What’s So Special About The Five-Paragraph Essay?
Recently, a student asked me what made the five-paragraph essay so important—so special. In short, the student was asking why five paragraphs? Why not three or four or six or seven? Why five?
I explained that in my opinion, the five-paragraph essay is more of an instructional technique than it is a piece of writing. I explained that five paragraphs is a nice number of paragraphs for beginning writers and emerging writers to work with. I explained that many natural patterns of logical thought can be fully demonstrated using five paragraphs. I also explained that many teachers prefer to assign many short essays instead of just a few very long essays, and that students can demonstrate both writing skill and understanding of subject matter in five paragraphs.
Put simply, I explained that people just like five paragraphs. There is nothing special about five paragraphs other than that people like working with five paragraphs.
I realized after the fact that this last part was not true. There is something special about five paragraphs, just like there is something special about the Parthenon and the art work of Leonardo da Vinci. This specialness has to do with proportion and the Golden Ratio.
The Golden Ration is .618, or 61.8% and put simply, the body (the main content) of the five-paragraph essay is very likely 61.8% of the whole essay. This means that the introduction and conclusion (the helping parts) will likely equal 38.2% of the whole essay.
If you teach elementary school writing or struggling middle school writers, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage.
Believe it or not, I needed to examine just four pieces of published five-paragraph writing to find one where the word count of the paragraphs matched this ratio to near perfection. We will take a closer look at this Golden Ratio in the five-paragraph essay soon, but first let’s think about beginning, middle, and ending.
The Five Paragraph Essay and Two Levels of Beginning, Middle, and Ending
Why did the five-paragraph essay become so popular? Well, it is the shortest essay that a student can write that truly creates two levels of of beginning, middle, and ending:
1. Beginning, middle, and ending in the paragraphs.
2. Beginning, middle, and ending in the whole composition.
This fact alone makes the five-paragraph essay a valuable writing instruction tool. Good writing requires a certain rhythm of beginning, middle, and ending. It needs this rhythm in sentences (sentence fluency) and in paragraphs. The whole composition needs to have a feeling of rhythm and flow—beginning, middle, ending—beginning, middle, and ending. So, how do we develop this organizational sense of writing that helps students create paragraphs that all form together creating a whole? (Once again, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage!)
Back in 1905, Stratton D. Brooks wrote this in his textbook Composition-Rhetoric: “…improvement in the performance of an act comes from the repetition of that act accompanied by a conscious effort to omit the imperfections of the former attempt.”
Put simply, for beginning writers, writing many short essays is a better use of time than writing just a few very large essays. Beginning writers should follow this process: “Prewrite, Write, Rewrite—then rinse and repeat.”
Beginning writers benefit from going through the complete writing process often, not just every once in a while. As such, writing many short essays that have two levels of beginning, middle, and ending is better writing practice than writing just a few large essays. Once again, we will soon look at the proportions that have made the five-paragraph essay the short essay of choice to work with.
Beginning, Middle, and Ending
Whole compositions (essays, stories, and reports) all need a beginning, middle, and ending. Additionally, the paragraphs that make up these whole compositions also need a beginning, middle, and ending. (Note: In stories, this concept of beginning, middle, and ending often applies to actual paragraphs, but always to scenes etc.)
In Poetics, Aristotle (384 BC- 322BC) said, “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” In other words, if a writer does not create a beginning, middle, and end, the writer has created just a part of a whole. As relates to paragraphs, making points, giving reasons, explaining concepts, and providing illustrations all need beginnings, middles, and endings.
Now, because I understand that writing cannot be reduced to a simple, fill in the blanks formula, I put forth that paragraphs, if logically and properly connected to the other paragraphs, often just have the FEELING of having a beginning, middle, and ending.
Fred Newton Scott, an early paragraph theorizer, listed Proportion as one of the five general laws of paragraphs. Most books on narrative storytelling and screenwriting give a large amount of advice on planning out the plot effectively—i.e., creating the correct proportions. Some books go as far to advise writers to create plot turns on specific pages—all for the reason of creating the ideal dramatic structure, or proportions. Worth mentioning, Aristotle’s advice about wholes needing a beginning, a middle, and an end essentially created the three-act dramatic structure. In case you are wondering, proportion and ratio are really just two ways to look at the same idea.
The Five Paragraph Essay and the Golden Ratio
I don’t want to make this a math lesson, so I’m not going to fully explain Fibonacci Numbers or the Golden Ratio. Feel free to learn more about them at your leisure. My goal here is simply to point out that these mathematical phenomena are present in the five-paragraph essay, which is possibly why the structure has become so popular.
The Golden Ratio is all about proportion. And the Golden Ratio is built from the Fibonacci Number Sequence. Here is the beginning list of Fibonacci numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21… The important numbers associated with the Golden Ratio are these: 1.681, .618, and .382. For our purposes, only the later two are important. Keep in mind that .618 = 61.8% and .382 = 38.2%.
Let’s take a look at how these relate to the beginning, middle, and ending of a five-paragraph essay. Here is how the five paragraphs in the five-paragraph essay are structured:
Please note: Moving forward I will be using the letters B, M, and E for beginning, middle, and ending. I will also be using P1, P2, P3, P4, and P5 for the paragraph numbers.
• Beginning (B) = Introduction = 1 paragraph
• Middle (M) = Body = 3 paragraphs
• Ending (E) = Conclusion = 1 paragraph
To begin with, the paragraph count for each part (B, M, and E) of a five-paragraph essay and also for all of the combined parts is a Fibonacci number. Take a look: B = 1; M = 3; C = 1. Additionally, B and E together = 2. And of course, the total count for the whole essay = 5. All of these numbers are Fibonacci Numbers.
However, what make the five-paragraph essay an academic phenomenon is the proportions, and in particular the proportion between the M (the content) and the helping parts, the B and E. Put simply, the five-paragraph essay has the most perfect proportions of B, M, and E available. On its surface the five-paragraph essay is proportioned like this: P1 = 20%; P2 = 20%; P3 = 20%; P4 = 20%; and P5 = 20%. As such, the B and E together is 40% and the M is 60%. These percentages are already extremely close to the Golden Ration percentages of 38.2% and 61.8%. And since introduction paragraphs and conclusion paragraphs are usually a touch shorter than the body paragraphs they enclose, we come even closer to the Golden Ratio.
As I mentioned, I needed to examine just four published five-paragraph essays before I found one that matched the Golden Ratio to near perfection. Once again, we are looking at the ratio of the body paragraphs to the whole.
Here is a link to that Five-Paragraph Golden Ratio Essay:
Here is how the word count on that five-paragraph essay breaks down:
• Total Words: 591
• Words in Paragraph 1 = 155
• Words in Paragraph 2 = 101
• Words in Paragraph 3 = 155
• Words in Paragraph 4 = 106
• Words in Paragraph 5 = 74
• Words in P1 and P5 = 229
• Words in P2, P3, P4 = 362
Here is the equation that reveals the Golden Ratio:
Words in P2, P3, P4 = 362
——————————————– = .613
Total Words: 591
In case you were not sure, the part in red above is a division problem. The body of that five-paragraph essay compared to the whole matches to near perfection the Golden Ratio. The body is 61.3% of the whole essay. It missed the Golden Ratio by one-half of one percent (.5%). I rest my case!
I’ve always thought that on some level most people intuitively understood that it’s the proportions that make the five-paragraph essay what it is. After all, we all understand that Goldilocks and the Two Bears would be far less effective tale than Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I’ll admit, I was a little surprised at how easily I found a near perfect example of a Five-Paragraph Golden Ratio Essay.
Now, I’m not suggesting we use the Golden Ratio in teaching writing. I am suggesting that this approximation of the Golden Ratio is why the five-paragraph essay has caught on. When students fully develop the introduction, the body paragraphs, and the conclusion, they will likely come close to creating a Golden Ratio within their writing. And that’s not to be taken lightly—but it’s also not a goal. On the other hand, Leonardo da Vinci might suggest that it should be a goal.