The Millions

How to Write the Perfect Five-Paragraph Essay

It was my job for a time to corral college freshmen, feed them books and then coax from them fits of insight five paragraphs at a time. This I did imperfectly. I asked them to think about their lives to concoct a narrative or descriptive piece from those thoughts. Or I’d place a book or a film in front of them and guide them down a twisting path of analysis. We’d end the semester by debating some thorny societal issue; they’d develop an opinion, search for credible sources to back up their views and then attempt to forcefully argue the point. This is all standard. Pages and pages of reading for me. Many late nights with students’ words. Hand cramped from marking grammar issues.; from the malapropisms, the . As I am teaching and grading these essays, I am writing my own fiction, the stories that would become my collections  and . I wondered about the form of the five-paragraph essay and its place in my own work. One never sees a five-paragraph essay in the wild. Could it hold its own in a mature piece of writing? Constraints can lead to creativity, right? Isn’t that what poetic forms are about? This is how I arrived at the novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” which ends my second collection. The constraints imposed by the five-paragraph essay could, I figured, be a space to dramatize all that is contradictory or absurd about academia.

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