How to get started writing without the five-paragraph format
If writers are not going to use the five-paragraph format, then how should they get started with the writing process? While it might seem logical to start writing the essay with the introduction, there are downsides to starting with the introduction if the writer has not already done extensive thinking or planning for the essay:
- The writer does not know exactly what the essay is about yet, so they might have to rewrite the introduction to match what they end up writing.
- The writer may end up writing multiple introductions while trying to find a way to summarize and introduce a topic they have not yet written on.
- The writer may feel stuck and experience writer’s block (Thelin, Writing Without Formulas91).
Instead of beginning the writing process with the introduction to the essay, writers could:
- Free write
- Write the body of the essay
- Make a working outline
- Create a list of what they want to include
- Follow the steps of the writing process (as suggested in section 3.1 “The Writing Process”).
What essays could look like without the five-paragraph format
The LB Handbook describes different kinds of organizational patterns for writers including: chronological, general to specific, specific to general, climactic, problem-solution, and spatial (21). The following sections detail these techniques. Writers often use multiple kinds of organization within one essay, using one technique for one paragraph, one technique for another paragraph, multiple techniques in a single paragraph, and a technique for the overall organization and flow of the essay.
Writers who use chronological organization for their essay write about events that took place first in the beginning of the essay and then move to events that occurred later, following the order in which the events took place. Chronological order could be interesting for writers to purposefully play around with in their writing. Could the writer start at the end or the middle of the event to draw the reader in or make their structure more interesting? Writers might use chronological for sections of their essay in which they detail events that have already taken place or to describe historical events relevant to their topic.
If a writer wants to describe how they learned German, they can start with the first time that they heard the language, then describe (in the order which they occurred) the events and significant moments in their journey of learning the language.
General to specific
With general to specific organization, the writer starts with a broad perspective and then moves in more closely to their subject. This organization meets imagined readers at a level of specificity that they can easily connect with. The writer then gets more detailed, bringing the reader with them, and zooming in on the specific topic they are describing.
If a writer wants to describe how students at CSU use Blackboard to communicate (and they want to reach a wider audience than college students and instructors), they could begin by describing the broader topic of how college courses use online technologies, then the writer can get more specific into the details of Blackboard as they write more.
Specific to general
When using specific to general organization, the writer starts with details of their topic and then moves the focus to a broader context as they continue to write.
- Writers can start with their findings or their main point and then work backwards, describing how the more specific points fit into a larger context.
- Writers can start with very minute details of the situation they want to describe. Readers may not know exactly what the writer is describing, but as they continue reading, the writer reveals the context by zooming out more.
If a writer wants to describe communication in soccer, they could begin by describing an exciting minute of gameplay and how players communicate with each other during those intense moments. The writer might want to include jargon to make the situation realistic. Then, as the writer moves further away from the details, they can describe the jargon for the reader and contextualize the communication by putting it in the broader context of the soccer game and soccer culture.
In problem-solution format, writers describe a problem and then describe the solution to the problem. Not every essay topic can utilize problem-solution organization because there might not be a problem or a solution involved with the topic.
If a writer wants to discuss health literacy and why it’s important, they could start by describing problems that might occur if adults do not have health literacy, then they could describe how health literacy could be improved.
In spatial organization, writers describe their subject based on its location in space with other objects. To use this technique, writers could identify a concrete space to describe. Writers could also imagine their topic and how it relates to geography, describing relevant events in an order that progresses from east to west or north to south, depending on their purpose.
If a writer is describing the impact of social media, they could include a spatial description of the screen a user sees on Instagram. What appears on the screen as users scroll through the app they are investigating? What’s on the top and bottom of the screen? What about from the left to the right of the screen?
If the writer is discussing a workplace, they could start from one corner of the workstation and move systematically through the space describing each part and section making sure to use details to bring the location to the reader.
Most writers will be familiar with movies, video games, novels, or plays being climactic. Climactic plots have the most action-filled scenes, major twists, or character deaths towards the end, around 75-90% of the way through the plot. Climactic college writing can vary widely. In climactic organization, the thesis statement will most likely not be at the end of the introduction but towards the end of the essay. According to Thelin, if the writer has a controversial stance, it might be best to save their conclusion towards the end (95). Saving a controversial finding until the end of the essay gives the writer time to get the reader feeling and understanding the topic like they do. However, topics don’t need to be controversial for writers to use climactic organization.
If a writer wants to discuss how social media is addictive, they could save their findings until they are almost finished with their essay. The beginning of the essay could include descriptions, observations, and research. Then, after the writer has drawn a clear picture of social media for the reader, they can reveal their finding that social media may be addictive.
Essay organization and culture
Fan Shen in “The Classroom and the Wider Culture”describes a variety of differences between what he calls “English rules” and “Chinese composition” (462). In English, he points out, readers expect a “topic sentence” that explains the main information before getting into the details (462). He argues this “is symbolic of the values of a busy people in an industrialized society, rushing to get things done, hoping to attract and satisfy the busy reader very quickly” (462). Chinese writers, he explains, “often clear the surrounding bushes before attacking the real target” (463). Whether writers choose to take their time to get to the main point or want to reveal it in a more traditionally academic manner, the choice is theirs.
Application to your own writing
Read the essay that you are working on. Create an outline for what you have written. In the outline, label the organizational techniques that you have used. These may be from the list above or may not be listed. Do your best to describe how the essay is organized in each section. Keep in mind that you will likely have more than one kind of organization in your essay.
Aaron, Jane E. LB: the Little, Brown Handbook, Brief Version. Pearson Longman, 2014.
Shen, Fan. “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English
Composition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 40. no. 4, 1989, pp. 459-466.
Thelin, William. Writing Without Formulas. Second edition. Cengage, 2009.