First, you must obtain a topic. They are not hard to come by. They are everywhere: in the cafés, on the sidewalks, in the muggy offices of bureaucrats. If you lack one, your taskmaster will supply it for you in the form of a piece of literature to which you must respond.
Next, formulate your thesis. A thesis says “This is what I am setting out to prove,” as if all truths were immutable.
Then, if you are a student, you begin the five-paragraph essay. Pay no attention to the words themselves. This is about the container, the scaffolding on which you hang the words. Learn form before content; don’t break the rules until you know what they are. These are the beliefs upon which the delicate scaffolding of pedagogy rests. Upon that, civilization balances.
If you are old, you will not have been schooled in this particular approach to written communication. Instead, you write like a painter. Layer azure over cerulean, fluff a bit of vermilion in the corner. Throw the paint across the room. Make each word a sling, an arrow, a pointed dart of meaning expulsed from the inner well that seems to grow fuller the more you draw from it.
If, on the other hand, you are a young writer—or perhaps not even a writer or necessarily young, but someone simply trying to get by, to pass—you will face the scaffold with dread. The gulf between the roiling brew of ideas in your mind and the puny sticks you have been given to support your words is unbridgeable. How can this inadequate frame bear the weight of the wild and precious essence of your mind? 1-2-3-4-5. You may as well cut out your tongue.
Yet even the old writer recognizes the need to teach. So, smarty-pants, how would you do it? Exactly how did you learn to write?
First, you became a sponge, a bottomless pit, a well into which you poured the great language of many eras. Then, you became a master regurgitator. You copied My Friend Flicka. You imitated the voices and styles of Daphne DuMaurier, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and, later, Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler. You wrote morning, noon, and night.
English 100 has neither the time nor patience for such a process. Nor may such a method even be appropriate for the casual student of writing. So—back to 1-2-3-4-5. Once there, however, you must think of a way to rescue the young writer from despair.
Tell the young writer: just begin. Say anything. Say the first ridiculous thing that comes to mind. Because isn’t beginning what stops most people cold? Once you put down the first word, the first thought, you eliminate the infinity of other paths you might have pursued. You commit. You are making this argument, and no other. You are telling this story. All others are lost. As you begin, you are simultaneously creating the single story you will tell and grieving the loss of stories untold. Mourning is the unwritten “6” of the five-paragraph form.
But you must make that first tap on the computer keyboard because the only way to finish the assignment is to start it. Your grades depend on it. Maybe even your whole future. This is the Real World, buddy; no amount of romanticizing by the misty-eyed old writer will make it otherwise.
And, if you don’t like the results, stay tuned for the next installment of this tutorial: HOW TO EDIT AN ESSAY.
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If I had another lifetime, I would take up the task of changing the way we approach the teaching of writing—and perhaps all teaching—in this country. Thankfully, many great teachers already have answered that call.
Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay in Inside Higher Ed
Is the Five-Paragraph Essay History? in Education Week Teacher
Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught? in The Becoming Radical
Sparks Fly Around the Table in Transition Times
Fault Lines of American Educational Policy & Practice in Transition Times
Note: This post also appeared as an article on LinkedIn.