Basic Expository Writing

Daniel J. Castellano, M.A.

(2006, rev. 2011)

The most important rule of writing is that there are no rules. That being said, we can still identify good expository writing by discerning a coherent, structured argument and an orderly presentation of ideas. Writing a well organized essay can be difficult even for the highly talented, so many writing instructors will give a specific template or set of rules for essay construction, which may serve as a helpful crutch to ensure that their students’ essays are not random assortments of disconnected ideas. Nonetheless, the use of such templates or rules runs the risk stifling the creativity of the more talented students, by forcing them into the straitjacket of an overly rigid, artificial format.

The “Five Paragraph Essay” is the most widely taught expository writing format in U.S. high schools, yet college freshmen are often surprised to learn that this template is ineffective for serious research papers. Some college instructors have even denounced the Five Paragraph Essay format as a useless and arbitrary norm. Among the problems with the Five Paragraph Essay are its rigidity, repetitiveness, banality, and weakness as an argument. Some high school teachers go as far as to specify the number of sentences in each part of each paragraph. Sparing the reader such details, here let us summarize the basic structure of this familiar format:

The Five Paragraph Essay is absurdly repetitive for such a brief composition, and even in the most expert hands, it can produce little more than banalities. There is no such thing as a five paragraph essay as a real literary genre, and if there were, such a brief work would not need an introduction and conclusion. Essays written in the conventional five-paragraph style make unconvincing arguments because they only discuss supporting evidence and do not address counter-arguments. It is unfortunate that many high school teachers mislead their students into thinking this pablum is the “correct” and only way to write an expository essay, when in fact no real writer uses this format. There are only guidelines to good writing, not firm rules, and it is ignorant to insist that the Five Paragraph Essay is some kind of mandate or standard of good writing, when at best it is a learning aid, and a flawed one at that.

Despite its shortcomings, the Five Paragraph Essay does have some meritorious points that help students to develop good habits in organizing the structure of their essays. I hope to bring these points out by substantially revising the format from the way it is usually taught, eliminating unnecessary constraints and emphasizing its purely pedagogical aspects. To this end, I present:

The Five Paragraph Essay Done Right

The first step in reforming how we present the Five Paragraph Essay is to recognize that essay formats are only guidelines, not rules. Unfortunately, several major standardized tests require the five paragraph format for essay questions, which are graded based on conformity to this arbitrary structure. This teaches students nothing about how to write, rewarding bad writing that fits the stilted format, and punishing good writing that does not. There is nothing magical about the number five, and there is no reason why a short subject essay cannot have more paragraphs. We should not artificially restrict our number of supporting ideas to three, but instead we should subdivide our work in whatever enumeration is best suited to our argument. Thus the first correction to the Five Paragraph Essay is to redefine our subject as:

The Five or more Paragraph Essay Done Right

Now that we’ve removed the arbitrary constraint of five paragraphs, we are free to develop our ideas and make the essay format conform to our argument, rather than the other way around. In other words, we must first have some idea about what we want to say and how we want to say it before we worry about how many paragraphs we need. This means identifying a central idea or thesis, and various ideas that either support or qualify the thesis. In contrast to the standard Five Paragraph Essay, we want to include ideas that would contradict our thesis, and address the issues that they raise. We can briefly outline our ideas by simply listing them:

  1. Idea
  2. Idea
  3. Idea

Some instructors recommend a more structured outline, such as:

  1. Topic
    1. Subtopic
      1. Idea
      2. Idea
    2. Subtopic
      1. Idea

This more cumbersome type of outline can quickly become difficult to maintain, which defeats the purpose of outlining. An outline is supposed to make it easier for us to organize our ideas, but forcing ourselves to organize everything in thorough detail so soon can actually make the task more difficult than if we just started writing the essay directly.

For most short essays, it suffices to write a list of your ideas, and if there are many of them, try to group them into several topics that go together. There is no reason for more than a two-tiered outline: topics and specific ideas. If you are comfortable with more complicated outlines, go right ahead, but if not, remember that the outline is supposed to aid you in writing the essay, rather than you becoming a slave to the outline. One advantage of a more flexible outline is that it becomes easier to edit your essay if you need to add or discard ideas.

The Introduction

The length of the introduction should be proportionate to the length of the essay. For most college-level essays, one or two paragraphs of introduction should suffice. An introduction ought to contain the following components:

Body Paragraphs

The general guideline for body paragraphs is “one idea per paragraph.” Naturally, even a sentence contains many ideas, but everything in a given paragraph should be closely related to a specific idea. It usually helps the reader if you state this idea explicitly in a topic sentence, either at the beginning or end of the paragraph. Ask yourself about each paragraph: “What is the point of this paragraph?” The answer to that question should be your topic sentence. If you have difficulty answering this question, you should consider deleting the paragraph or radically rewriting it.

Remember, paragraph structure exists for the benefit of the readers, helping them digest the essay in smaller portions, and to see at a glance the flow of the argument. For most of history, paragraph breaks were not used, so this structure is not essential to good writing. It should be regarded as a convenience to the reader, not a constraint on the author’s creativity. Nonetheless, it is helpful to pay attention to the length of your paragraphs, as they may be an indication that your essay is rambling and losing focus. The discipline of breaking long paragraphs up into distinct ideas, and then associating supporting sentences with each idea or topic helps keep your argument organized, coherent, and readable.

The main idea of a paragraph ought to be clearly conveyed, in an explicit topic sentence if necessary. You should also clarify how this idea is related to your thesis, if this is not self-evident. A main idea can be one of three types:

  1. Supporting Thesis: The main ideas of most paragraphs should be in support of your thesis; otherwise, you may want to consider revising the thesis. The rest of the paragraph should give evidence establishing this main idea. The evidence should be followed by analysis that develops your point and addresses possible objections. If the objections are weighty, they may merit having their own paragraph.
  2. Antithesis: Your essay is a deficient argument if it does not address antithetical evidence. You should anticipate the strongest objections to your argument, and expound their merits and limitations. A paragraph whose topic is an antithesis should make clear how this idea would contradict or qualify your thesis. You should give evidence in favor of the antithesis, followed by analysis. If evidence and argument to the contrary of this antithesis is lengthy, they probably deserve a separate paragraph. You should always explain how this antithesis, if valid, impacts your overall thesis. Such a synthesis may also require its own paragraph.
  3. Synthesis: Sometimes it is best to devote a body paragraph exclusively to analysis showing how any objections raised may be harmonized with your thesis. A synthesis at the end of each section of your essay also helps summarize your arguments in small pieces, so the reader does not have to wait for the conclusion to see how you've made sense of it all.

This expanded vision of what a body paragraph can be borrows from a template used in French schools for a four paragraph essay, consisting of Introduction, Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. This dialectical model is a stronger method of argumentation, and it also lacks the repetitiveness of the Five Paragraph Essay. Nonetheless, like all writing templates, it is too restrictive if followed rigidly. There is no reason why there should only be four paragraphs, and for complex essays, there may be many theses, antitheses, and syntheses in varying degrees. There is similar flexibility in the ordering of paragraphs, so there is no reason why all the antithesis paragraphs should be grouped together, for example. Structure should be constrained only by the logic of an argument, not by some arbitrary “rule” of writing essays.

Here is a sample structure of body paragraphs:

  1. Topic #1
    1. Paragraph #1: Supporting Thesis
    2. Paragraph #2: Supporting Thesis
    3. Paragraph #3: Antithesis
  2. Topic #2
    1. Paragraph #4: Supporting Thesis
    2. Paragraph #5: Antithesis
    3. Paragraph #6: Synthesis
    4. Paragraph #7: Supporting Thesis

There is no required order here, except that a synthesis paragraph should be preceded by an antithesis paragraph (otherwise, what would it be synthesizing?). An antithesis may be a response to a supporting thesis of an earlier paragraph, or it could be an unrelated objection to your overall thesis. Sometimes antitheses are not weighty enough to merit their own paragraph, so these can be omitted or incorporated into the appropriate supporting thesis paragraph. Similarly, some syntheses are sufficiently simple to merit omission or incorporation into the appropriate antithesis paragraph. This distinction of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is simply an analytical tool to help you organize your arguments and identify any omissions. For each supporting thesis, consider whether there are any objections. For each antithesis, consider how it can be reconciled with your thesis or whether your thesis needs to be modified.

All body paragraphs should be explicitly or implicitly linked to your main idea. If this is not possible in some cases, you should consider omitting such paragraphs as irrelevant.

The Conclusion

Writing the conclusion should be the most rewarding part of the essay, since the labor of proving the thesis was done in the body, so all that remains is to reap the rewards of asserting your results and what you think it all means. Unfortunately, this opportunity for individuality to shine is too often foiled by format-minded instructors who reduce the conclusion to a mere summary repeating what has already been said. Not only is this boring to read, but it also gives the impression that no progress was made during the essay. An expository essay ought to be a journey, and the conclusion is the destination. If the conclusion merely restates the thesis of the essay, it would seem we have learned nothing in the body.

In the course of the essay, your thesis should have been subjected to scrutiny that enables us to emerge with a deeper understanding of the subject. The conclusion should show how you have proven the thesis, illustrating our progress, including any caveats or qualifications that some of the antitheses may have brought to light. It is also a good idea to show why this thesis is important, and speculate on some of its possible implications. These speculations may be followed by a call for further research of the new issues your thesis raises. A conclusion such as this leaves the readers hungering for more, as they are not only persuaded of the validity of your thesis, but also tantalized with new possibilities. This style of conclusion allows for much more creative expression, as there is more room for speculative opinion.

Essay Questions

Templates such as the Five Paragraph Essay may be useful pedagogical tools if they are understood to be aids, not mandates. Clearly, writing at the collegiate and professional levels must evolve far beyond the use of these crutches. Even at a younger age, the more talented writing students should not be forced into a rigid, arbitrary structure, as this will only stunt their development as writers. Still, it can be credibly argued that strict templates are useful for beginners, such as middle school students or those learning English as a foreign language. Even then, students should quickly progress beyond the formal template, and never mistake it for real writing. A high school writing curriculum that goes no further than the Five Paragraph Essay is a program that fails to teach writing.

The practice of good writing cannot be reduced to simple formulas, which makes it extremely difficult to teach writing. It is wrongheaded to circumvent this difficulty by imposing an arbitrary standard of correctness that is easier to teach and grade. Our current fixation with standardized tests has helped resuscitate the Five Paragraph Essay, as several state and national exams actually require this format for essay questions. Such exams do not test writing ability, but proficiency in the worthless skill of following a format that is not used in any literary genre.

Perhaps a small niche might be found for the Five Paragraph Essay in timed short essay exams, as are common in college. The format is easy to remember and follow, so when pressed for time, one can resort to it to produce a quick, organized essay. However, if time is truly a constraint, a three paragraph essay would be a much better option, to save yourself useless repetition in the introduction and conclusion. One or two introductory sentences in the first paragraph, followed by a couple of concluding sentences in the third paragraph, will suffice. This will allow you to focus on the meat of your argument in the body, upon the substance of which you will be graded, assuming your instructor is not a format-driven zombie.

Structure and style do count for a lot in writing, but these are more plastic concepts than the template-pushers are willing to recognize. I hope to have outlined above the bare necessities of good organization of expository essays. The details of this organization, like the contents of the essay, are best left to the individual author.

See also: Writing Style Tips | Research Methodology

© 2006, 2011 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.