Three’s a pattern

Sometimes teachers tell me that the five paragraph essay is outdated. As a product format, it probably is. However, as a process for thinking about nonfiction content—a set of strategies—it’s alive and well. I use the five-paragraph essay regularly for my writing across multiple industries and my students use it in many others.

Here’s how the five-paragraph essay pattern works. Nonfiction writing sets out to prove a thesis. The introduction leads in to the proof, the body paragraphs establish that proof, the ending indicates that the thesis has been proved.

The proof will probably not be incontestable. However, the content should establish good reasons to believe that the thesis is true. In other words, the writing needs to indicate a pattern of evidence to support the thesis statement.

What’s the smallest number of items you need to establish a pattern? Three.

One piece of evidence could be a fluke.

Two pieces could be a coincidence.

Three pieces of evidence begin to establish a pattern.

In teaching students to work with nonfiction content, insisting they find three proofs for their thesis is equivalent to insisting they ignore flukes and coincidences in their search for patterns of proof. It also is good insurance if one of the proofs washes out later.

Brian Clark explains the rhetorical reasons for using three-element sets.