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The standard "5-Paragraph Essay" most of us have heard of or been required to do in a high school or college writing class is under attack: It's formulaic. It zaps creativity. It's too rule-based. It lacks sophistication. I'd agree that it is old fashioned. Some trace its roots to the Schoolmarms of the 19th century. According to Matthew Nunes in his essay "The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing," its roots trace back to the Roman and Greek rhetoricians several centuries B.C.A.

I trace its roots much further back than that, all the way to the architecture of the human mind.

It's hard-wired in us. We have a need it seems

  • to say something big,
  • to back it up with examples, 
  • to elaborate with small details,
  • to defend what we have to say from nay-sayers, and
  • to reenforce at the end what we just said.

So nobody "invented" the structure of the 5-Paragraph Essay. It's ingrained in our brains...always has been.

So why would I wish to say good-bye (in writing classes) to such a fundamental idea?

I actually don't reject it outright. I just put it offstage until later...until students understand what writing is really about. Let me explain and suggest a replacement.

I think students dislike writing classes because they don't seem real and they don't do a very satisfactory job of explaining the WHY behind "writing"! 

That is, students are told what to do to write well. They're told to discover something to say, to imagine an audience, to make an outline, to arrange the information logically, to write it correctly. The venerable 5-Paragraph Essay is part of that prescription. All this is well intended and leaves students thinking that writing is a matter of jumping through hoops of correctness...of making something out of nothing...and of writing to nobody in particular (except the teacher who must grade the writing).

What students aren't told well enough is WHY we do those required writing-things, the BIG WHYs behind writing. (As usual, in this blog I'm talking about "writing to inform," not so much about "writing to entertain.")

So what are the important WHYs behind writing?

Let me answer this question by relating a classroom experience that turned students who weren't interested in writing into students who actually wanted to write.

I was asked to come talk for 50 minutes to a college business-writing class about "writing." Most of the students had worked for 4 hours in the morning before coming to this late-afternoon class. Many would go back to work that evening. For the most part, I got the feeling they were suffering their way through this required writing class, trying to check off yet another more or less meaningless box on their way to a diploma.

They were not excited to meet me.

I began talking about writing by going around the room (20 students) and asking each student to introduce her/himself to me. I asked them to tell me their major and what job they were hoping to get after college. 

When a student told me her name, I walked over and shook her hand and told her I was happy to meet her. Several were in Computer Science, hoping to go into cyber-security. Some were Business Administration majors not quite sure what job they could get. There were a couple of Psychology majors, a few Family Studies majors, a Math major, a couple of Criminal Justice majors, and a General Studies major. Most were not crystal clear about the dream job they wanted or would be qualified to get.

I asked how many liked writing. Two hands went up. I asked those students what kind of writing they enjoyed..."creative writing." I asked if any of them liked "business writing"--I explained that I called it workplace writing, that is, the writing people have to do at work as part of their jobs. No hands up.

I asked them what percentage of time they thought they'd be expected to write on the job. Most thought they'd have to do very little. I told them the average employee writes about 25% of the time...some more, some a lot more, and some less.

I asked them how workplace writing (business writing) differed from regular writing. They thought it was different in two ways: 1) it was way more formal, 2) it required special "business" formats.

I told them they were mistaken.

I agreed that workplace writing up until the 1960s or so had been artificially formal and elevated and that this habit persisted to some extent in the workplaces of the 21st century. However, I told them, since the 1960s something called Plain Language (plain English) was replacing that artificially formal way of writing.

Further, I told them that Plain Language was not about "dumbing down" their writing. It was writing in a way that allowed their readers to clearly understand the simple or complex information they needed. I told them that using Plain Language was not about using "baby words." It required using the same words used in speaking in the workplace to coworkers, customers, and clients...everyday (professional) language.

They seemed a little interested. But then came a turning point.

I handed them a single-page email/memo and asked them to read it and tell me if it was "good writing." It was from a student I'd had in my business class. The assignment was simply to tell me, in no more than 500 words, which two all-electric cars I should consider buying...and why. I had given students my everyday mileage and a general budget.

This email/memo was, as it turned out, a 5-Paragraph Essay. It began by telling me the history of electric cars. Here's the first paragraph:

It is difficult to pinpoint the invention of the electric car to one inventor or country. A series of breakthroughs from the battery to the electric motor in the 1800s first led to the electric vehicle on the road. In the early part of the century, innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands, and the United States including a blacksmith from Vermont began experimenting with the concept of a battery-powered vehicle and created some of the first small-scale electric cars. Robert Anderson, a British inventor, developed the first electric carriage around this same time, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that French and English inventors built some of the first practical electric cars.

The email/memo went on to explain the virtues of electric cars today, along with some of the drawbacks. It ended by telling me that electric cars were very good for the environment and that I should consider getting one.

The piece of writing had no big mistakes. It communicated very clearly. It was an "easy read." No wonder everyone in the class thought it was "good" writing.

But then I gave them the assignment: please tell me in no more than 500 words which two all-electric cars I should consider buying and why.

There was general laughter. The whole class GOT IT!

This was not good writing because it didn't give me--the REAL reader, the REAL user of the information, the REAL person who needed specific information--any of the information I'd asked for.

"So," I continued, "how should this have been written?" That was easy, they said...just tell me which two all-electric cars to buy and why those were the best two.

THAT...I told them...was what workplace writing was all about--that's WHY we write. As a writer you do three things: 

  • just figure out what the ISSUE is for this REAL reader/user (why you're taking the time to write and why the reader is willing to read),
  • create a list of all the REAL questions this reader would need to ask about the ISSUE in question (I call this exercise "question factoring"), and
  • answer those questions as clearly and concisely as possible (using your own experience/knowledge or your research), ending with a recommendation (which could also be placed in the "subject line" of the email/memo).

That's easy, they said. We can do that.

Then I made a few pictures on the whiteboard to give them a few more essential writing WHYs.

I told them writers must their reader's needs. It begins with understanding that the most popular model of "communication" was not helpful for workplace writing. I showed them the Shannon/Weaver "Transmission Model of Communication." In that simple model, communication occurs when a SENDER transmits information to a RECEIVER. I also show them that this model allows for NOISE between sender/receiver that may impede the transmission.

I explain that this model is merely about transmitting a signal...what would amount to the sound of my voice. If my voice is muffled or the "connection is bad," the receiver might lose the signal. But does merely being able to hear my voice (the signal) rise to the level of communication? Of course not. What if I spoke in a language you couldn't understand? What if the sound coming from me was mere gibberish? What if you could hear my voice and understand all the words but the message was unhelpful? For instance, what if you asked me where Room 3583 is in the building we're both in, and I said this: "This is a very confusing building with many rooms"? 

You hear the signal I transmitted (my voice). You understand all the words. But are we communicating? Clearly we're not!

I quickly replace that very limited model with a more practical one. I tell students that human communication is essentially a CONVERSATION. Further, I explain that a conversation functions through a lose string of questions and answers. Without questions (asked or implied), conversations are impossible.

I explain that QUESTIONS are the manifestation of our INTEREST in something. I ask them, when you're interested in something, you ask questions about it, right? Everyone agrees. 

So, what's the takeaway?

In order to truly communicate, "writing," in whatever form is takes, must find a way to simulate a conversation with the reader. This is a matter of knowing what questions the reader should have about the ISSUE in question, and it's a matter of knowing that we all read by asking large questions, which we expect the writing to address.

I tell the students that we all read (anything) by cycling through 3 "macro-questions":

  1. What is this (thing I'm supposed to read) and why should I care?
  2. What's the "story"?
  3. What, if anything, is next?

I ask them how they go through their own email and snail mail. They admit that they delete/toss as much of it as they can. They sort through this reading material first by asking that first two-part question. If they don't find a reason to care, they hit DELETE, shred, or toss out the "writing."

If they are interested enough to keep reading, it's because there's some ISSUE that has "caught their attention." They want to know "the story." The story amounts to all the answers for all the questions they have about the ISSUE in question.

At this point, I draw a two-circle Venn diagram. Circle A is all the "questions" a reader has about an ISSUE. Circle B is all the "answers" a piece of writing offers. I tell them that the extent to which these two circles intersect defines how successful the writing is. I ask them to draw a Venn diagram of the 500-word electric-car email/memo. All of them draw two separate circles.

I tell them, that's why I gave that student an "F" on that assignment.

One of the students says, "An 'F'??? But that was really good writing. That's harsh." I ask this student if she would be satisfied with that "report" is she'd paid someone to do research and recommend the two all-electric cars she should consider. She admits that she wouldn't be.

Another student asks me, "You mean that's all we have to do is answer your questions and you'll give us a good grade?" My answer is pretty much. But I add that I can be even more helpful to them.

By now the class has accepted the simple idea that writing has to answer the reader's questions. So I ask how should you organize your writing? There are a few interesting opinions, some of which I accept.

Now I show them that the reader's 3 Macro-Questions they cycle through as they read anything perfectly align with the 3 major parts of any piece of writing. (Here's where I substitute what I'm calling here "The 3-Part Document Guide" for the well-intentioned model of the 5-Paragraph Essay.)

I tell them the three parts of any piece of writing:

  1. Beginning (I call it the INTRODUCTION),
  2. Middle (I call it the DISCUSSION), and 
  3. Ending (I call it the ENDING).

On the whiteboard, I draw a quick table with three columns. In the first column, I list the 3 Macro-Questions. In the middle column, I list the 3 parts of any document. In the last column, I explain what kind of information a writer should provide for each part of the writing.

The INTRODUCTION should briefly explain why the writer is writing and why the reader should care, if she doesn't already know. I name this part THE HOOK. After the hook, the writer should preview all the main topics in the piece of writing. I explain that TOPICS are really just answers that connect to the reader's main questions.

There's a little AH HA moment in class. Students tell me they always have trouble coming up with TOPICS. Now they see that TOPICS are totally related to the actual questions a REAL reader has about the ISSUE in  question. I'm jazzed. Now they're actually using some of the vocabulary I've introduced to talk to me about what we writing teachers call "the writing process." The idea of PLAN-> DRAFT->REVISE is very vague. Students appreciate the more direct approach of "figure out what questions your reader wants you to answer and answer them!"

So we brainstorm a better INTRODUCTION for the 500-word all-electric car email/memo and come up with a list of questions the REAL reader (ME in this scenario) might want to have answered. I can tell them, YES--I am interested in that or NO--I'm not interested in that.

Once we have the main questions set up, we know what to put into the DISCUSSION box. We answer those questions and give support for our answers. This step allows us to talk about methodology and research--two topics that make many students go cold. Here, they realize the practicality and necessity of a dependable methodology and fact-based research. No problem.

Then we fill in the last box--the ENDING. I warn them not to merely repeat what they've already said. This is not what most people think of as a "conclusion"--merely a summary of the key points. It's the TAKE-AWAY. It tells the reader what, if anything must/should/will happen next. In this case, we decide that we'll just make our final recommendation to the reader about which two all-electric cars to consider.

This process makes sense to them. It's simple. It explains WHY we do things the way we do when we write--WE NEED TO COMMUNICATE USEFUL INFORMATION THAT THE READER NEEDS (not merely "transmit" information).

At this point, I have 15 minutes left in the class. I tell them to forget about "writing." I tell them they need to be able to Design A Reading EXPERIENCE for their readers. They laugh. A computer science major tells me that this is called UX user experience). And I agree, saying, "That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about."

I go on to say that they could use the subject line to state the main point: "Dr. Lillywhite Should Consider Buying the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt." That, I tell them, would capture my interest.

I also tell them that each main topic (derived from the reader's main questions) could be introduced throughout the email/memo with a heading to SHOW the reader where each main topic begins. They agree that this makes total sense. One of the students says, "That's so easy. I could do that."

Finally I hand around another version of the 500-word all-electric car email/memo. It has the bottom-line stated in the subject line. It says very briefly why the writer is writing (and adds a sentence about why I, the REAL reader, should care). It then lists in bullet points the main three topics it will discuss. Each main topic in the DISCUSSION uses a heading to show where each topic begins. And it ends with a recommendation.

I ask them how successful this document is. They all agree that it's great.

They want to know how I would grade that version. I answer with one more chart...I call it the HOCs and LOCs chart.

I tell them that any piece of writing has to be responsive by delivering truly useful information to the REAL reader who needs the information. But I add that any piece of writing delivers that information through 7 independent, yet interdependent SYSTEMS, which I write on the whiteboard.

I tell them the HOCs stands for Higher Order Concerns. This group has three systems: 

  1. CONTENT
  2. ORGANIZATION (logical structure)
  3. DOCUMENT DESIGN (visible structure on the page/screen)

The LOCs stands for the Lower Order Concerns. I tell them that the LOCs include what most people call STYLE. This group has four systems:

  1. Paragraphs
  2. Sentences
  3. Word Choices
  4. Mechanics.

I tell them that a writer needs to understand how each of these systems works. Each writer needs to be able to manage "the writing" at each of these 7 levels.

For instance, I explain that as we've seen, the SYSTEM that we call CONTENT has four main parts: 1) the ISSUE (why we're writing and why the reader is reading), 2) the READER-QUESTIONS (the results of "question factoring" the ISSUE into all the pertinent questions the reader needs to have answered), 3) the ANSWERS, and 4) the SUPPORT for each of the main answers--which turn out to be answers to follow-up questions.

I explain that I grade any piece of writing by evaluating the CONTENT, the ORGANIZATION/DOCUMENT DESIGN, and the STYLE. I give each a grade. The final grade, I tell them, is the lowest grade of the three.

They tell me this is no fair. But I explain that any piece of writing is only as strong as its weakest link. If any of those three areas is weak, the writing will be weak. They kind of agree.

Class ends with my reminding them about the three-column table showing the reader's 3 Macro-Questions, the 3 Parts of Any Document, and the list of what's included in each of the 3 parts.

I get ready to erase the whiteboard, but several students ask me to wait. Several students actually get up and take pictures of the several diagrams I've drawn on the whiteboard. "Now I get it," one student says. Another student asks out loud, "Why didn't anybody ever tell us about this?"

This is absolutely a true version of this little encounter. I was energized by their enthusiasm. They were energized by discovering a real strategy for this thing called "writing"--and "business writing" to boot.

Their teacher actually gave these students an assignment very similar to the 500-word all-electric car assignment. She asked me to grade them with her. What we saw was RESPONSIVE writing. The CONTENT and ORGANIZATION were all pretty stellar. The STYLE was pretty good, too. There were some typical errors. But the teacher told me this was way better than the writing she'd been seeing.

Awesome!

It makes sense...when you know exactly what you're doing when you're writing (giving a REAL reader useful information the reader needs), your "style" gets better, too.

So, what's the big take-away? The 5-Paragraph Essay is okay. (I'm not a huge fan of assigning students to write ESSAYS to nobody in particular.) But how much more practical and helpful is that little 3-column chart..what I call the "3-Part Document Guide."

Try it. Your students (and employees) will dig it.

Email me (harvey@QCGwrite.com) if you have comments or questions...or want me to come talk to your class for 50 minutes.

P.S. My business-writing textbook (Mastering Workplace Writing--https://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0692520082/ref=tmm_pap_new_olp_sr?ie=UTF8&condition=new&qid=&sr=-- $77) details this approach. My 200-page ebook (Mindful Writing at Work--https://gumroad.com/l/mindfulwriting--many pictures, $9.97) also follows the HOCs & LOCs approach.