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The Short Essay Walking Before You Run

  • By Jason Bacot
  • Published 01/26/2011
  • Writing

The short (usually five-paragraph) essay has plenty of admirers and detractors. Most of the detractors state, correctly, that it is an artificial device and that there are many topics and viewpoints that cannot be effectively shoehorned into the five-paragraph structure. There is no doubt that the instructor that relies solely on five-paragraph essay assignments is limiting his or her students in some ways. On the other hand, if the short essay is viewed as an essential learning tool, it is easy to see how it can benefit students. Some teachers of composition and creative writing think of the short essay as a form of basic training, similar to the way so many of the greatest visual artists trained in the basics of classical composition, perspective, and line even if their greatest works were abstract paintings. In other words, they view it as a foundation upon which further technique can build. Another reason that many teachers emphasize the five-paragraph essay is for its utility for non-native English speakers. Becoming fluent in a non-native language requires skill at thought organization, on the level of the individual word, the sentence, and the complete thought, or paragraph. Students of English as a second language (ESL) often use the short essay as an effective skill builder. ESL students must satisfy certain language requirements before enrolling in an American college or university, and the five-paragraph essay provides a solid structure for being able to do that.

When the short essay is used as a building block

of composition skills, it is very valuable. The ability to distill thoughts into a coherent, concise form is required for success in a huge range of professions, from medicine to law to engineering. Therefore, students shouldn’t think of the short essay as nothing more than a requirement for passing a class. The problem with the short essay is when an instructor relies on it as the sole means of expression within a class. While there will naturally be emphasis on this format in basic composition classes, it shouldn’t be the “go to” format for all research assignments in the humanities and sciences. Many teachers today, saddled with heavy testing requirements and huge classes, simply do not have the time to shepherd their students through the process of writing a full-length term paper or research paper, and this is a shame. It’s one reason why the short essay is so prominently used in high schools today: teachers are overloaded, and with the five-paragraph essay, at least students will be required to do some writing.

If you’re a student, you should try to master the short essay. Knowing how to distill an idea or argument into 500 words or so can be extremely valuable in business, law, medicine, or engineering. Many law firms today find that they have to organize basic writing classes for new associates because they have simply not developed their writing skills as well as students in older generations were required to. Whose “fault” this is is not important. What is important is that anyone looking at a professional career of any kind understands the fundamental importance of basic writing skills to his or her future and takes advantages of learning opportunities.



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