From Household Opera comes this good discussion about the five paragraph essay. For anyone invested in composition and rhetoric theory and practice, this isn’t exactly a news flash, but this discussion and the many links Amanda has here suggests to me that it is becoming the conventional wisdom for all kinds of folks outside of composition studies, too.
My favorite critique of the five paragraph essay is in Jasper Neel’s book Plato, Derrida, and Writing; he argues the five paragraph essay comes from Plato’s notions of the way rhetoric and arguments work, and Neel convincingly explains why the five paragraph essay is “anti-writing.” A very worthwhile read.
In my own mind, learning how to write a five paragraph essay is the same as learning how to fill out a form. Filling out a form is obviously not the same as writing, though people do need to learn how to fill out forms, and the five paragraph essay does have its uses. For example, the five paragraph form works well for any sort of timed writing like an essay test. But the five paragraph form becomes a problem for students when they learn it is the only tool they will ever need to write anything, sort of like using a hammer to bake a pie.
Yet, as easy as it is to note how wrong the five paragraph essay is, we do see its form in all sorts of different kinds of writing and settings. Ultimately, it is an embodiment of the “holy trinity”– a beginning and an end, sure, but also a division of everything into three mysterious parts, a father, a son, a holy spirit/ghost. This division of three is everywhere– small, medium, large, etc. And most dissertations (including mine) are divided into… five chapters…