Five Paragraph Essays

In my freshman college class, I had to do a peer review of another student’s essay.  It was on King Lear and the prompt was:  What was King Lear’s fatal flaw?

I was a good writer in high school, and I had studied King Lear in my AP English class.  As I read through my partner’s essay, I was astounded at how awful it was.  He was a smart guy.  Not just book smart but also clearly intelligent and persuasive as a contributor in class.  But this essay lacked so many of the fundamentals. 

In my review, I commented how he needed to better define the thesis statement out front so that the reader would know the purpose of the essay.  Likewise, he needed to have clear topic sentences to each paragraph so that each of his examples would be tied together. I noted that the concluding paragraph needed to tie the thesis back together and link to his initial introduction in order to leave the essay whole.

It was surprising to me how he could be missing such simple fundamentals. I told him to work on the basic structure before we tackled the actual content.

 

A couple of days later Professor Wheaton called me into his office.

“Jason, I read your review of your partner’s essay. It was a thoughtful attempt, but it was not what I’m looking for.”

I was a little stunned at first.  He continued.

“What was the name of your high school English teacher?”

“Mrs. Streeter,” I replied.

“AP English?”

“Yep.”

“5 on the exam?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. So this is going to sting a little, but I need to help you un-learn high school writing. I don’t want to demonize Mrs. Streeter, because it’s in fact not her fault. You learned how to write the perfect five paragraph essay, didn't you? Because that’s what the AP exams test for.”

“Yeah,” I replied cautiously. “Is that not what you wanted?”

“Jason, I asked you to dissect King Lear. I've read this play 25 times, and I still can’t make up my mind about King Lear.  I have a Ph.D. in English literature and I teach Shakespeare for a living, and I can’t for the life of me make up mind what to think about King Lear. It’s his complexity that makes him so timeless. So in short, no, I did not think you could explain King Lear in a five paragraph essay. What I wanted you and your partner to do was put some real thought into the character of King Lear and write me an essay that helps unpack all of that. It could take you 5 paragraphs; it could take you 14 paragraphs.  The structure is unimportant.  Your writing should simply reflect the depth and clarity of your thought.

Fast forward to today. It’s time to leave Mrs. Streeter’s five paragraph essay behind.

The medium I use to write is now the blog post. There is no format that is perfect for a good blog post.  Sometimes an interesting post will start with a story or maybe a question I’m trying to answer. Some blog posts will get straight to the point.  Often I’ll try to include a set of tips at the bottom, but only if that makes sense for that particular post.

I bring this up because I talk to a lot of people who would like to do more blogging.  But when I read their drafts, I’m shocked to be looking at five paragraph essays again – smart people writing in overly formulated ways.  Locked into a high school level of writing.

So I wanted to share my one trick for helping people become better writers.  It’s really simple:

 

To become a better writer you have to stop writing and start speaking.

 

For a lot of people (obviously not all), it’s much easier to get  thoughts across naturally by talking about a subject instead of formally writing. I started doing this a few years ago, and I now dictate one hundred percent of my blog posts.  I’ll go on a long walk with my phone in my pocket, the voice memo turned on, and I’ll simply talk through a subject that I've been thinking about.  I then email the audio file to have it transcribed by a virtual assistant and Booyah!  I have my first draft.

And while editing and rewriting will occur from there, I’m far better at getting to a decent draft using this method than if I were to sit down at a coffee shop and try to write it out from scratch.  I encourage you to give it a shot.

If you want to get into blogging and your first few posts are coming out like five paragraph essays, try dictating a few.  You won’t necessarily get it right on the first try, but you may find that “writing” actually becomes enjoyable.



Discuss on Hacker News.