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Quick Tip: Focus Longer Posts Like a Five-Paragraph Essay

While blogs are great places to toss up quick thoughts, lots of bloggers also use their sites to showcase in-depth posts — take a look at the WPlongform topic in the Reader, and you’ll find everything from personal essays to meticulously researched academic papers. Longer-form pieces give you the opportunity to fully flesh out a thought, exploring all the nuances, but they can be challenging to write; often, the longer length seems like an opportunity to include every related idea, until you’re left with a precarious pile of content that doesn’t quite jive.

Okay, maybe that’s just me. But on the chance that it’s you, too — or if you’re new to longer-form writing and want a little guidance — one of my favorite ways to stay focused is that old elementary school standby, the five-paragraph essay. It’s not for every post, subject, or writer, but it can be a helpful tool for organizing your thoughts.

At its most basic, the five-paragraph essay is made of:

1. Your introduction, where you make the argument or introduce the central theme of what you’re writing and lay out the roadmap for your essay.

2. A supporting paragraph, focused around one idea.

3. Another supporting paragraph, focused around a second idea.

4. A third supporting paragraph, focused on — that’s right! — a third idea.

5. Your summary and conclusion.

There are other formulas that break things down differently or add other components, but I like the old classic.

(The TL;DR version: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.”)

Does it feel a bit restrictive? It is! And that’s the point. It forces you to take a hard look at the structure and flow of what you’re writing, and make decisions about what is (or is not) ultimately relevant. You might have a bracing insight or run across a fascinating new tidbit while writing, but if it doesn’t serve your theme it doesn’t make the cut — park it in a draft, and build another post around it later. Some people find this too limiting, but for me, it’s always been useful in sharpening my thinking.

But… but… I have more than three supporting ideas, and some of my ideas have ideas!” Not a problem: you can actually use the five-paragraph essay more than once to keep your piece on track. Think of each supporting paragraph as its own mini-essay, and you end up with:

1. Your introduction.

2. Your first supporting concept.

  1. The intro for this concept.
  2. The first supporting point for this concept.
  3. A second supporting point for this concept.
  4. A third supporting point for this concept.
  5. The wrap-up on this concept.

3. Your second supporting concept.

  1. The intro for this concept.
  2. The first supporting point for this concept… you get the picture.

4. Your third supporting concept.

5. Your summary and conclusion.

If you’ve got two supporting points, or four, your invitation to the five-paragraph essay party is still valid. The intent here isn’t to force you to invent or cut ideas, just to help you see how a longform post can build to a conclusion in a clear, focused way. It gives you a structure on which to hang and organize your ideas. Readers shouldn’t really be able to see your framework (e.g., no, “My thesis is X. First I will discuss A and B. Finally, I conclude Y,” unless you’re actually writing an academic journal article, please) but it should make their job as readers easier. Nor are you limited to a single paragraph per point; you can keep to the general structure but flesh out your thoughts as needed.

Similarly, if you’ve been happily writing longer posts with no problem, there’s no need to shoehorn your process into this one — keep on keeping on. Different essay formats for different folks, as it were. (There are plenty of narrative structures beyond the five-paragraph essay, and we’ll explore some of those in future posts.)

There are many ways to craft a compelling long post, and we encourage you to have fun with your writing and see what happens when you really take your ideas for a spin. But if you find longer posts challenging, or feel like your arguments are never quite as strong as they could be, give the five-paragraph essay a whirl and see if it doesn’t bring some clarity to your thinking.

Do you have any tips you use for outlining or structuring posts? Share, please!

BONUS!

As the eagle-eyed reader will have already deduced, I used the five-paragraph essay to write this post:

  1. Introduction: the five-paragraph essay is a great tool if you find it challenging to write longer posts.
  2. Supporting idea: The five-paragraph essay keeps your writing focused by forcing you to make decisions about what ideas are relevant to your post.
  3. Supporting idea: The five-paragraph essay can be scaled up for more complex pieces of writing.
  4. Supporting idea: The idea behind the five-paragraph essay can help all kinds of writing, even if the piece doesn’t fall neatly into the five-paragraph structure.
  5. Conclusion: The five-paragraph essay is a great tool if you find it challenging to write longer posts.
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  1. Or in a short story:
    1. Intro (to story and main character)
    2. Supporting paragraph (add new characters)
    3. Uh oh – something happens
    4. Considering options to solve the something that happens
    5. Dénouement (un-knotting of the icky situation) which is conclusion and the end.

    Does that work? 😉 I call it the Star Trek formula…

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  2. I think that this has to be caveated that it only works literally in five paragraphs for works up to around 1000 words. Beyond this it is more of a five part structure where each idea in the main body might comprise a number of related paragraphs.The reason that I make this statement of what might appear to be the blindingly obvious is that I have been marking a lot of university assignments this year and have found that many students (and not just first years!!) have taken the five paragraph structure to heart. The result has been some literal five paragraph essays where in some cases a single paragraph runs over a number of pages. In checking the stock course administration guides, I found that the advice there was strictly the five paragraph structure with no additional advice or guidance for longer works – needless to say, the latest admin guide has this corrected! It’s possibly a rather sad indictment of modern schooling that kids are leaving high school without a good grasp of written exposition – or maybe I’m just getting old?

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    1. Oh…derrr…just re-read and see that you have made this point – very early in the morning here so possibly not fully awake…will borrow the five paragraphs in five paragraphs structure for my next admin guide….apologies…

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  3. Very helpful. I was taught this way and wondered if it was still an acceptable writing format. Nice to know the basics haven’t changed. Why re-invent the wheel?
    Thanks much.

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  4. Interesting…Last night I just wrote a longish draft — 1000 words — and as I read it over, I wondered if it was too long. Now I’m going to go back and edit it with this framework in mind. Thank you.

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  5. I know we are not supposed to disagree with these instructive posts, but I have to disagree anyhow. These are forumulae for academic and technical documents. They won’t work for any kind of story-telling. For news, its WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE HOW. For story telling, anything goes, as long as it’s interesting and/or entertaining. The problem with these forumlae is they eliminate any element of surprise. You lay out everything before you begin the story. These formulae are meant for academic theses, proposals, and technical documentation. The point is to make it easy for a reader to know if they want to read further. I don’t think that’s what blogs are about.

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