In his informative essay, “Footstools and Furniture”, Keith Hjortshoj informs college students around the United States about problems one may encounter with the forms of writing they learned in high school. Throughout middle school and high school, many students are taught that their papers are to be written by using a system of five-paragraphs, three of which that follow the thesis statement, and have basically the same paragraph for the introduction and conclusion. In college, students are expected to be able to go beyond the five-paragraph essay style and begin to infuse more complex ideas and analogies throughout their papers. Does this mean that the five-paragraph essay should be completely abolished? As we explore in the well-written essay by Hjortshoj, we see that there are many pluses and minuses to the five-paragraph essay. In his eye-opening essay, Hjortshoj encompasses strong diction in order to enhance his ideas that while a five-paragraph essay is a simple, well-organized form of writing, it is also a hindrance to students hoping to forward their writing abilities to a college level standard, which leads college students to easily fall behind in their writing techniques.
The first introduction of the five-paragraph essay the reader gets is as it is simply described by Hjortshoj. He repetitively uses the word “basic” (33) to describe the five-paragraph essay. He surrounds the word basic by other words such as “good writers and all good writing”, and describes what the basis of “good writing is” (33). The description of good writing as Hjortshoj describes it is as follows, “All good writing should have a thesis, clearly stated in the introduction… writing throughout the essay should be clear, concise, and correct” (33). The five-paragraph essay must be a great example of good writing then. Students are taught that the thesis is the very last sentence in an introduction, and the thesis is to have three strong points laid out. The organization of the essay comes from these three points, which makes it easy to have a chronological essay. Why would it not be a good thing to use this style of writing in college as well? Here it seems that Hjortshoj is speaking very positively of this essay formula, as it helps the writer begin to layout ideas on paper.
Hjortshoj additionally compares the five-paragraph essay to a concert piece. He describes that in order to learn the more complex pieces it is necessary that you first have basic skills. For example he says, “As you become more accomplished, the basic skills you first learned remained important, but standards for performance changed, and the range of music you could play expanded”, which exemplifies Hjortshoj’s argument about the five-paragraph essay (33). He uses that word “basic” again to describe simple, repetitive skills taught to a person in order to give them a good basis of knowledge that is meant to eventually be expanded upon. So far in his essay, only at the second page, the five-paragraph essay format seems to be helpful. It’s okay for an essay format to simply be basic, as this format provides students with a strong structure to build upon, and it has all of the characteristics essential to forming a good paper, similar to the steps of being able to perform a good concert piece. If it is such a useful tool though, why does Hjortshoj also describe this essay format as a possible hindrance to writing?
Although in music it may seem obvious that a musician’s goal is to become a well-advanced musician, it is not always obvious that once students have learned the five-paragraph essay they should be expected to further advance their abilities to write. A little bit into the depth of his paper, Hjortshoj begins looking at the five-paragraph essay format in a different light, one of which that is not as positive. On page 37, Hjortshoj writes, “This basic outline is so easy to use that students often bring it with them to college and use it habitually as a template for writing essays” (Hjortshoj, 37). His words “so easy” and “habitually” do not seem as positive as his previous ways of describing the essay. The phrase “so easy” makes it seem as if the basic outline is something of simplicity, too simple to be brought along to college, where students are expected to strive to go above and beyond. The word “habitually” that he uses to describe the use of the basic essay seems to have a negative connotation as well. A habit is defined as a practice that is repeated so frequently, a person hardly realizes that they perform this practice after a certain time period. As I mentioned earlier, in the beginning of his paper Hjortshoj seems to believe the organization and conciseness of the five-paragraph essay format to be helpful, a basic format that we should all known in order to write more complex papers. This actually might be why further into his paper the idea of basic writing and simplicity becomes a hindrance. Students in college are expected to be able to expand their writing and challenge themselves in college. If they are used to a habitual action though, it will be very difficult to succeed in a college writing class when all they have is a basic understanding of how to write an essay, instead of the ability to write without a preconceived knowledge of where one’s writing will take them, write freely… the ability to write at the college level.
Continuing off of this idea, upon giving an example of a student’s work, Hjortshoj seems appalled at the simplicity of an essay that follows the basic ideas of a five-paragraph essay template. He describes this first example as “rigid”, “flat” and “disconnected” (Hjortshoj, 39). He also throws in that following the idea of a strict five-paragraph essay leads to “a recipe or redundancy” in a “say what you are going to say, say it, and say you’ve said it” kind of matter (Hjortshoj, 39). Hjortshoj analyzes how the simplicity of the five-paragraph essay can restrict a student’s ability to delve deeper into a subject matter. A student who utilizes this formula in this manner is limited by the point by point structure of an essay style such as this, where each paragraph blatantly leads the reader to the next paragraph, leaving no room for outside thoughts or questions of analysis. In this case the five-paragraph essay format was helpful to this student, as the essay was organized and concise, unfortunately when looking at it from a college professor’s standpoint, the essay becomes basic because it follows all of the “rules” and leaves no room for creativity. The lack of expansion, thoughtfulness, and personality do not meet college level writing standards. The words, rigid, flat, and disconnected to describe an essay are not positive, and make it seem that the essay will be boring, disengaging, and simply put, basic. Although Hjortshoj did initially say that the five-paragraph essay format can be helpful, when a writer simply follows the format, and plugs in words where they are needed, the essay will not be successful as it limits the boundaries of the writer.
On the other hand, when used effectively, the five-paragraph essay as a guidance tool helps maintain the organization of an essay while at the same time promoting deeper analysis. Hjortshoj provides an exceptional second student example as evidence of his belief that if a student is able to uphold to some rules of the five-paragraph essay, but also ask questions and make discoveries while they write, they will be very successful at writing a provoking college level essay. He describes this second essay saying, “It has a real beginning, middle and end, and as a consequence it takes us somewhere, beyond the place where we started out. It has a point of departure, a direction, and a destination” (Hjortshoj, 44). At this moment when I initially read his paper, I realized that this is why I have not been satisfied with many of my writing pieces. Most of my writing before reading this followed the strict five-paragraph essay guidelines, which meant that before I wrote the paper I already knew what I was going to write about, which would always be stated in the last sentence of my introduction. The problem with essays such as this, like Hjortshoj says, is they do not go anywhere. In order to be engaging, interesting and informative, essays should teach one something about the topic that is being analyzed. The student who wrote the second sample essay maintains the basic ideas of a five-paragraph essay, but the difference Hjortshoj states is that “when [the student] wrote the first paragraph she wasn’t entirely sure where the discussion would end up” (44). He then says, “If she had followed the common formula, discussing three separate points in disconnected paragraphs, this idea may not have occurred to her at all” (44). Writing freely allowed this student to explore her thoughts as she wrote, which allowed her to make better connections than a student who plans out everything that they are going to write beforehand. This way of writing allows a writer to be led by their thoughts and stream of consciousness, instead of being led by their three points in their thesis statement.
Why is it so important for Hjortshoj to differentiate between the helpfulness and hindrance of the five-paragraph essay? For students such as myself, reading Hjortshoj’s essay is eye-opening. It was my first introduction as to why there needs to be a transition from high school writing to college writing. Hjortshoj’s essay raises awareness that students need to be more analytical in college and that they should be able to expand on their writing, instead of continuing to follow a format. He writes, “[Teachers] are trying to emphasize some basic principles of organization that you can later use to develop essays of great variety. Unfortunately, students often miss the point of this instruction” (45). This is the sole reason why Hjortshoj writes his essay. His friendly, encompassing diction draws the reader in, allowing Hjortshoj to capture the attention of the exact type of high school student that he describes in his essay. This essay is important to read while entering college, because hardly will teachers ever go backwards to teach one how they expect them to write in college. Professors expect students to already be able to write at the college level, although they forget that all previous knowledge that these students have comes from the repetitive teachings of the five-paragraph essay. Hjortshoj is trying to save these students from failure by addressing the problem early, and educating educators about the problems of today’s American writing system.
In summary, not all five-paragraph essays are poorly written essays, but not all of them are noteworthy either. The five-paragraph essay formula is helpful as one learns to write a more structured, formulated essay, while for more analytical papers that require a student to make connections with a topic it is found that the five-paragraph essay is something of a hindrance that holds students back from truly discovering the deeper meanings of a subject topic. When students already have a pre-planned course of action to take when writing their essay, they lack the desire to ask more questions once they already know what they are going to say. The benefit of not completely sticking to the “rigid” form of the five-paragraph essay is that one’s essay can stay concise and organized, at the same time engaging the reader on the deeper level. When the writer is able to ask questions and make discoveries while they write, the reader is more engaged, and the entire paper becomes more scholarly and engaging. In today’s world where students are taught in high school to conform to the structure of the five-paragraph essay, the standards of college writing are lowered due to the fact that students are displaced in classes when they are given low grades due to the fact that their essays are too “basic” to be considered to meet the college-level standard of writing. This is what Hjortshoj educates his audience about. In order to prevent the quality of student writing from degrading, it is imperative that high school teachers begin to place less of an importance on writing for standardized tests instead of preparing students for actual college level writing courses.