Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

When I hand back analytic essays, I try to leave room to do a collective post-mortem and talk about common problems or challenges that appeared in a number of essays. I think it helps a lot to know that the comment you got is a comment that other people got, and also to know how some people dealt more successfully with the same issue. All anonymous, of course, and nothing especially brutal in terms of the actual grades dispensed.

I usually base my comments on some scrawled meta-notes I keep as I work through each batch of essays. Sometimes there are unique problems that arise in relation to a particular essay question, which is sometimes a consequence of my having given enough rope for certain students to hang themselves in the phrasing of the question. Often there are problems I’ve seen before and commented upon.

1) Some of these perennial comments concern smaller but important stylistic errors and misfires, such as:

Choice of tenses, which can be difficult in history papers if the student is writing about contemporary texts as well as past events.

Point-of-view. The only thing I strongly discourage is the use of the “royal we”, though there are ways to make it work rhetorically if used with care. The other thing I mark is switching randomly or rapidly between point-of-view.

Endless unbroken paragraphs.

Weirdly arbitrary capitalization. This is not the 18th Century.

Psychotic misuse of commas and semicolons.

Sentences that I label “awk” (awkward) or “ugh” (ugh), where there is just something aggravatingly roundabout if not absolutely grammatically forbidden in the structure of the sentence or where the sentence or phrase is plain-old butt-ugly.

“Purple prose”, e.g., wildly overwritten or florid. The template I have in mind here is an actual paper I graded some years ago that began, in apparent seriousness,
“Verily, the colonial state in Africa indeed formulated a versilimitude of societal establishments”.

“Blocky prose”, the opposite of purple prose, with every sentence a completely unadorned subject-verb-object monotone. The composite effect is like reading a telegraph message. “Africa was ruled by Britain, France and Portugal. They constructed colonial states. Most colonial governments were based on indirect rule. Indirect rule was based on Africans having their own customary rules and rulers. Colonial authorities controlled customary rules and rulers. There were many conflicts over these rules. Indirect rule was an unjust system.”

Confusion over the difference between different sources or materials. On a recent assignment, for example, some writers ended up comparing a contemporary scholar’s work with a primary source from the 1920s and acted as if the two sources were contemporaneous with each other and written for more or less the same purposes.

Arbitrary, purely “structural”, use of evidence or supporting material, where an essay has the feel of having been written with “blank spots” for evidence which the student then fills by more or less randomly pulling out quotes from a text.

“Kitchen sinkism”, an essay that indiscriminately throws every scrap of potentially relevant material and information at a problem, organized serially as it occurs to a student during the writing process. This is especially bad at shorter lengths, where making good decisions about what to include and exclude is critical.

Words and phrases that implicitly or explicitly assert mastery of the entire corpus of material related to the assignment, often through language that compares a source text to all other source texts of the class X from which the text comes. Every once in a while, I get an undergraduate who has some justifiable reason to assert this sort of authority, but most of the time, it is a mistake, though often an unconscious one.

Bad introduction that doesn’t do any sort of useful job stylistically or structurally. A writer can have an introduction that doesn’t do any structural work but is stylistically compelling, or a writer can have a plain-Jane intro that gets the structure set, but having neither is a problem.

Bad or nonexistent paragraph transitions. At its worst, this makes me feel like I am reading the private confessions of a schizophrenic.

2) The most important fundamental issue I see again and again is a paper which is largely descriptive rather than analytical, which proves that a student has “done the homework” but not taken ownership of the material and crafted an argument of their own. Sometimes I see an argument in the first paragraph or in the last paragraph (the latter often appearing to be a last-minute discovery) that is cut off from the rest of the essay, unexplored or unsupported. I often comment that papers lack what I call “flow” a sense that they are moving relentlessly and naturally from one assertion to the next, building towards some goal or overall point. I often suggest some pre-built analytic structures that go beyond the usual five-paragraph essay that students are taught to write in K-12 schooling. These are hooks, conceptual heuristics that I hope can help a student find an argument, a structure, “flow” to the analysis. Here are some of the structures I suggest for history papers written in response to a professor’s prompt or question:

Simple compare and contrast. This is often the next step up from the plain five-paragraph essay. I sometimes call it the this-and-that paper. The essay can be written around a block comparison, where the two (or more) things to be compared are discussed separately in longer multi-paragraph sections, or on a point-by-point basis, alternating each paragraph. The key here that makes this structure rise above the purely pedestrian is the conclusion. A compare-and-contrast paper that concludes with an unresolved or rhetorical question about the meaning of the comparison is banal and descriptive, but a paper that concludes with an emphatic resolution of the comparison or contrast can be excellent.

Close reading. An essay built around a very tight interpretation of a single word, phrase, metaphor or other linguistic component of a source or scholarly account, or focus on a tight comparison of several related passages. The implicit hope here is that the writer will find a potent enough metaphor or passage to hang a larger argument on if they pay close attention to the language of their sources or material.

Chronological. A structure that is more precisely fitted to historical writing, where it traces the development of a theme or issue over time. This is also very simple, and often produces a mediocre paper that is purely descriptive and non-analytical, but if it is done well, can be very sophisticated. The key to doing this paper well is picking a theme or issue where tracing its development over time is itself a potent or pointed analytic choice, where pursues a chronological dimension to an issue repudiates some other way of understanding it. (The reverse, by the way, works equally well, namely, taking an issue that is commonly understood as changing considerably over time and arguing that it actually is quite static.)

Contrarian. A paper built around a full-scale attack on the source material or even the assumptions of the essay question. The key to doing well here is tight discipline and focus, remembering that this is for “argument’s sake” but also making sure that the criticism on offer is notarbitrary, a wildly inconsistent grab-bag of fault-finding or a mouth-frothing disproportionate polemic. The best essays under this heading will identify some deep axiom or assumption made by the source material and ask, “But what if this is not the case?” and go from there. Incidentally, I tell students that just thinking about a contrarian essay is a good way to clarify the argument in any essay”if you aren’t offering an analysis that is potentially arguable, that you can think of ways to attack or counter, you don’t have a good argument.

Thematic. Hard to describe: this is a catch-all term for an essay that isolates a single theme or issue in response to the professor’s initial prompt, and focuses exclusively on it. On a recent assignment, for example, I had one very good paper that took a general prompt about development policies in colonial Africa and zoomed in very tightly on agriculture and gender. The good thematic writer just needs to have enough faith in the heuristic they’re using to isolate a single issue or problem”a thematic essay goes wrong when the theme is very badly chosen or when the writer loses confidence and switches halfway through to something else.

Set-em-up, knock-em-down. When it is done right, this is just about my favorite kind of short analytic essay, and it is one of the structures well worth learning for its general utility outside of the college environment. In this structure, the writer explores some simplistic or banal assumption or argument for the first part of the paper, carefully bracketed off as a sort of Let’s suppose that X is true, where it is clear that the author is just thinking it through. Then halfway through the essay, the writer pulls the rug out, revealing that the initial argument is totally wrong, and substituting some other argument or line of analysis in its place. In the end, the reason I like set-em-up, knock-em-down essays is that they are so clearly focused on the purpose of analytic writing, at least in my classes, and that’s persuasion. This is why I grade descriptive essays so relatively low: they only prove that someone did the reading. An essay that is persuasive is an essay that shows a student has command of the material, has taken ownership of it. It doesn’t matter if their knowledge is less than encyclopedic in that case.