Monday, 2 May 2016

Breaking Out of the Essay Box

by Peter Alfred Hess
“I can’t write.”  “I am not a ‘good’ writer.”  “I hate writing.” 
The first steps to stopping the madness.

Arguably your generation “does more writing[,] documenting[,] annotating[,] and narrating than any other generation”  (Skallerup Bessette, 2014).  Instead of making phone calls you text.  Instead of sharing ideas with a group you tweet or Snapchat or Instagram.  Instead of being a peer tutor you post tutorial videos on YouTube.  You can write.  You are good writers.  

You, unbeknownst to yourselves, love writing.  Your writing has “a purpose, an audience, a form, and publishing format. It has norms. It is not all glowing prose, but consider it one long [terrible] first draft that can be shaped and trimmed and revised and put through the process that all writers do in order to improve their prose, their words” (Skallerup Bessette, 2014).  

In good writing process, writers receive feedback and use this feedback to improve the next draft - be it on the same topic of a different one. In your daily social media interactions “[you] learn..., and...try again” (Skallerup Bessette, 2014). It is time for schools to stop making you unlearn these behaviours.  

For years now you have been taught to use the five-paragraph essay model: introduction, three supporting claims, three pieces of evidence to back each claim, and a conclusion wherein you reiterate everything you just said in different words and more concisely.   Essay are taught in this format for a few reasons:
  1. For students to have a structure in which to work while they hone their writing skills;
  2. To allow the reader (generally only the course teacher, although sometimes a peer editor) to follow the argument with ease;
  3. To pass the many standardized tests which require this form of writing.  While there is a long debate about the efficacy and benefits of standardized all need to pass that Gr. 10 Literacy Test so we have a duty to show you how to do that; and
  4. It is a (poor) adaptation from Aristotle’s (one of the godfather of rhetoric) theory of rhetoric….(rhetoric, by the way is the “fancy” word for the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing)
But let’s think for a minute: How many times have you picked up a something to read and it fit that five paragraph essay format?  How often have you had a conversation that followed the structure?  How many times, on those social media interactions, do you go back to this, tried, tested and true form?  I’m going to guess almost NEVER. As Ray Salazar (2012), an American English teacher in Chicago (who, by the way, created Maple HS's thesis algorithm) says:  The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless. As writers you should not only examine three aspects of an argument.

Quite simply there are not always only three reasons to prove your point. Arguing a point is not about fitting into a schema; it is about starting at the top and working to the bottom. As Salazar (2012) states, the 5-paragraph essay seems to have been devised as a watered down, easier, convenient version of Aristotle's 5 PARTS to effective writing and speaking.  They are intended to be parts, not paragraphs.   The parts of argument are:
  1. What inspired my argumentative response?
  2. What preceded my argument and / or what needs to be clarified?
  3. What supports my argument?
  4. What challenges my argument?
  5. What are the benefits of accepting my argument?
They do not need to come in a specific order.  They do not need to be a specific length.  They just need to be explored to effectively make your point. Morevoer, to ensure your writing is effective you do not need little boxes, you need to have effective delivery of your argument. Aristotle relied on three rhetoric appeal (strategies to make writing/speaking effective).  You likely rely on these in your everyday speaking and writing without realising it.  The appeals are:
  1. “Logos (the appeal to reason) relies on logic or reason. Logos often depends on the use of inductive or deductive reasoning;  
  2. Ethos (the ethical appeal) is based on the character, credibility, or reliability of the writer; and
  3. Pathos (or emotional appeal) appeals to an audience's needs, values, and emotional sensibilities.” (Weida & Stolley, 2013)
These appeals improve argument and convince your audience.  They do not, however, have to appear in this, or any, order. If you can ensure your argument is well developed (in that it contains all of Aristotle’s parts) and convincingly argued (in that you maximize rhetorical appeal) then you are almost ready to go...just a few caveats before your breakout beings:
  1. Breaking out the box does NOT mean abandoning rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  These are important, after all, when proving a point it is important to sound well educated - people believe smart people!
  2. Breaking out of the box does not mean you can just ramble a stream of consciousness that anyone but you would have trouble following.  You still need a focus and you still need flow - it just might not have to fit into five paragraphs.
  3. This kind of writing is for persuasion.  Don’t try to write a business or science report this way - that is a whole different kind of writing.
Educational agencies worldwide are insisting the modern learner needs to show competencies in critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.  The five paragraph essay allows for little practice in these areas.  You have had plenty of time to hone your writing skills, it is now time to write without sounding like your ideas are passing through a is time to break out of the five-paragraph essay box.  It is time to reclaim your voice and prove what you have to say is worth hearing.

Salazar, R. (2012, May 10). If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays--Stop It! Retrieved May 02, 2016, from
Skallerup Bessette, L. (2014, April 10). This Is Not An Essay. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from
Weida, S., & Stolley, K. (2013, March 11). Using Rhetorical Strategies for Persuasion. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from