UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “February, 2012”

The Pros and Cons of the Three-Point-Five Essay

Whitney Brown

Since starting work at the UofL Writing Center, I’ve met a lot of students who have struggled with the “Three-Point-Five” or “Five Paragraph” essay, one of the most common formats taught in high schools right now.  For anyone unfamiliar with this terminology, the Three-Point-Five, or Five Paragraph, essay encourages students to write an introductory paragraph with a clear thesis statement that outlines the arguments that will be made in the body, followed by a body of three paragraphs, one point (argument) each, which support the thesis, ending in a conclusion that restates the thesis and sums up the arguments made in each paragraph.  Three points in five paragraphs; hence, the names.

For those of you who are more visual learners, this is what it looks likes:

Paragraph 1: Thesis

Paragraph 2: Point 1

Paragraph 3: Point 2

Paragraph 4: Point 3

Paragraph 5: Conclusion

Many students come to the Writing Center after receiving a less-than-satisfying grade on a paper of this kind, hoping that we can help with revision.  Or, they turned in a paper like this and were told to do something else for the next paper, and they don’t know what to do.  They are frustrated.  This is what they did in high school, and they thought their high school classes were supposed to prepare them to write for college.  They don’t understand why the professor said they needed to “do more.”  Sometimes they’re afraid that they’ll have to throw out everything they learned in high school and re-learn how to write papers.

As a Writing Center tutor, I always try to stress that they don’t need to forget the Three-Point-Five essay; they just need to build on it.  The Three-Point-Five essay provides a useful framework.  When you build a house, you have to start with the foundation and the wooden frame.  This frame gives the house shape; it’s what makes the house look like a house.  However, the frame is bare, so you have to add the walls and the roof.  The Three-Point-Five is like that frame.  You can use it to get started in writing academic essays, but you may not want to stop there.

So what are the Pros and Cons of this type of essay?  Let’s start with the Cons.

1) This format gives the reader the basic arguments three times, first in the thesis, then in the body, and then in the conclusion.  This can feel repetitive, which is not a great rhetorical strategy.  It may seem a little boring, or a little simplistic.

2) This is disjointed.  Each body paragraph relates back to the thesis, but they don’t relate to each other.  This means that the arguments stand by themselves, instead of working together.

3) A Three-Point-Five Essay is totally self-contained, meaning that it doesn’t connect with a broader topic or make room for more questions.  It pretends to be the final word on the subject.

College professors generally don’t want to see this kind of essay because they want to read complicated and interesting papers.  They don’t want to read the same thing three times, and they don’t want repetition to be the only strategy students have.  Saying the same thing over and over again is not very convincing, after all.  Professors would also like to know that their students can makes connections between the different parts of their arguments.  So, instead of thinking of each paragraph as one separate argument that has nothing to do with any of the others, they want students to think of the paper as one argument with a lot of paragraphs providing support for that argument.  Finally, professors want students to know that there is more to each subject than is given in the paper.  No paper is the be-all and end-all of anything.  It’s one side of a larger conversation about the topic of study.

Now that I’ve gone into the weaknesses in the Three-Point-Five format, let’s take a look at the Pros.

1) This format teaches students how to support a thesis.  That’s an important skill to have.  After all, the thesis is like the tip of a pyramid.  It needs everything underneath it, like the body paragraphs, to hold it up.

2) The Three-Point-Five essay teaches students how to write a paragraph.  It’s true that each paragraph has to connect with every other paragraph in some way, but each paragraph should discuss one idea.  Otherwise, the reader gets lost, unsure of what evidence goes with what idea.

3) It teaches you not to bite off more than you can chew.  In high school, three pieces of evidence can be enough to work with while learning the other skills I’ve already discussed.  However, by the time students reach college, they can handle more.  The workload gets bigger the farther in college you go because students get used to writing.  However, you don’t want to try to take on more information than you can handle.

So, if you’re having trouble building onto the Three-Point-Five essay, here are some tips:

1) Make sure that your body paragraphs are connected.  You can do this by looking for similarities or differences.  You can say things like, “[My current point] is similar to [something I talked about earlier] because they both [mean the same thing].  Or, “Unlike [my last point], [my current point does something else].

2) In your conclusion, don’t just restate your thesis and summarize your argument.  Bring in a new perspective.  Think about new questions your arguments raise.  Think about how your paper fits into a larger understanding of the topic you’ve been discussing.  Maybe you question a long-held opinion, or maybe you support one.  Sometimes writing teachers call the conclusion “the pay-off” because they see the conclusion as the writer’s chance to explain why it was an important use of the reader’s time.  It’s the moment when the reader finds out what they’re supposed to take from this paper.

The Three-Point-Five essay is just one method of writing you’ve learned in the past that you can build upon as college writers.  Writing for college can be challenging, and sometimes it will feel like past experience hasn’t really prepared you for it, but if you think about it, I’m sure you’ll see that the writing you’ve done in the past can be useful.  Just like the Three-Point-Five essay, if you think about what each method has to offer, as well as what it doesn’t, you’ll find a way to use that method as a framework and build it up into a proper house…I mean, paper.

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Getting Started

Sean Flynn

Above all other steps in the writing process, like research and revision, getting started on a project has always been the hardest part for me.  I never know what to say or what I’m trying to accomplish. And I know I’m not alone. Unsurprisingly, most of my clients and students also feel an intense amount of anxiety when facing that ominous blank screen, or deathly-white sheet of paper. Writing those first words is tough.  We feel like that initial sentence sets the tone for the rest of the project, effectively sealing our fate.  Unable to start, we prime the pump and spend hours, days sometimes, mulling over phrases as we fall asleep, wash our hair, or do the dishes.  I used to think of this period of internal thinking as unproductive procrastination until I realized how much of the writing process occurs off-paper.

Talking about a project before actually writing is critical.  Chatting helps you understand not only the prompt and what is expected of you, but also where to begin.  By talking with classmates, or one of our consultants, you discover what you already know and what you need to research.  Having another human being to respond to you, rather than a silent piece of paper, also allows you to consider other points of view at the earliest stages of writing, rather than waiting until you have a rough draft.  Rather than get hung up on outlining, thesis statements, or topic sentences, talk with someone who can help you get on paper what you have in your head.  Tossing around ideas with someone capable of questioning and interpreting them will lead you to what you want to say in a given writing situation. Your partner can doubt, support, or clarify your ideas, which you then commit to paper as part of your individual writing process.

Aside from talk as a useful tool in the writing process, exercising, creating art, cooking, and spending time with friends and loved ones can also help you when you feel like you can’t start.  Personally, it’s often while on a bike ride or vacuuming my apartment that those “eureka” moments strike and I suddenly know just the right bit of evidence to use, what my overall thesis is, or how I should organize my paper.  Forcing yourself to write when your brain and body want to do anything else only results in frustration and bad work, so taking a few hours off can give your subconscious the time and space to work out what you are trying to say.  Repetitive tasks in particular are well-suited for keeping your body moving while your mind gets a chance to think.

If you still can’t find a starting point after talking and doing some other activity for a while, then try stream-of-consciousness writing.  Simply write down everything that pops into your head for a set period of time, not worrying about grammar or whether anything will relate to your paper.  This can clear the pipes, so to speak, and make it easier for the words to flow out.

Above all, the most important thing to remember about the writing process is that there is no single correct way to go about it.  Also, no writing situation is the same, or every writer, so what worked for you for the last paper may not work for the next one.  Always be willing to experiment, and don’t dwell on something if it isn’t working—move on.

Possibilities in the Writing Center

Megan Bardolph

Last semester in the Writing Center, I worked with a student from Nigeria who wanted help with his honors composition class assignments. He set up appointments to meet with me once a week for two or three months. Together we worked on revising two of his essays to prepare for his portfolio. The experience was wonderful on many levels, as I was also teaching a section of honors composition that semester. Oddly, I felt that our sessions gave me the opportunity to really listen to the students I was teaching in my own class. Our conversations were also productive for me as a scholar and thinker. They made me realize and appreciate the complexities of identifying as an instructor, a graduate student, and a writing center consultant.

During our last session of the semester, the student thanked me for my help. I asked if I would see him again in the Writing Center, to which he sadly replied “probably not.” As a pre-medicine biology major, he most likely would not need to write another paper for quite some time.

So I was surprised to see the other day that he had made multiple appointments to meet with me over the next few weeks. On Friday, we had our first session. He announced that he had submitted one of the papers we had worked on to a conference and it had been accepted for presentation. We now have a new project to work on. He told me that one of his goals for the spring semester is to continue working on his writing, as he sees the analytical and critical thinking skills he acquired in first-year English as useful to his studies in the natural sciences. We began to talk about research opportunities afforded by Writing Center work, and discussed potential areas of inquiry that both of us would like to pursue based on our sessions. Our relationship has moved beyond just consultant-client; it’s now closer to mentor-mentee. At some point I may even consider him a colleague. I am continually astonished by how much I learn from him (and from all of my clients, really).

There are a few different implications that I want to draw out based on this experience. Firstly, if you are a student who actually enjoys or enjoyed your first year writing course, know that you are not alone, and that there are opportunities to continue the types of writing and thinking you performed in that course without changing your major to English. It may be useful to seek out a mentor through the writing center, or through a faculty member or graduate student in the English department.

Secondly, if you are a writing center consultant or graduate student, I cannot highlight enough how important I think it is to view the Writing Center as a site of potential research – and this absolutely includes collaborative research with clients. In my experience, the conversations I have had with clients sometimes lead to greater moments of insight into writing, teaching, collaborating, and mentorship than the conversations I have with others in my same position.

Finally, if you are an instructor of writing, or of any subject for that matter, there is great value in listening to what the students want out of their education. The student I have been working with wants to find a way to balance his enthusiasm for writing with a major that does not provide many opportunities for the kinds of composing he would like to pursue. I think this shows there may be a need for providing additional spaces for students to take up this interest. The Writing Center is an excellent place for such work to continue.

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