Breaking the Mold: What to Say in the Sixth Paragraph

If you have found your way to this blog, you have probably at some point learned how to write a five paragraph essay. You know how it goes: You begin with your introductory paragraph presenting the thesis, proceed to three body paragraphs that give supporting points in order of strength, and end with a conclusion that restates the thesis and offers a concluding remark.

The funny thing about the five paragraph essay is that nobody likes it, but nobody can kill it. Most teachers hate it, but they have to teach it because it helps their students succeed on standardized tests that are used to assess their school’s performance. The people who design the standardized tests don’t like the five paragraph essay because it games the system, producing too much of a standardized response. Students don’t like writing the five paragraph essay because, well, it’s bad writing. But nobody hates them more than college composition instructors who have to un-teach them so that their students can learn how to write papers that meet university level expectations.

Why does the five paragraph fail to work in college? It generally contains little to no research. It has no clear audience. It is usually voiceless, or if it has a voice, it is that of an opinionated robot, say, C-3PO. It presents complex problems as though they were simple. It says nothing new, and it says it more than once. For this reason, it fails to inform. Worst of all, it appears to be harder to kick than cigarettes.

Did the five paragraph essay teach you some skills you might use in college? Some. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jettison it now. Trying to write a college level paper in five paragraphs is like trying to balance the chassis of an SUV on tricycle training wheels.

So how do you kick the five paragraph habit?

Write the sixth paragraph.

I’m not talking about another body paragraph that adds one more point to support the thesis. I’m talking about the sixth paragraph, the one after the conclusion. The one where you say, “Up to this point, I’ve described how the mainstream media typically portrays this issue, but here at universities where we do research, we understand that that’s hokum.”

Then, you can begin your real paper. The real paper will take one point, and one point only from your five paragraph essay, and rigorously examine it. For example, if your five paragraph essay was on why you forgo the cinema to watch movies at home, you might re-examine your one point that movie theater behavior has become distracting, with patrons checking cell phones and teenagers giggling and throwing popcorn in the front row. Well that’s an observation. But what hard evidence do we have that watching a movie in a cinema is any more distracting than watching a movie at home, where the doorbell can ring, siblings can come in arguing, or the Internet can go belly-up, disrupting your Netflix stream? Do we have studies—real academic research—that would measure the level of distraction present in cinemas versus at home? Virtually every phenomenon has some researcher studying it and publishing about it an academic journal. Find the research.

Next, consider your audience: Who would most readily accept as true your point that movie theater behavior is too distracting? Who would challenge it? Maybe teenagers like giggling in a place away from the watchful eyes of parents. Perhaps some patrons are checking their cell phones because they like sharing details of the movie on social network sites. One person’s annoying distraction is another person’s enhanced experienced.

Change your question. Instead of asking yourself, why have I stopped going to the movie theater, ask instead, why is it that so many people do continue to pay a ridiculous price for a ticket, sit through previews and now commercials, only to place themselves 100 feet and several knees from the nearest bathroom when they could watch virtually any movie they want for much less money at home? What is the continued draw? If you can’t find any research on the subject, perhaps you could conduct your own, surveying and interviewing people as to what brings them to the movie theater.

That sixth paragraph is your invitation to break the mold of the five paragraph essay. It is your door into a paper that can succeed in a college environment. Write the sixth paragraph even a few times, and you’ll never have to write the first five again.

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