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Short Essay Formulas

If you try to think of the greatest challenge that makes college students insecure, the answer would have to involve academic writing. Your professors ask for simple, complex, and sometimes ridiculous papers, but everything starts with the 5-paragraph essay.
When you master its structure, you’ll have the foundational skills to complete any other academic project.

Not all professors find the time to explain to their students how they are supposed to write an essay. If you get any instructions, they will be brief. You’ve probably heard something like “just follow the 5-paragraph structure and you’ll be okay.”

You’re aware that a standard essay should contain five paragraphs, but what exactly are you supposed to write in them? That’s what we’re here for. In the continuation, you’ll find an elaborate explanation of the basic 5-paragraph essay formula. Just follow it, and you’ll really be okay.

The Essay Formula

Before we continue any further, let’s give a brief explanation of the basic essay structure:

  • Paragraph 1: an introduction with a thesis statement
  • Paragraph 2: argument that explains the first point of the thesis statement
  • Paragraph 3: argument that explains the second point of the thesis statement
  • Paragraph 4: argument that explains the third point of the thesis statement.
  • Paragraph 5: conclusion that brings all points together and restates the thesis statement

Now, let’s dissect all these parts into a comprehensive guide on essay writing.

Paragraph 1: Introduction

The introduction is the part that hooks the reader and holds their attention. It draws the reader into the arguments of your paper. If, for example, you’re writing a paper with a subject “The Dangers of Cinematography for Young People’s Development,” you can start by saying that you’re a movie fanatic, but you’re aware of the hazards cinematography has on modern culture. That will get the reader’s attention because they will understand you’re writing from personal experience, but you also conducted a research and you see the wider picture.

After the brief entrance, the introduction should end with a thesis statement that grasps the very essence of the content. Since we’re talking about a 5-paragraph essay, it means that you’ll have 3 paragraphs for explaining the main points of the thesis statement. In other words, this structure usually imposes the need for a three-part thesis statement.

In our example, the thesis statement could look like this: The inclination of young people to follow examples, the shallow values presented as movie art, and the influence of celebrities on people’s behavior lead to the development of problematic youth.

These are the three points in our thesis:

  • Young people follow examples
  • The values presented in movies are shallow
  • Celebrities have great influence over young people’s behavior

Once you have a powerful thesis statement, you can continue elaborating it in the rest of your paper.

Paragraph 2: First Supporting Statement

In this section, you will connect the first point of the thesis to its conclusion. This first argument is usually the strongest one. It should be supported with clever illustrations, significant examples, and authoritative research.

As our example implies, now we would have to talk about the way young people follow examples and how bad examples lead to the development of troubled youth.

When you’re developing the body of the paper, you have to make your statements believable. Although you can write from personal experience, you need to support the claims with facts from studies, statistics, surveys, and research. Use Google Scholar or ScienceDirect to locate information you could use in the paper. When you write something like “scientists say that children develop their characters in accordance with the examples they follow,” you have to provide and cite a serious source that proves that statement for a fact.

Paragraph 3: Second Supporting Statement

You already have the thesis statement as your guiding point, so it won’t be difficult for you to figure out what the third paragraph should contain. In our case, this paragraph would talk about the values presented in the majority of today’s movies. We could provide examples of violence in the most popular movies, or we could talk about the degradation of women in Fifty Shades of Grey, as an example of an extremely popular film with no artistic value.

Remember to support your claims with examples or citations from relevant and trustworthy sources.

Paragraph 4: Third Supporting Statement

The third supporting argument is usually the weakest one in the thesis statement. However, that doesn’t mean your writing should be any less powerful in this section of the paper. Choose a strong argument and explain how it’s connected to the point of your paper.

In our case the third supporting statement would be related to the way celebrities influence young people’s values and behavior. We can provide examples of daily news that show these people as bad examples, but we can also insert quotes by psychologies to prove that our claims make a point.

Remember: each supporting statement is directly related to the main thesis statement. If you read each sentence as an individual part of the paper, you should immediately find its connection with the thesis statement. That’s a proof that you’ve written a coherent 5-paragraph essay.

Paragraph 5: the Conclusion

Now that you have all points that prove the thesis statement, you just need to connect the loose ends into a logical concluding paragraph. Here are the points your conclusion should contain:

  • Reflection on the thesis statement. You should restate it with new words, but the echo of the original thesis statement should still be obvious. In our case, we won’t simply rephrase the statement about the way cinematography influences the development of young people. We introduced new information and facts throughout the body of the paper, so we’ll use some of them to bring new light on the thesis statement. We can include our own experience about the way a certain film influenced our behavior in a specific situation.
  • A brief summary of the three main statements from the body of the essay.
  • A final statement, which may come in the form of a lesson we learned or a hopeful idea for a change. Whatever the case is, this final part of the essay should clarify that the discussion has come to an end. The reader should be satisfied with the information they got – that’s the effect you want to achieve.

Final Thoughts: Only Practice Makes You a Great Essay Writer

Do you know why most college teachers don’t bother explaining the 5-paragraph essay formula to their students? They expect you to master it through lots of practice. They know that theory won’t make you perfect, but practice will keep making you a better writer. They are partially wrong, because you do need precise guidelines about the standard essay structure. However, they are right from the aspect that practice makes you (almost) perfect.

Now that you have the information you need, you’re only left with one thing: practice essay writing!

Writing the perfect paper is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. It follows then that the best advice for writing a paper -- be it a high school essay, a college research paper, or even an office memo at a Fortune 500 company -- would come from the tactics of a brilliant military commander.

I discovered these tactics myself as a student, reading in awe of the mastery of ancient military masters and put them to good use. I could then -- and still can, when necessary -- bust out a ten or even twenty page paper with a few days notice. I've developed a worry-free formula for your academic paper or essay (called the Spartan System) that has been so successful that it was printed out and taught as a curriculum by almost every English teacher I've had. Naturally, I was hesitant to teach my secrets to more than a few friends but after I left school and published the formula online in 2007, the formula went viral across the web. It's since been used in classrooms across the country by many satisfied strangers. I've gotten countless emails from adherents -- and these emails are always the same: your system got me an A. In my own life, I applied the tactics to my writing and knocked out a 70,000+ word book in 90 days... which I sold for a cool six-figures.

What Was My Secret?

In my reading of Greek history, I stumbled across an obscure military maneuver, one designed for troops penetrating deep in enemy lines. It seemed to be used by the greatest of generals from the Spartan Brasidas to the Athenian Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates). I thought, if this one trick can protect a ten thousand man march through country after country of hostile territory, it can probably work for a silly school paper.

Their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly and slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared hollow square in advance, so that "we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job."

My essay format works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of "writing" you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis which begins each paragraph and a conclusionary sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and the serves as the point of return -- much like Chuck Palahniuk concept of "chorus lines (see in books like Fight Club, where whenever the plot gets off track he immediately comes back to one -- "I am Jack's sense of rejection.") And so the reader always protected and the troops defend your point.

Forget your teacher's boring prompt. Forget "Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail" and all that nonsense. Let's do real work, real writing.

Here is the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:

Introduction: (see a complete intro example here)

  1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: "When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble."
  2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: "This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- with blatant corruption and illegal activity -- eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream."
  3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.)
  4. Sentence for second body paragraph.
  5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
  6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. "The 1920′s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind."

Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can't support it until you've made it.

Body #1

  1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.

Notes/Advice:

-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence

-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion

-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author's words. Normally you can use even less: "It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an 'orgastic future.'"

Body #2

  1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Body #3

  1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Conclusion

  1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
  2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
  3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
  7. Last sentence must transition to general statement about human nature. "The American Dream -- and any higher aspiration -- requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standard."

****

That's it. Seriously. You can see why this frees you up as a writer; essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more but reiteration and support. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It's self-generating, self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?

Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so later you don't have to. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is to fulfill it. No longer is the professor or teacher grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By marking the boundaries out early, excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. You take the prompt and make it your own. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.

With the strongest thoughts at the introduction and at the conclusion, you make it so that the reader -- or the soldiers, as historian VD Hanson pointed out -- "might be led by the former and pushed by the latter." The thesis is buttressed at the top by your intro hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle is just details. The thesis is the entire paper-as it is, and always should have been. Once that is written, everything else falls quickly into place. The meta-theme, logically, is deduced from your primary theme just as your mini-themes are. All that is left to the writer is to simple decide a theme and record it to paper. And like Palahniuk, when we venture too far from it, remind the reader with a chorus line.

And if you object too much to rigid structure, consider the freedom this truly allows you (none of which is ever permitted in the horrible "Schaffer Method"). Once you've disregarded-or been able to reduce to the subconscious-the actual form of the paper, all that is left is the ideas. Isn't that what is truly important? Would you rather parrot back plot summary or take the theme not only to a new level, but an understandable one? If a professor can't respect that, what does their grade even mean? All I know is that this technique has allowed me both to remove any sort of stress from paper-writing, and even better, given me the opportunity to put to words concepts I'm grappling with.

So go now. Internalize this system and watch as it does all your work for you. See if you can beat the record: an 8 page paper in 3 hours... with a nice big A+ stamped on the front.

Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday

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