Have you ever made an awesome chocolate cake without looking at a recipe first? Unless you are an extremely talented baker, most likely the answer is “no.” Just one cup of flour too many and your chocolate dessert will be a chocolate mess!
The same goes for writing a 5-paragraph essay. If you are an extremely talented writer, you may be able to intuitively create a compelling essay with all the components needed to be both persuasive and easy to swallow…or follow.
However, if writing doesn’t come easily to you, you can benefit from creating a 5-paragraph essay outline before jumping into your writing assignment. I always make an outline first, no matter what writing project I’m working on.
There are endless, different ways to write a compelling essay. But, if your teacher is demanding that you sum up your argument in five succinct paragraphs, follow this easy tutorial on how to create a 5-paragraph essay outline.
Structure of the 5-Paragraph Essay Outline
The 5-paragraph essay is made of…you guessed it…five paragraphs. Each paragraph serves a specific purpose:
- Paragraph 1: Amazing introduction (hook) and the all-important thesis statement
- Paragraph 2: Argument A and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 3: Argument B and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 4: Argument C and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 5: Conclusion, made up of your restated thesis and the broader significance of your argument
Here’s how this outline would look if you sketched it out:
A Note on Formatting Your 5-Paragraph Essay Outline
Now, I’m not saying that you must put your outline into a diagram like the one above—using a simple pen and paper or word processor will suffice. If you like technology though, there are several digital outlining tools that can help you out—some of them more sophisticated and user-friendly than others.
It’s not really about making a perfect 5-paragraph essay outline, rather, it’s about developing an outline that makes the most sense to you. An outline ensures that you have the necessary components to write an awesome essay.
Without further delay, let’s jump into more detail about each of the outline components.
Step One: Identify Your Topic
First we need a topic. Typically, your instructor will give you a subject to write about, or at least parameters for a topic. Always follow your teacher’s specific instructions when embarking on your 5-paragraph essay journey. After all, you don’t want the wrath of your instructor to come down upon you for completely ignoring instructions.
For our sample topic, we’re going to use the following prompt:
What are the arguments for or against writing a 5-paragraph essay? Should teachers continue requesting this writing method from students?
Step Two: Take a Stance on Your Topic
We need to take a stance for or against teachers asking students to write 5-paragraph essays, so we can argue for or against it in our thesis statement.
Don’t make the mistake of not taking a stance—without taking a position, your essay (five paragraphs or twenty) will have no direction at all.
When deciding on your position, you have to choose one that can be backed with valid and supportable arguments, either from your research or from the course materials provided in your class.
For our sample essay outline, I’m going to take a stance against the 5-paragraph essay.
Step Three: Write a Clear Thesis Statement
Based on my chosen stance against 5-paragraph essays, my thesis statement will be “Teachers should stop teaching students to write 5-paragraph essays.”
Notice the word “should” in the thesis statement? More power can be added to your position by creating a statement about what should or shouldn’t be done. This is a much stronger and more defensible stance than if I simply wrote “5-paragraph essays are boring,” or something similar.
Step Four: Develop Three Arguments to Underscore Your Thesis
Now you need to come up with three arguments that will back your thesis statement. Here are mine:
The 5-paragraph essay is too basic.
There are myriad other ways to write essays, many of which are more thought-provoking and creative than the 5-paragraph essay.
The 5-paragraph essay does not allow for analytical thinking, rather, it confines students to following a restrictive formula
Step Five: Develop Three Supports for Each of Your Arguments
Your evidence, or supports, should include facts, quotes, and data that substantiate your thesis. This is a great place to include quotes directly from your research sources.
For example, to support argument A (“The 5-paragraph essay is too basic”), I might offer the following evidence:
Similarly, in regards to argument C (“The 5-paragraph essay does not allow for analytical thinking, rather, it confines students to following a restrictive formula”), I might support it with this quote:
- Support 1C: According to an article in Education Week, “There is a consensus among college writing professors that ‘students are coming [to college] prepared to do five-paragraph themes and arguments but [are] radically unprepared in thinking analytically.’”
Remember, for the 5-paragraph essay structure, you typically need to come up with three supports for each of your three arguments. In our example, I only show three of the total nine supports needed to round out the argument.
Step Six: Develop Your Intro Hook
Once you have your thesis and arguments sorted, you can work on developing your introduction. (*Hint* it’s an exercise in futility to develop your introduction first, because you won’t really know what you’re introducing yet.)
Your intro should start with an interesting “hook” that will draw the reader into your paper.
For example, my hook could be, “English teachers across the nation have been teaching students to become ineffective writers.” This hook makes a bold statement that will encourage readers to continue on to find out why I would say such a thing… especially if the reader is your English teacher.
Step Seven: Develop Your Conclusion
After you have your paper outlined, figuring out a concluding paragraph should be a breeze. In a traditional 5-paragraph essay, the first step in writing your conclusion is to restate your thesis using different words.
For example, I might write, “The 5-paragraph essay is an outdated and useless writing tool that should be phased out of the classroom.”
To close out the paper, I would open a discussion on the broader significance of this argument. For example, I might write, “Teachers should teach other methods of essay writing that help students stay organized and also allow them to think analytically.”
Now that you’ve established all the components of your 5-paragraph essay outline, you’ll need to actually sit down, avoid social media for a while (I know, it’s hard), and write your 5-paragraph essay. Believe me, it will be much easier to do now that your thoughts are organized and you have somewhere to start.
Ask any writer. There is nothing more frightening than the pure white of an empty page. An outline is a great remedy for this.
Oh, and a couple more things:
As you start writing, you’ll want to be sure to connect all the pieces of your essay together with strong transition sentences. Don’t just line up the notes from your outline and call it done.
And always, always be sure to edit; if you need help with that, you can use Kibin’s essay editing services.
Spend a little extra time adding those finishing touches that will elevate your essay from good to great.
How about you? Do you work from an outline? Or are you more accustomed to writing by the seat of your pants? Let us know in the comments.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.
The First Steps
Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.
The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.
Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.
Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.
With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.
With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."
The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.
Putting It All Together
With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:
I. POLICY INITIATIVES
II. VOTERS' CONCERNS
III. FINANCIAL RESOURCES
a. Original Idea
b. McCain Quote/Bush Quote
c. McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics
B. Campaign Contributions
C. Ad Expenditure
IV. VOTERS' LOYALTY
Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University