; I tried.

Shapes are very important in the five-paragraph essay; specifically, funnels, hourglasses, and pyramids. You see, the essay itself must have a shape, and each paragraph within the essay must also have a shape. Funnels take a broad idea and then get progressively specific. Pyramids, on the other hand, start with a specific and then get broad. Based on those two descriptions, you can probably figure out what an hourglass essay does; I always thought there should also be a Santa-shape.

Every paragraph in a five-paragraph essay must have a topic sentence, because a reader will never know what you are writing about if you do not come right out and state it explicitly. In the case of this paragraph, the topic of the topic sentence is the topic sentence itself--how meta is that? (I just lost points for going off-topic, and also for using a dash, which my English teacher hated for some reason and would have circled in red; I also just lost more points with this parenthetical aside, but it's a sentence, an therefore it counts toward this paragraph's sentence quota). All sentences following the topic sentence should relate directly to the topic sentence, or you are not writing right. This paragraph, about topic sentences, does not have a shape because it went off-topic, and with all the other deductions piling up, my grade on this essay will therefore be no higher than a C.

Finally, of course, a five-paragraph essay must contain five paragraphs. Even if you think you are finished writing about your essay topic (which does not get its own topic sentence), you cannot simply stop writing. What you must do in that case is summarize your main idea for the reader. If you follow the reliable old tell-em-what-you're-gonna-tell-em, tell-em, tell-em-what-you-told-em structure, you really only have to write three original paragraphs between your introduction and your conclusion. In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay form is a really awful exercise in rigid form for its own sake which sucks all the joy and creativity out of the act of writing, and which should be relegated to the compost pile of instructional history forthwith.

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I hope it's not taught anymore. (I initially had this in the blog, but that would either have made it the beginning of a sixth paragraph, which is not allowed, or a freestanding sentence, which is also not allowed, just as off-topic parentheticals are not allowed, and as a penalty for not writing a five-paragraph essay, I would have recieved an F for this blog entry.)
Wow, I would have hated that. We didn't have to follow such rigid structure when I was in HS. My run-on sentences were red-marked all the time. I just didn't know when to put a period to a though. :-)

Nicely done BTW.
I had an English teacher in the tenth grade who hated any use of parentheses, she said it was "apologizing" and was famous for her one word explanations for why she didn't like something you wrote. One word that she wrote once across an essay of mine that I have never forgotten was the word trite. Trite.

If I'd had the means I would have countered her trite with my own word. Brevity.

Teaching methods for so many subjects are so lacking, squashing the curiosity and joy for learning out of our children like an unwelcome arachnid beneath a shoe.
Love the pencil sharpener graphic. Some executive somewhere, must use this pencil sharpener as a "employee recognition award", but I digress.

Let me tell you I didn't learn to write because of some pedantic English teacher. I learned to write, because people were depending on me to communicate clearly with them and others. My grade was "you get to keep your job." Highly motivating, isn't it.

I live in a professional world where everyone is a copy editor. The fact that you need to change something I wrote is not an indication that you write better than me. It just means you are a "contol freak" who has to put your fucking fingerprints on everything other people do to justify your existence as a medicore manager.

Sorry, please excuse me for highjacking your rant and substituting mine. A thousand pardons.
This is a gem, so damned clever in its Moebius twists I'm almost in awe, even though I know what you can do. Totally excellent.
I teach the “five paragraph essay.” Believe it or not, the five paragraph essay is a useful heuristic for many student writers. Most of my students need the structure of a five paragraph essay to organize their ideas. Obviously I have a few talented and precocious student writers who deviate from the five paragraph essay. If they go off on their own coherently, I certainly will not penalize them.

I too used to chafe at the standard format for essays when I was a student, and I used to think exactly like you do until I became a teacher. Unfortunately most students are just not proficient at organization. Nor are most students proficient at using and manipulating language, thus the need for structured writing strategies. The challenge for me is in recognizing the students who do have a gift with language, and allowing them to experiment with form and structure.
I’ve got to run—class in 20 min. Still have to finish lunch---
This is turning out to be a good week for rants. The 5-paragraph essay eventually became a 3-part diagram for journalism, political and corporate writing:

Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.
In PR, we always followed the three-paragraph rule for press releases, especially considering the limited attention span of the editors we were targeting. Excellent post and rated...
Rated for excellent use of parenthetical aside in the first sentence. Bonus points for "forthwith" as concluding word. All F's aside, you definitely sucked the wind right of the topic. As they say in the public schools, "Good job!"
Rated for finally showing me what I should have done to symbolically flip-off my 11th grade English teacher!

Rules suck the creativity out of writing. Except for maybe two that I lightly adhere to, both courtesy of William Strunk's Elements of Style:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."


Rather, really, very, little, pretty: These are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."
Frankly my dear, I think these principles may be quite useful in teaching the art of writing to teenagers. I've read too many essays - written by adults - which do not effectively transmit their ideas, and several of the above-mentioned instructions would be quite useful to exercising the communication skills. It may be a bit formal, or one-size-fits-all, but one needs to understand the fundamentals before one is able to pull off a lyrical riff with aplomb. I cant get this song out of my head...

And PLEASE tell me the photo is of a REAL pencil sharpener.
they were still teaching it to my kids in California when they were in school, graduated in 2001 and 2005, I don't remember getting it in high school in New York state in the early 60s

but Jesus, what really appalled me was your illustration, yikes!
I got lucky in 10th grade with a teacher who told me "once I know you know the rules, I will allow you to break them - if you can tell me why/how it enhances the writing." I will never know if she bought some of my justifications, or whether they merely amused her, but it did teach me the rules. More or less. Later, I found the formula handy, but only for formulaic writing, which is usually no fun.
On another note, where can I get a pencil sharpener like that? It's perfect punctuation to your post!
I want that pencil sharpener!!!

You brought back painful memories of being stifled!! Yet, one must learn some rules of writing.... or so I thought, until I read James Frey and Augusten Burroughs.

But, to be able to write like Isabel Allenda or Kathleen Kent (The Heretic's Daughter) would be a miracle!
I kinda like this post, but I agree with Monsieur Chariot. Having had the pleasure of reading countless freshman essays which fail in the most basic of ways (such as providing a thesis), I am of the opinion that kids need to be drilled in the fundamentals of structure before trying any tricky stuff. Without that, they don't understand why their writing isn't working or how to improve it--and they can't identify poor writing when they read it either. Then you have dogs sleeping with cats and the whole world falls apart...Gosh darn it! It's a matter of national security!
I was taught this in school. I forgot it as soon as I could.
@ M Chariot and Ghostwriter -- I fail to understand something within your both your comments. What skills are we trying to get these 9th and 10th graders to develop?

If as you contend that some 9th graders and some adults can't communicate effectively, what's the root cause?

Please help me understand how some outdated, and in my opinion, questionably effective pedagogy, achieves this goal?

Thanks for helping me understand.
Your last paragraph is a screamingly funny example of what students do to pad their essays - they talk about what they're going to talk about in the context of what they've been talking about.

"In conclusion" made me snort.
Fantastic. But you've used "you" my dear, so please deduct some points. Oh, and I've just seen rules from two high school English teachers--from two separate schools--that explicitly forbid the use of any form of the verb "to get." WTF? Like so many "rules" that teachers come up with, it probably was overused or abused, and I understand that these teachers are encouraging more colorful verbs (which leads me to another rant--people shouldn't actively seek alternatives to perfectly good words just for the sake of it; striving for more specific, accurate words is the real ticket. Then, boom, two birds with one stone.) but still, give the kids some credit! High schoolers (esp. in these two particular schools) are perfectly capable of hearing that "get" may be uninteresting or imprecise right here, right now, in this particular context, without being told it's "illegal." That's how rumors start. Like the rumor that a sentence can't be started with a coordinate conjunction. When my son's second grade teacher told he he couldn't start with and or but, I did the old, "Hand me any book off that bookshelf behind you" trick, whereby I pointed out examples on every single page of those words starting a sentence. (I'm not usually such an asshole at teachers' conferences but there were a ton of other issues and I was really up to here). Again, grade school teachers are trying to prevent the fragment, but they need to have a little faith in the complexity of their students' brains, or, perhaps, introduce a little complexity into their students' brains by suggesting that the CCs must start an independent clause if they are to be used at the front.

I'm observing a charter school right now for some research I'm doing, and just today I read three essays that were the grossest examples I've ever read regarding that "Tell 'em what you're going to say" crap. I'm talking about an entire introductory paragraph filled with "In this paragraph, I'm going to be telling you about my charter school. I will say what I like about it and I will compare it to my old school. In this paragraph I will also let you know about the friends I've made here." etc. etc. etc. OMG, I didn't know where to begin. The problem is that the teacher who probably taught this little trick to them was standing right there, so I really sort of looked at things like spelling and tense and so forth and just moved on. When I saw that they all did their introductions that way, I knew I was dealing with a teacher issue, not a student one. (I left before I could read their conclusions, thank god. And we all know what they would have looked like: "What I just told you is why I like my charter school. And I told you that I have made some friends here." AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH.

Thanks, Verbal, for letting me get all that out. (oops--lost point for the "get.")
Man, this is so true. The other night I was trying to help my 3rd grader with a paragraph writing assignment. This ONE particular paragraph was supposed to contain, among other things, a "hook" for an intro, a simile, an alliteration, a summarizing sentence and I blessedly forget what all else -- there were about 9 criteria. By the time she was finished with this aberration, she was near tears and I was about ready to pull my hair out. Does anybody think that this will encourage kids to actually like writing?
If there was to be a good example of Santa-shaped writing structure, I would turn to Arthur James. Forthwith.

And to JessBabbling: Oh, but I can't help but love it when someone sticks the word: "rather" in a sentence. Not like, "I'd rather have sex with a rabid orangutan," nor "Rather than hit myself with a hammer, I'd like a piece of cake," but rather (!): "He was a prig, rather."
Oh yes it's still taught, and in all kinds of fun new forms. I had to sit through a whole teacher in-service learning about "power writing." A Power 1 sentence was your topic sentence, Power 2 was a sentence supporting your #1, and Power 3 was a detail explaining your #2. I'm writing this and noticing that it sounds like potty talk. It was about that useful.
Oh, and did you also have to do transition sentences with those good ole conjunctive adverbs?
I'm not a writer, so I just write like I talk. I change paragraphs when I think they should be changed. I won't win any awards for writing, but I do get my point across. Good post. Everyone has memories of some teacher who was an asshole.
I personally like paragraphs that are shaped like penises. I don't want them to be too long or thick, but I hope they have balls! ;)
Dog--OK, but I don't want to hijack the thread. I'll be brief.

By the time I see a student (in college), kids should know what a thesis sentence is, right? Well, they don't, and it's a big problem. Someone who is unable to articulate a main point in their own writing is less likely to be able to identify a main point in someone else's writing--which makes them poor readers as well. Imagine a persuasive essay written by someone tripping on LSD--that will give you a sense of what reading these things is like (as well what a difficult job it is getting students to talk about and understand various essays that they read--essays NOT in 5 para form). Most of the kids, when confronted about it, say things like, "No one ever said this to me before," and "I always got A's in high school." In theory, kids should learn this stuff in HS so that we are able to do more interesting things in college. Instead, teachers just move students on through regardless of merit. It happens in college too. None of this answers your question, however. It's just my rant.

I treat the 5 paragraph BS like a tool--we have lots of "tools" in our toolbox. Some are more useful than others. I certainly don't require students to write in the 5 paragraph form, but we talk about it, and, I assure you, it's useful. The form is a template, not a straight-jacket.

Does that answer?
You did it in 5! No fun, though, since your best thoughts were formulating paragraph 6 and burning in your chest! Not fair at all!
Too rigid, like you said. I had long forgotten this and was an English major! I give you big points for even remembering this essay style in such detail.. and the pencil sharpener is the the perfect beginning and ending, making a very good point! But I hate it when you sharpen your pencil just perfectly and smooth off the grit from the tip and the whole point of lead just falls out, leaving a hollow in the pencil head. Now if that isn't just the most symbolic piece of...
And, btw, I think that business of being a poor reader explains a lot about US politics--I notice a common denominator between students who read well and political ideology.
I missed this exercise- and am so not sorry. That or I just ignored my teacher....either option is plausible.
OMG! Cartouche... I love you!
I was taught to write by wild coyotes, so I never came across this.


Well, would you believe it was a couple of house cats then?

Thumbed. Especially for beating BBE to the punch. :-D
And was your teacher Sr. Mary X? My daughter is dealing with the same sort of thing now - she's very imaginative and she absolutely hates it.
I love this!
Those who argue for the stifling rules just want to teach the lowest common denominator. Actually I used the form alot in school, because I am a weak writer, but some of my classmates took risks and that was good too.
Thanks a lot, Glenn. I bit.
Professor in graduate class told us we have to write very short sentences, and we can't use semicolons, 'because you don't know how to use them'.
I asked, 'You don't like Marcel Proust then?'
He said,'I don't know who you are talking about'.
As a hack who gets paid to write for paying clients, it's always been interesting managing a client who was force-fed silly rules like this.

Yup, go figure. Some people are dying to pay for bad writing.
Ah, VR, it is. Unfortunately, most people can't write effectively even in that format. Perhaps, too, one has to learn the rule to know how to break them. And when.
I give this an A+ for five paragraphs and five sentences that are coherent. :-)
I, on the other hand will write a post called "How to Post Blogs and Alienate People." :-D
ghostwriter -- Thanks for the clarity. You also pointed to a root cause: passing kids through the system who haven't mastered basic writing skills.

So much time is wasted on the what and the how, without an explanation of why you're learning this skill.

Using this pedagogy, while not holding a student accountable for its mastery, isn't going improve the student who comes to you in college. I understand your point, and sincerely thank you for replying.
What Mr. Mustard said.
Whew! I churned this puppy out in, like, 10 minutes and then had to run to meetings until now. Sorry about the post-and run, but goodness, look at this discussion! Cool.

When I taught freshman comp in grad school, I refused to teach formulas like the 5-graf abomination. I DID work with students who had major structure issues with things like scissors and tape, cutting apart sentences and shuffling them around on the desk in conference, looking at logical flow, etc.

I do understand that some BASIC WRITERS might benefit from the 5-graf form.

Sadly, however, I was enrolled in Accelerated English. This was the GIFTED class. We all wanted to hang ourselves by the end of the year. It was also in this class that I learned to fake notecards and fabricate outlines after the fact.

Oh, and Cartouche's homework is to compose a penis-shaped blog post with balls, class.
Sadly, my kids are learning this right now. Standardized tests for schools are based upon the 5-paragraph essay. There is NO deviation permitted. Every essay reads exactly the same. I die a little inside each time I have to read one of them (as I've done reading your example - no offense to you, though, since you're only doing it for illustrative purposes.) :)
While I agree with you about the 5 paragraph essay for non-timed work, it is a very useful device to use to write essays for tests when you don't have the time for fancy stuff.

It is still taught. My 3rd and 4th grade sons use it in their time writings.
Oh, and search though I might, I cannot figure out whether the pencil sharpener is available for purchase. It does, however, appear to be the source of a great deal of feminist outrage on the net, for what that's worth.
One must wonder if there would be male outrage if the figure were of the opposite sex?


Doubt it.

(thumbified because writing should be fun)
The above is not an apology.
I think I injured myself reading about Lainey's experience.
Some teachers are....hmmm...can't think of any nice way to say it and don't want to insult witches or female dogs. The ONLY time I failed anything in English was due to one of these....non-teachers. rated because you were so daring and used parenthesis (gosh, can't remember the spelling for more than one parenthesis so failed here too).
VR and Jodi -- I guess my sarcasm wasn't cutting enough in my comment about the sharpener. I thought the concept of an executive awarding this disgusting object as "employee recognition" was outrage enough.
English teachers are the main reason students hated English; ditto for history teachers and math teachers and -- well, you get the idea -- and you'll notice how my rebellious self has found an excuse to slip in dashes :-P -- and if your English teacher hated dashes, imagine how she would have reacted to using and an "emoticon", though she would have to admit there is a long, proud tradition of using symbolic objects in literature, including the "pointy-finger-thingy" that figured so prominently in one of my favorite books, the highly-regarded The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne -- and now, dear reader, I fear I have run too far and too wide with this hopelessly compound sentence, and I shall endeavor to end it, since I still have four more sentences to add before I can complete this paragraph, but surely such a convoluted masterpiece should give evidence of wit and careful thought and garner me an A+ when it is completed -- just as Ralphie Cunningham's composition did in that other great literary classic A Christmas Story -- oh, and don't forget to drink your Ovaltine and don't shoot your eye out.
I forgot -- I must have one of those pencil sharpeners. How to?
I would have flunked for sure.
oh, it's not taught quite so stringently, but it's still taught. Here in MOCO, MD - they call them BCR - brief, constructive/constructed? responses.

My favorite story is when a 5th grade class staged a revolt (of sorts) on a day they had a sub - when the teacher returned the next day, they had papered the walls and boards with posters - NO MORE BCRs.

egads! my middle school child only mildly complains - she seems to know it's b.s. - "well, I have to write x number of paragraphs and a summary paragraph even if I have nothing else to say."
A five banger essay is an amazing tool. When it is sharp is is very persuasive. When it is a hack job churned out by a teenager, it is usually crap.

A teacher who uses it as a place to start is up to good.

At least for philosophy students. Without a five panger paradigm, the arguments undergrad philosophy students write trend toward gibberish at best and working agianst their own point at worst.

For technical writers and writers of arguments, it is a good form. And when it is not ham fisted, it can be elegant.
I think the picture sums up this up perfectly... :0 (The five paragraph essay that is - not your post!) LOL
Every time I heard Dubya say "what the American people need to know," I thought he was accidentally reading the instructions in the margins.
I always had trouble with long papers because I wrote fairly economically and felt like I was adding filler to make it the proper length. But 5 paragraphs is short. English teachers put too much emphasis on the trivial. Length, outlines, etc. I hated outlines. You just write. Structure should come naturally.
What is that, the prison sex pencil sharpener? I may have to use that pic that next time I write about a bailout.
Ha! (Sandra’s injury). Funny, fun post, amazingly apropos picture. (Did you find the picture 1st then write – or after?)

Guess I was lucky. We had an heroic English teacher in upstate NY who scared the shit out of freshman, but brought true beauty to the art of teaching by the time we were sophomores taking Expository Writing, Creative Writing, yada yada. She drummed rules into the ones who needed a clue, and cultivated a real appreciation for writing in the rest. I loved Mrs. Witkowski! (Sorry for going off here, but she was great).

And I’ll 2nd VRs call for Cartouche’s penis and balls blog!
If I followed those rules I would over think everything to death. This was interesting . I went to so many schools I can't even remember all their names, much less some rules. (Of course it may just be hormonal.)
p.s. it's pretty much impossible to get a perfect score on the SAT essay without employing the 5-paragraph essay. I mean, sure, you hear about people doing it. But i think those are urban legends.

a five paragraph essay is one of the surest ways to get a perfect score on that SAT essay. That, and using words like bloviate.
Great post. Loved the part that is sucks all the joy and creativity out of writing which is so true.
Why do I have this incredible urge to go out back of school and sneak a cigarette?. . . . .
I've never heard of this incredibly stifling method of teaching writing. I don't remember being taught a great deal of rigid structure for writing, but I may have forgotten, since it was several eons ago.

I'm sure it's necessary to teach writing structure, particularly to all those non-readers, but to hold to all rules inflexibly, suffocates not only creativity, but expression. This method is sure to make deadly dull, over-wordy writing. And it's sure to make still another subject boring that could be lively and satisfying.

I do remember one thing from those eons ago - Whenever I was required to write something with a minimum number of words, I always wondered why I should I use more words than it took to make the point or impart the information.
I failed English my junior year of high school because I refused to follow this format. I hated it then, I hate it now.

In law school, I learned to write one-sentence paragraphs with incomprehensible sentences. The latter was far more fun and far more challenging.
Oh Pooooooo, Tom. That is gross hyperbole. There are great English teachers out there. I had one and I was one (an English professor to be exact, for awhile). I had the most amazing English teacher ever, my senior year in high school: she changed my life and helped me realize my dream of becoming the writer I am and knew I wanted to be my whole life. Don't tar us all with the same brush. And there have to be SOME rules. Good grief. I taught college kids who could barely write a sentence, let alone a paragraph, never mind an entire essay. And whose grammar was, well, sad is not the word. So, while Verbal has a point, writing is like painting, you can't just give a kid a brush and say Okay! You are an artist. At some point, perspective and lines and figures have to be learned. Chariot and others apparently agree. Hell, I even learned how to diagram sentences and it didn't kill me (and it wouldn't kill a few other OSers to pick up a few points on clarity, grammar and spelling, as well as organization, either). You can bet Faulkner, among others, knew ALL about the rules before he decided which ones to break. I don't adhere to the essay rules because I don't need to. But kids' essays are a mess when they don't have any rules to follow. They need SOME guidelines.

Okay, rant over.
Verbal: I think that by the graphic you're trying to say this is a very anal exercise.

Cartouch: I laughed out loud.


as a former English teacher I have to say that this really is a good exercise that teaches young people some rudimentary fundamentals of composition
This echoes Lainey's comment about the essays she read in her teaching observation. I was faced with having to deal with the aftermath of structured essays in a college "science for teachers" course I taught. The first paragraphs of almost every paper I read was a list of what was going to happen in the rest of the paper. Sometimes it was the same thing being reworded five consecutive times! I would end up writing nasty stuff like "Get on with it already!" In the margins. I eventually put together a guide wherein I ridiculed examples of student work from previous classes. I don't know why my evaluations were so bad...
Just one more...My grandfather used to say, after sitting on an uncomfortable seat for long time, "My ass feels like it's been in a pencil sharpener." After seeing that "device" I think I will change that to "My has been a pencil sharpener."
Damn, they were trying to kill us creatively, weren't they? It's a wonder we're clever at all after this forced nuts and bolts approach. I'm glad you ended your piece on a "forthwith." Powerful stuff.
Margie Jones would have never subjected us to this sort of Pavlovian writing. The world benefits from the free form, and the free-form teacher~

(Although the essay as haiku might offer some interesting, if anally-rentive, challenges.)

Rayted. Pic was great too~
I broke all the rules
and since I wrote concisely
the teacher was pissed
Maybe, but the structured foundation led you to become an excellent writer, so it couldn't have been all that bad. Think of it like scales and arpeggios on the piano.
Wow! I didn't get to the end of the comments. Just adding: 5 paragraph essays are taught in elementary school first (around 5th grade it's a biggie) and we continue in middle school. My school uses Step-Up-to-Writing and you color code the topic sentences and details. It's obnoxious. I never used it. I taught mostly ESL so my focus even with writing was communication--increasing vocabulary and incorporating English grammar (since those kids had other grammar systems already inplanted in their noggins).

I teach math and science now. I'm much happier!

Teaching writing is intense. The best way is working with kids one-on-one to help them work on their writing. On rare occassion I'd have a student read what they'd written aloud for the entire classand then I'd ask questions to elicit different ways to express ideas when I thought the writing was unclear (or just bad).

Readers make better writers than non-readers. You can learn all you need to know from reading.
The real problem with the five paragraph essay is that it's hard to break that habit, once instilled. It's not a bad tool for teaching structure, actually. But, then, it must be ruthlessly broken once structure has been understood.

Flashbacks to catholic school!

The nuns! The priests!

I repeat "waterfalls, waterfalls" as I rock back and forth.

Pretend each point above was a paragraph, santa shaped, along with this one.
Interesting and complicated, depending on students and quality of teachers. Really a problem as writing is thinking and our students don't think much. I taught writing as a process, even wrote a book about it. Would love to talk to you sometime about it. Let me know ...
My daughter is taught this. It's pretty useful. It's all in the grading. Aside from possibly math, most things can not be graded to a check list.

The principal of my daughter's school says that different teachers will teach you to write in different ways, the idea is to practice until it comes naturally.

Some parents object if they can't figure out why something was graded. So rather than grading for something intangible, like coherence and a good argument, they grade for number of sentences in a paragraph. One can argue that a poor essay is coherent, but one can't argue about the number of sentences in a paragraph.
VR, you're a very, very good writer. So am I. Writers such as we can and will break the so-called "rules" of writing because we are genuine writers, not merely literate. But sadly, there are millions upon millions of people who will only ever be literate, if they can even manage that. Those people need strict guidance and rules if they are to become literate, and so I think such excercises as the five paragraph essay are necessary. Students like you and I will transcend them, of course, even if only in the privacy of their childhood bedrooms and their childhood journals.
My wife had to teach the 5 paragraph essay to a remedial english class. These twits had two weeks ... TWO WEEKS ... to complete it, and only about half to 2/3rds of the class actually got it in on time.

I compare and contrast that to my stint at a tony prep school where, when we came back from winter break, we knew we were headed into the dreaded period known as "comp-a-days."

We had to write a page and a half creative piece daily, and we had class six days a week.

So we had to write twelve things in the time these kids had to gen up a five paragraph essay.

I was utterly dumbfounded.

But, it explains how I could write my weekly -- or should I say weakly -- columns in a half an hour or so.
Hmmmm....Rob A. reminds me of a notion I've got me that "literacy" as humans have defined it for the past couple-hundred years peaked recently and, due to lack of absolute necessity, will disappear sometime in the next couple-hundred (except for a handful of scholarly types in universities).

I do see the value in teaching the "shapes."

Still don't see why the shapes require 5 grafs and 5 sentences per graf.

Most readable online grafs are 1-2 sentences long. I wince at how dense those 5 blocks of text up there are, and I commend everybody for wading through them, because it's not easy to do so.

And since we're talking best/worst teachers, the one I had Senior Year, Miss Eileen Driscoll, was the one who combined reading and writing effectively. Each week a 5-PAGE essay was due (notes, outline, rough draft, and final draft). It all had to be written in class--so, 5 hours. Again, I always faked the notes and outline posthumously. But churning out 10 pages of handwritten essay based on a literary prompt (with no idiotic form requirements) WAS a highly effective way to help us develop the idea to write quickly, tightly, and well.

(It goes w/o saying that I agree with the idea that readers make better writers, and that some people are "natural" writers who might benefit from the structure of the 5-Graf in third grade, but who've outgrown it massively by the time they hit Junior High.)
I spent a lot of years teaching business writing and one of my main tasks was to undo habits learned in school of "how to write". Academic writing and "real world" writing have very little in common.
The other thing you mentioned, the long, convoluted sentences ... actually, also a good training tool for those in grade and high school. The long sentence teaches punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary skills. Then, when they get into college, we immediately say, "No more long sentences! Short, concise!!" Because at least half have learned what the long sentence was meant to teach them by that time. The other half ... well ... in my experience, they can improve their skills over time if they keep at it, but writing will never be a strong suit.
I know that I had to do these, but my brain...blocked...out the...trauma!

Look folks, just do what I do,...when in doubt, throw in too many commas, or three dots...
I never had to do that. Whatever you did, something worked to make you a clear and articulate writer. Maybe it was in spite of your five paragraph essay instructions. I did find the method used here repetitive and obtuse unlike your usual style. Go back, Verbal, go back!
As my dad always says, "Rules are for the people who don't already know how to do something." Unfortunately, many people need to approach something like writing in a very basic way, just like beginning photographers have a crapload of restrictions on their technique. Honestly, I would have failed English if I hadn't been fortunate enough to be in an advanced class where they looked for content rather than structure. Yet I always wonder if I might have benefitted from some of the more basic approaches to organization.
Dare I risk adding to what must be a swelling ego by telling you how hilarious this was?

The five graf essay does, in fact, mimic old fashioned journalism, whee you write to fit the space available in the magazine/newspaper/newsletter etc. I've spent many a stumbling few hours in Quark churning out prose to fill out the space in a column or clipping words here and there to get stuff to fit in. Of course, now that I write internet stuff, that space/word/character limitation has often disappeared. Till you get to Twitter...
you get a high five
My English teachers throughout K-12 and college let me write whatever I wished. My term papers were a stream of consciousness about ideas. Later, I let my composition students write whatever they wanted, as long as they developed their ideas and avoided errors.

My directors and editors throughout my 20-year writing career seemed to enjoy whatever I wrote--we had a few editing teams here and there for clarity and correctness among us. One director was an exception--she went into raging tirades about what a terrible writer I was. I stared at her, reported her, left her employ, and made her a chapter in my novel. (She was sort of a terrible person.)

My 15-year-old is following a few composition guidelines in school and is writing a graphic novel at home, stream-of-consciousness, late at night.
The five paragraph essasy is useful when students are in a group setting taking essay exams. Other than that is BOGUS. So I don't teach it choosing to teach rhetorical persuasion instead.So far no one has told me to stop.
sorry, you had me at the pencil sharpener!
Hahaha! Priceless! Both the exercise and your photo.
Rated for using "forthwith."
I love this post. It underscores one of the many reasons I love OS, for being able to find a post like this, from 2009, in the most viewed.

However, not everyone - gulp - feels that way about the 5 paragraph essay. There's a certain type of person who gravitates toward things like that.
Not me! I just thought I should give voice to that "other type".
I love this post. It underscores one of the many reasons I love OS, for being able to find a post like this, from 2009, in the most viewed.

However, not everyone - gulp - feels that way about the 5 paragraph essay. There's a certain type of person who gravitates toward things like that.
Not me! I just thought I should give voice to that "other type".
Twice. That "other type" was feeling pretty under-represented.
Thank you for reminding me why I was enraged all through high school until my senior year when I found myself in thrall to a subversive English teacher who would cause me to ace my college English assignments by simply doing what comes naturally. Like sex. r
Writing within any form has its pluses too, as to the constraint being discipline, like the haiku or sonnet.
Writing within any form has its pluses too, as to the constraint being discipline, like the haiku or sonnet.