79. Death to the Five Part Paragraph

yol 7 If you are a writer, a teacher, a parent, or a student, don’t back off because the title seems beneath your interest. This is Basic BS 101.

Your Own Language, 7:
Death to the five part paragraph!

Here is your zen koan for the day – how do you teach that which cannot be taught?

Answer: you make up arbitrary rules which seem to cover the situation, then teach the rules instead of the unteachable thing.

I speak, of course, of the five sentence paragraph, a structure found in every middle school classroom, but which exists nowhere in nature.

At one point in my teaching career I was preparing a program which was to teach writing by analyzing the writing in students’ science and history textbooks. I performed an experiment to confirm a suspicion. I went to my bookshelf, chose five non-fiction books at random, chose a page and a paragraph in each at random, and analyzed the result.

The only book that followed the format taught in middle school was How to Hang Drywall. It was written by a drywall contractor and was probably the only book he ever wrote. I could visualize him digging out his old textbooks for guidance before beginning to write. To be fair, it was full of accurate information. I had followed his instructions (that’s why the book was in my library)  and my drywall stayed up; but it was excruciatingly dull, and it didn’t need to be.

There is another related old chestnut: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them. This is the five part paragraph with pontoons on both sides to keep it from sinking.

I don’t see this in print too often: if you do, maybe you’re reading the wrong kind of book. I do see it every Saturday morning on PBS in the show Woodsmith Shop. Like the drywall book, this is the product of intelligent men – professionals who are not professional writers – presenting what they know, but following rules that are not serving them well..

The wonder is that the book and the TV program work as well as they do, given the teacher generated chestnuts they had to work with.

Here is a five sentence paragraph following a format popular in middle schools:

  • topic sentence
  • supporting sentence
  • supporting sentence
  • supporting sentence
  • recapitulation or close

I got ready for school this morning. I brushed my teeth. Then I took a shower. Finally I put on my school clothes. Then I was ready for my day.

Wow, exciting! Actually, that wasn’t a paragraph at all. It was a mini-essay, and an exceedingly boring one at that.

A paragraph is a piece of a larger work. It tells part of the story. It should have some internal consistency, but it is not independent. It introduces a thought or carries on the thought begun in earlier paragraphs.

That’s it. There are no other rules.

You can’t teach a student to write a paragraph. A paragraph does not and cannot exist. When teacher’s try to teach a paragraph, they are actually teaching mini-essays, and doing a poor job of that.

Take a two page essay, sans indentation. Break it into four paragraphs. Now take the same essay and break it into ten paragraphs. The former will sound formal, the latter will sound breezy.

Paragraphs can determine tone, can help keep our thoughts and understandings organized, and give us places to breathe. Where we break essays and stories into paragraphs is determined by the tone we want to achieve, and by the content of the work.

There are no other rules. Teachers who create artificial formulas to give themselves something to teach strangle the minds of their students.


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