The next time you’re in a bookstore, ask the cashier where they keep their collections of five-paragraph essays. You’ll likely get quizzical looks. You might be asked if you’re looking for books on how to write a five-paragraph essay. You’ll answer, no, you’re looking for books filled with five-paragraph essays—you know, the kind children are taught to write in school.
Of course, there aren’t any. The form is too constricted to serve the type of investigations that merit being published as a book.
A five-paragraph essay is a useful structure for teaching basics like topic sentences, supporting evidence, linking sentences, and rudimentary arguments. But linger on them too long and they’ll seem confining. Almost nothing we read that makes any kind of sustained argument is so rudimentary in its form. Sure, some 800-word opinion pieces in newspapers clank out an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion, but any essay that appears in a magazine is bound to be more varied and complex. A magazine essay might involve two or three different stories lines. It might mix memoir with social commentary or political opinion. It might do any number of things—and that freedom is part of what makes essays so engaging and powerful as instruments of exploration.
Now, there are probably students in every middle school and high school struggling to master the basics of the five-paragraph essay, so the idea of writing something more open-ended might seem like an invitation for chaos, logorrhea, or worse. But other students might be ready to try their hands at longer, more free-formed compositions. And even if students are not ready to try writing something longer and more complex, it’s probably not too early to read such pieces, so they start to get a sense of the choices available to essay writers. Then they can begin considering, too, the choices they are making, consciously or not, in their own writing.
Our eight-grader is home this summer, and I’m asking her to read some real essays—articles from publications like Oxford American and The New Yorker. I’m also calling her attention to certain features in each of these essays and asking her thoughts about what the writer has done. It’s a kind of casual writing camp.
I thought I’d post this on my blog, in case anyone else finds this sort of exercise useful. I’m planning on selecting essays from magazines we have lying around our house, but when possible I’ll choose essays that are also freely available online.
The first essay is “Our Faith in Horses” by Jamie Allen from the Spring 2015 issue of Oxford American.
This essay is about horses, horse racing, the often overlooked cruelty of the horse-racing industry, and our problematic relationship with horses. But it isn’t just third-party reporting on the horse racing industry. The essay also includes personal recollections, as well, including the story of the author’s sister’s relationship with her rambunctious horse Chief, and the author’s troubled relationship with his abusive father.
How does adding this personal content enrich the essay? What contrast does the author draw between our relationship with horses and our relationship with one another? Find specific sentences that support your view.
Telling a Complete Story
The essay begins in medias res–in the middle of things, the action already under way. Chief and his rider come charging toward the barn.
In the course of the story, we learn the full story of Chief. We discover the occasion of his purchase, the difficulty of taming him, and the make-or-break session in which the author’s family decides whether or not to keep him.
Go back through the essay. Flag all the parts of the author’s family’s story. Note the order in which they’re told.
Do you think this order is effective? Why?
Direct vs. Indirect Dialog
One of the choices facing any writer of fiction or non-fiction who is reporting dialog is whether to quote words directly or to paraphrase them in summary. Quoting words directly—called direct dialog—has the advantage of being precise, but it can lead to longeurs if the dialog is not continuously engaging. Paraphrasing—called indirect dialog—has the advantage of brevity, but without an interleaving of direct quotations can sometimes make conversations seem remote and impersonal.
(In the paragraph below, the first sentence is indirect dialog and the second two are direct.
He gave us roundabout directions to the cemetery. “You’ll want to be careful going over that last bridge,” he told us. “It can be a bit rickety.”)
Most writers use a mix of direct and indirect dialog. Edith Wharton advised using direct dialog only for pivotal moments in narratives. She said: “Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.” (You can find other advice on writing dialog here.)
Read the passage below and pay attention to how Allen mixes direct and indirect dialog. Which things does he choose to paraphrase? Which does he quote directly? How do his choices heighten the drama of this passage?
In the winter of 2013, I visited Miami’s Gulfstream Park, one of the country’s premier tracks. It was a shiny South Florida Saturday and as I crossed the parking lot I could hear the announcer over the loudspeaker, the crowd. The horses were running. I hurried in, made my way along the rail toward the finish line. The pack was rounding the far turn in the fourth race of the day; the crowd stood and cheered lazily, and a winner pulled away. I snapped a photo with my phone as the lead horse, wearing 7, passed. The sky was radiant blue except for a few cotton puffs hanging over the palmy track. What a day.
“Oh, no no no.” An old man in a pageboy had moved up next to me on the rail. “Oh, no no no.” I figured he had lost money on the race, but I followed his squinted gaze and saw it: a horse down on the track. The jockey lay over his neck. The horse fought and rose, stumbled. It looked like a broken leg. The crowd moaned; some couldn’t look, others covered their mouths. They got him down again. A track ambulance arrived and workers unrolled a gray blind in front of the horse. I heard a mother telling her children to look at the seagulls overhead. Behind me, a drunk bettor chomping on a cigar shouted, “Next race!”
It happens all the time.
The Vocabulary of Mood
Read the passage above again. It presents two contrasting moods: a sunny, peaceful day at the track, and the horror of a horse being killed on the track.
Notice the descriptions in the first paragraph: a “premier” track, the crowd standing and cheering “lazily,” the author arriving just in time to take a picture of the winning horse then gazing up at the “radiant blue” sky over the “palmy track.”
The mood changes abruptly with the direct dialog at the beginning of the second paragraph. At first, like the author, we’re not sure what’s wrong. We, too, have to follow the old man’s squinty gaze to find the object of his apprehension at the end of the third sentence: “a horse down on the track.” The sentences and their structure force us to search for the center of the action; then, like the spectators in the stand, we find our attention is blocked and diverted. The horror is made hidden and routine. “They” (nobody described closely) “got him down again.” Workers unroll a gray blind, as they have countless time before.
How does Allen convey the heartlessness of the “drunk bettor?” (Notice the verbs: chomping, shouting.)
In your own writing, how might you use a mix of indirect and direct dialog to report such a scene?
Write an Essay
Try writing an essay that includes a personal story along with your analysis about an important trend, issue, or event.
Break your personal story into distinct episodes. Decide how to order them, and how to interleave them with the rest of your analysis.
Can you find a way to give your story more context–more sweep, as it were–while also giving analysis a personal touch?
What are the strengths of this two-track approach? What, if any, are the weaknesses?