Accordions, Frogs, and the 5-Paragraph Theme by Rob Jenkins
As a graduate student, I once drew a rather bad cartoon of an old schoolmarm (complete with Gary Larson-style
beehive) standing in front of a class saying, "And when you finish your five-paragraph theme on 'What I Did Last
Summer,' write a five-paragraph theme on. ... " The caption underneath read, "Janet Emig in Hell."
My attempt at humor had a small audience: fellow grad students in the rhetoric-and-composition program. To get the
joke you have to be familiar with Emig's 1971 book, The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, which questioned
prevailing methods of teaching composition. My classmates certainly got it: Emig's conclusions had been drilled into
our brains, along with her disdain for one of the best-known artifacts of those traditional methodologies, the five-
paragraph theme—an "essentially redundant form, devoid or duplicating of content," according to her.
That sort of indoctrination was typical of my "process oriented" education as a writing teacher. Formulaic constructs
such at the five-paragraph theme, our professors told us, were mere crutches for writers too lazy to explore meaning on
their own. Organization, they insisted, must arise organically from content. What's important, they suggested, is the
writing process itself; the final product is all but immaterial.
At times, such propositions struck me as counterintuitive. The five-paragraph theme had worked well enough for me,
after all, not just in freshman comp but, with some embellishment and expansion, even in graduate courses. I was also
uncomfortably aware that my own success as a student stemmed largely from the fact that my written "products" were
consistently judged to be outstanding.
But because everyone else—from the scholars whose works we studied to my professors and fellow students—seemed
convinced that my attitudes were bourgeois and my experiences atypical, I concluded that I must be mistaken. The
five-paragraph theme really was evil.
And so, for years, I didn't teach it. Not in my freshman composition courses or anywhere else. In fact, I refused to teach
it, even when students practically begged for a handy rubric to help them organize their thoughts. Instead, I attempted
to lead them on a journey of self-discovery, or at least a discovery of what they were trying to say and how. To say that
approach had mixed results would be to put the best possible spin on it.
Over time, real-life experiences began to challenge my comfortable, theoretical assumptions. First, I took a job in a
state system that had a mandatory proficiency exam for rising sophomores, requiring them to (among other things)
write a 500-word essay in an hour. So much for organization arising organically from content. In that kind of intensely
stressful rhetorical situation, a crutch is exactly what most writers need.
Another eye-opening experience came when I took up technical editing on the side to pick up a little extra cash. What I
discovered was that, first of all, people with graduate degrees don't necessarily write much better than college
freshmen, but instead display many of the same problems.
Moreover, I found that the most time-consuming part of turning something poorly written into something effective is
reorganizing the material so the reader can follow the writer's train of thought.
Those experiences led me to conclude that, first, organization is a more important aspect of writing than I had realized;
second, few people are naturally good at organizing their ideas in writing; and third, they're not going to magically
become good at it over time, even if they're highly intelligent and well educated.
Such epiphanies, combined with the necessity of teaching the five-paragraph theme to students preparing for a writing-
proficiency exam—and the success I had at it—led me to reconsider my antipathy toward the old standby. It is, after all,
a relatively simple, easy-to-learn formula for organizing one's thoughts in writing. Moreover, it employs a widely used
and highly effective approach to all sorts of communication, from after-dinner speeches to doctoral dissertations:
introduction, body, and conclusion. As my freshman-comp teacher told us all those years ago, "Tell 'em what you're
gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em."
Of course, the five-paragraph theme is an artificial construct in the sense that, after our students leave freshman
composition, most of them will probably never again write anything exactly like it. That's one obvious danger in relying
on this format: Students will come to see it as the be-all and end-all of writing. But for the most part, we can lessen that
risk by employing a couple of metaphors to which students can easily relate: the accordion and the frog.
The accordion metaphor explains how the five-paragraph theme must expand or contract to suit the writer's purpose
and fit the rhetorical situation. For instance, a significant writing assignment for an upper-division course won't be five
paragraphs in length; it might be 25 paragraphs or more. The introduction alone could take up three or four
paragraphs, with another two or three devoted to the conclusion. That means the body of the essay will contain 18 or
more paragraphs, reflecting possibly five or six major supporting points, each of which needs three or four paragraphs
to develop it.
On the surface, that seems a far cry from the five-paragraph theme taught in freshman comp, with exactly one
paragraph of introduction, one of conclusion, and three in the body expounding three distinct points. But in reality, the
format is the same, only expanded: more points, more development of each (the result, perhaps, of more research and
in-depth thinking), and thus more paragraphs.
The same principle holds true for a 50-page business proposal—an amount of information that might require two or
three pages just to introduce and another page or two to wrap up. An interoffice memo, on the other hand, might be
only three or four paragraphs long but will still require a brief introduction and conclusion, with the most important
points sandwiched in between. The point is that, if students can learn to organize their ideas into five paragraphs, they
should be able later on to expand or contract the format as necessary—especially if they understand that the five-
paragraph theme is merely a beginning, not an end unto itself.
That's where my second metaphor comes in, that of the frog. A student who wants to become a heart surgeon doesn't
start out by cutting people open. That student will probably begin, in an introductory biology course, by dissecting a
frog. Over time, he or she may progress to cats or pigs, and beyond that, in medical school, to cadavers and eventually
For student writers, the five-paragraph theme is their frog. It's not a 10-page term paper, much less a 50-page
proposal. But the lessons learned about organization from writing in the five-paragraph format make it possible, later
on, to put together longer documents that are more logical and coherent.
Once we place the five-paragraph theme in its proper context, as an entry-level skill and not as an ultimate goal, we
also find that it's pretty easy to answer Emig's concerns about redundancy. Yes, the format is naturally redundant. It's
meant to be. But I don't really see that as a problem—and certainly not as a deal breaker—for a couple of reasons.
One is that redundancy itself isn't necessarily all bad. As any teacher, parent, or coach can attest, the way to get people
to remember and improve at things is to repeat them over and over. Of course, that kind of constant repetition can
become pretty boring. The trick is to repeat yourself without sounding as though you're repeating yourself—which can
lead to many fruitful discussions about sentence variety, word choice, and the importance of vocabulary building.
Another concern often expressed by process-centered scholars and practitioners is that the five-paragraph theme is
highly formulaic. Yes, it is—and so are most kinds of writing, from lab reports to sales letters to book proposals. One of
the greatest favors we can do for our freshman writing students is to show them how to follow a set formula.
And what of Emig's contention that the five-paragraph theme is essentially devoid of content? Well, that may be true in
many cases, but I don't think it's the format's fault. I'd guess that content issues probably have more to do with the
writers' life experiences, or lack thereof. Personally, I find that the older students who often populate my classes seem
to pack a lot of information into their five paragraphs. For the others, content should improve over time, as they
continue their education, sharpen their interests, and gain more knowledge. Our job in the meantime is to help them
acquire the tools they'll need to manage that knowledge, including a framework for communicating it to others.
It's true that what I'm advocating is a greater focus on the finished product, emphasizing traditional organizational
patterns. But I don't see that as incompatible with teaching the writing process. Indeed, it actually reinforces the
importance of the process, whose only real function, after all, is to produce a document that accomplishes what the
writer set out to accomplish. More to the point, even if they're using a "crutch," writers still have to write and rewrite in
order to iron out issues of grammar and syntax, logic and coherence, and idea development.
I don't mean to deny the possibility that some writers may, over time, move beyond formulas. They may develop the
desire to explore meaning more deeply and discover for themselves how organization can derive organically from
content. In fact, we have a name for such writers. We call them "professionals."
The vast majority of our students, however, will not become professional writers or anything close. If the best we
can teach them to do is organize their ideas in a clear, logical manner, they will absolutely stand out from their
peers—not to mention a few of the Ph.D.'s I've read.