Basic Three-Part Format

Basic Essay

      What follows are the basics of the simplest, most helpful essay format: the three-part essay, better known as the five-paragraph essay. However, the five paragraph essay is a misnomer, especially since the body of the paragraph does not have to be limited to three paragraphs or ideas.  After discussing the three basic parts and what they do, this discourse will continue to break down these three parts into smaller parts until an entire outline is evident-- a roadmap for every part of an essay. This roadmap, or outline, can be used as a blueprint to write on almost any topic imaginable and in many different types of situations, from English class assignments to essays in any other subject, test, or report. Once learned, it serves as a big advantage in any writing situation.

An Overview

     While speaking and writing are similar in many ways, one major difference between them is that writing has no immediate feedback from the intended audience to advise if the audience is understanding or has stopped understanding. A good strategy to avoid this is to re-enforce by restating, not as repetition but reiteration within your writing -- and that is the purpose of the three parts of an essay.

 

     The three parts are the beginning, the middle, and the end.  these three parts each play similar but different roles: each, in fact, says about the same thing but restates it in different ways. A catchy way of explaining this is to say that the beginning of the essay tells you what I'm going to tell you; the middle goes ahead and tells you (in detail!), and the end tells you what I told you.

 

     In a way, when I write like this I've repeated myself three times, so that you, the reader of my essay, won't get lost; but really, I haven't repeated myself word-for-word, but instead I've done this: I've introduced what I want to say, then I've explained it in detail, then I've summed up what my main points were. You can get some idea of these roles by knowing the proper names we call the three sections:

 

I. Introduction (beginning)

II. Main Body (middle)

III. Conclusion (end)

What Happens In An Introduction

     The main business of an introduction is to make sure the reader knows what you're going to talk about. That's all you should do in the introduction; a common mistake is to launch right away into details, but this confuses your reader, who doesn't yet understand the main point you're trying to make, or what all those details refer to. In order to best introduce your essay, the Introduction itself is divided into three parts:

 

I. Introduction

      A. Background Information

      B. Thesis Statement (with the significant consequence or why you are writing, which will be reiterated in the conclusion)

      C. Preview of Main Supporting Points

 

     Background information serves merely to get the reader's mind in the same groove yours is in; to briefly name the topic you're talking about. If I'm writing about golf, and I want to say that golf is a good way to spend time, as background info I might say that until I actually tried golf I thought it was a real joke, but now I feel differently. If I wanted to, I could lengthen with a brief anecdote of when and why I thought golf was a poor way to spend time.

 

     The thesis statement works well following right behind the background information. You can spot a thesis sentence (or write one) by making sure it does one thing: It should state your opinion about the topic--for instance, that "Golf is beneficial because...a), b), and c)I could make my thesis dovetail into my background info by saying that after finally trying golf for myself, I surprised myself by discovering that golf is beneficial in many ways. Another helpful point to note about the thesis sentence is that the topic statement is always pretty concrete and definite -- that is, you name something or person or activity, etc. The opinion statement, on the other hand, is very vague. How is golf beneficial? Well, you haven't said yet exactly how it's beneficial; that very job is your business throughout the rest of the essay. Little by little, you will remove that vagueness from your opinion. Talking about anything else besides your opinion on the topic is outside the scope of your essay.

      The thesis is the most important part of the introduction, and in fact of the whole essay, but there is still more to the introduction. After stating your opinion on your topic in the thesis sentence, it is very helpful to just briefly list the various reasons why you hold this opinion (three is usually a good number of reasons). This list is called the Preview of Supports and it's most helpful if done as briefly as possible, in either one sentence listing all three reasons, or giving each reason no more than one sentence of its own (so three reasons=three preview sentences) following the thesis sentence. It is also possible to simply incorporate a preview into the thesis sentence itself. To come up with a preview, pretend you are in a conversation about your subject with a friend of yours. For example,

 

You: After finally getting around to trying golf for myself, I decided it's a wonderful way to spend my spare time.

Your Friend: What's wonderful about it?

You: Three things that stand out are the walking, the swing itself, and the mental high I get from a well-placed shot.

 

     By listing these three reasons that support your thesis, you are taking the first step to explain away the vagueness of the thesis. An important point to note is that these three elements (Background Info, Thesis, and Preview) form one paragraph in the body of your essay--the Introduction. You don't usually need to break them into separate paragraphs unless for instance you have told a long story as your background info. When you have made sure you have these three elements, it's time to move on to the Main Body.

The Main Body: The Bulk of the Essay

     Compared to the introduction and conclusion, the main body should occupy more of the essay's space (about 60-70%) because here is where you explain those three reasons in detail. Accordingly, the outline itself shows signs of this greater detail:

II. Main Body

A. First Main Support (1st reason for your opinion)

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of topic sentence (may be called the General Explanation)

3. Specific Example

4. Concluding Sentence

B. Second Main Support (2nd reason)

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of topic sentence

3. Specific Example

4. Concluding Sentence

C. Third Main Support (3rd reason)

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of topic sentence

3. Specific Example

4. Concluding Sentence

 

     Please note that each support should have its own paragraph, for a total of at least three paragraphs in the main body (A, B, and C)--assuming you have three supporting reasons, which is not always the case. Another point to note is that the three elements of each paragraph resemble, in miniature, the structure of the essay as a whole. That is, the topic sentence resembles the thesis sentence (but is more limited); the supporting detail of the single paragraph resembles the main body of the overall essay; and the concluding sentence resembles, for the paragraph, the overall conclusion of the essay. It's like boxes within boxes.

     Having noticed the overall structure of the main body paragraph, and that three such paragraphs make up the entire main body, it's useful to talk about each ingredient in its turn. Nothing need be vague about these elements; each one does something specific, and the sooner you understand exactly what each one should do, the sooner you can begin writing clear, persuasive essays. The first and most important ingredient is the Topic Sentence. Like a good thesis sentence, a good topic sentence does three things: it begins with some transition word or phrase such as "The first reason...", it names the topic (the supporting reason, what the paragraph is going to talk about), and it links back to the thesis--that is, to your opinion which that reason supports. Normally, this link back to the thesis is done simply by a repetition of some keywords from the thesis sentence. A good tip is that if you have previewed each supporting reason with one sentence each in the introduction, then you only need to slightly revise that wording, and you have a good topic sentence. The topic sentence normally appears as the first sentence in your paragraph, or certainly within the first couple of sentences of your paragraph. For instance, in that essay on golf, my first reason why golf is beneficial (from my preview) was the walking involved in playing eighteen holes. So the first main body paragraph needs to explain just how this walking is beneficial, and my topic sentence for this paragraph might read,

 

One of the benefits of golf is the walking that takes place in a game.

 

     My transition phrase is "One of the benefits..." My supporting reason--the topic for this paragraph-- is "the walking." My opinion is that this is one of the benefits of the game -- an assertion which ties this supporting reason back to what it is meant to support: my thesis.

Note, though, that the topic sentence alone can't remove the vagueness that hangs around your thesis like a fog. No; that's where the second element, Explaining the Topic Sentence comes in. Go back to the imaginary conversation with your friend. Having heard the preview of your reasons why golf is a beneficial game, she wants to know more about each reason. When you explain the topic sentence, you take the opinion in the topic sentence and ask yourself, Why? The answers become the explanation of the topic sentence. So, here's the first part of your first body paragraph imagined as part of a conversation:

 

You: One of the benefits of golf is the walking that takes place in a game. (topic sentence)

Your Friend: What's beneficial about walking? (the question you ask yourself to come up with the Explaining the Topic Sentence part of your paragraph)

You: First, if you walk, rather than ride a cart, you'll get two or three miles of exercise, which gets you in better shape. Second, walking gives you a chance to slow down and either think about things if you're alone or enjoy a conversation if you're playing with friends. Third, because walking does slow you down, it puts you in touch with nature on the course, such as the weather, the scenery, and the birds, and this is relaxing too.

 

     So, the point I just made about how to explain your topic sentence is to simply ask the question, "Why is this so?" But now I want to break this explanation down further. Another way to think of it is like a container. You can pour different things into it, just like you can fill a pitcher with juice or water or beer, or just like you can use cotton or polyester or gingham to "fill" a dress pattern. The same holds true for the pattern I'm calling the explanation of the topic sentence. In the above paragraph, I've "poured" some "stuff" into this pattern like water into a pitcher; and the "stuff" I poured into the pattern has a name or names.There are at least three sorts of "stuff" that you should know about: information, description, and logical reasoning. They are different, though they tend to blend into one another in the example above, and often in your own writing. That's okay, but it's useful to be aware of the different kinds of explanation. That way, if you get stuck in your paragraph, you can consciously shift gears and try out a different way to fill the explanation part of the paragraph.

     One way to explain a topic sentence is by supplying items of information. Information is normally numbers or statistics. An example of using the information to flesh out a paragraph is where I noted that the average golfer walks about two or three miles during eighteen holes.

     The description is like information in that you're supplying facts, but instead of giving numbers or statistics, you're usually describing the facts about some situation that involves people. In above explanation, the description is of what one does while walking a golf course: enjoying the outdoors, thinking, or conversing.

     I mentioned logical reasoning as a third "thing" that can be poured into the various patterns of supporting detail. Just as with information and description, it can be used by itself or together with information, description, or both. Logical reasoning often has a certain "look" about it; there are even certain keywords that tip you off that you are reading a piece of logical reasoning: words like because, since, if, then, thus, and so forth. Often, these words are used together so that one thought may be placed on top of another established point like a child builds with blocks. When this is done, what we often see is a pattern that resembles this: "If such-and-such is true, then this second thing will probably also be so; and if that second thing is so, then this third thing is likely to happen." Or, "Because the New York Giants controlled the ball for forty minutes of the Super Bowl, the dangerous no-huddle offense of the Bills was then not a factor." One point builds on another.

     These are the nuts and bolts of supporting the explanation, then, three kinds of "stuff': information, description, and logical reasoning. The next time you are stuck for something to say in your explanation of the topic sentence, refer to these patterns of explanatory material and get unstuck.

What happens after you Explain the Topic Sentence? You write a Specific Illustrating Example. But how does such an example differ from the explanation of the topic sentence? A specific illustrating example always deals with a specific incident that happened to a specific person at a specific place and time. It should be obvious how such a thing differs from both information and logical reasoning. However, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between an example and description. Here's the difference: Description talks about people in general, while an example talks about someone thing that happened to an individual person. It is a story about someone. The essential difference is that a story, because of its intimate detail, is much more powerful emotionally than mere general description--although such description is an excellent way to lead to such a story.

     So, how do you write such an example? A good question -- and how you deal with it means everything to your essay. Like with the topic sentence explanation, there is a simple method, and then there is a more complex breakdown. The simple method is to use your memory to think of some incident which illustrates whatever your paragraph topic is about. The more complex breakdown involves a "pecking order" of such memories, and it looks like this:

  • 1st-hand examples involve things that happened to you yourself. These are best simply because you know more details and feel the emotions more powerfully.

  • 2nd-hand examples are about people you know personally. These are the next best examples, though not as powerful as 1st-hand examples.

  • 3rd-hand examples are about individuals you have heard about, read about, seen on the news, etc. They are weaker than the first two types simply because you know less to tell.

  • Hypothetical examples are the poorest, but still useful if you can't think of any of the other kinds. For these, you use your imagination rather than your memory. They usually begin by saying, "A person might..." do such-and-such. Frankly, these are almost identical to the explanatory description; the only difference is that they are worded in terms of a person rather than in terms of people in general. Use these only as a last resort.

    

     When it comes time to put your examples into your paragraph, there are three ways to write this Illustrating Example, and they look like this in outline form:

II. Main Body

A. First Main Support

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of Topic Sentence

3. Specific illustrating Example

a. A Series of Brief Examples

OR

b. A Single Extended Example

OR

c. A Combination of a. & b.

     This illustrates, in detail, the major options before you in the main body. An easy summary of all this so far looks like this: you name your reason, then you explain it, then you illustrate it with a specific example. However, there is still more. Before moving on to the third overall section of an essay, there is one last ingredient which should be found in a good main body support paragraph, and this is the Concluding Sentence. As with a topic sentence, a good concluding sentence does two very specific things: It summarizes the supporting detail, especially the specific example, and links that detail back to the topic sentence by mentioning some keywords from that topic sentence, though probably rephrasing them. The reason to use a concluding sentence is to make certain that the reader does, in fact, see the point you're trying to make with your supporting details. The reader may see the point on his or her own, but you as the writer can't take this for granted. To make sure, you summarize both the supporting detail and the opinion of the topic sentence in one sentence.

 

     For example, suppose I were trying to finish up that paragraph on the mental high I get from golf. The opinion stated in the topic sentence was that this mental high was one of the prime benefits of golf. The supporting explanation dealt with a more detailed description of this feeling. The feeling was then illustrated with examples from my personal experience -- how I felt when I made a good drive, a great chip, an unbelievable putt, and so forth. In a concluding sentence, I want to (1) summarize these examples and (2) stress that the feeling I get from them is one of the main reasons I play golf. My concluding sentence, then, might look like this: "It's shots like these, shots that give me that mental high of a challenge well met, which together amount to the single most important benefit I get from golf." The key phrases are "shots like these," which links to the supporting examples, along with "mental high" and "most important benefit," which link to the topic sentence. With such a concluding sentence, very few readers will fail to get the point I am trying to make with my paragraph.

 

     On the other hand, if I as the writer have a very hard time composing a concluding sentence which can link supporting detail to a topic, it could be because I have wandered off topic -- my supporting detail, in fact, has little or nothing to do with my topic in that paragraph! So besides being "insurance" that the reader gets my point, the concluding sentence can also act as insurance that I myself stay on topic while writing the paragraph.

Altogether, each body paragraph contains the four elements described above: topic sentence, explanation of topic sentence, illustrating an example, and concluding the sentence.

 

     Note two important points: (1) the Explanation of Topic Sentence and the Specific Illustrating Example should be the biggest parts of your paragraph and (2) the body paragraphs should be fairly long to ensure adequate development of your ideas--perhaps half-a-dozen sentences each in the explanation and in the specific example. Or, when you can't think of much to write for one of those, then balance that by writing more on the other. If you can't think of much on either, then maybe you need to come up with a different supporting reason! Also, note that you go through this above four-part body paragraph pattern as many times as you have reasons listed in the preview in your introduction--probably three.

 

The Conclusion: Making Sure the Reader Understands
What You Want Him or Her to Understand
 

      It is appropriate to discuss the Overall Conclusion right after talking about the concluding sentence in the main body paragraph because the two work in much the same way. Like a concluding sentence in the main body paragraph, the conclusion needs to tie your detailed explanation to the central point you're trying to explain. Unlike such a concluding sentence, the overall conclusion concentrates on the thesis and all the main body, not just on a particular topic sentence and its supporting detail. So for the overall conclusion, the central point is the thesis itself, and the supporting detail is the entire main body -- all three reasons, each of which got a paragraph of its own. And the main business of a conclusion is to summarize these three reasons and to restate your thesis being explained by the reasons. You can see these two functions in the outline of the conclusion below. So you will have a complete model of the outline in one place, I will include the other two main sections as well.

 

Complete Outline for the Three-Part Essay
 

I. Introduction

A. Background Information

B. Thesis Sentence

1. with significant contextual consequence as a conclusion

C. Preview of Three Main Supports

 

II. Main Body

A. First Main Support

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of the Topic Sentence

3. Specific Illustrating Example

4. Concluding Sentence

B. Second Main Support

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of the Topic Sentence

3. Specific Illustrating Example

4. Concluding Sentence

C. Third Main Support

1. Topic Sentence

2. Explanation of the Topic Sentence

3. Specific Illustrating Example

4. Concluding Sentence

III. Conclusion

A. Summarize Main Supports

B. Restate Thesis

C. Emphasize the significant contextual consequence from Introduction

 

 

Within the conclusion, summarizing your main supports means to literally list or briefly mention, close together, all three supporting reasons for your thesis. The key thing happening here is that all reasons are put shoulder to shoulder, so to speak. The reason for doing this is because your reader's thoughts are probably "spread out" after having worked through the details of your main body. Ironically, the more detailed you make your main body, the more likely it is that the reader will have a hard time summarizing all this detail in his head at one time. So you do it for him. Some writers prefer to reduce the main supports to several words each so that they will fit together in one sentence and not look awkward. Other writers choose to devote one sentence apiece to each main support. This is sort of like rephrasing each topic sentence and writing them one after another. Either way can be effective.

For example, I might summarize my supports in the essay on golf by saying,

 

     There are many of reasons why people like to play golf, but the three that really speak to me are the physical benefit of the walking, and of the swing itself, and the mental benefit of the emotional "high" I get from a pro-caliber shot.

 

Or I may choose to stretch out a little more, like this:

     Although there are lots of reasons why people like to play golf, the one I noticed first, myself, was the walking. Then after spending a Saturday morning or two on the driving range, I realized that the swing itself is also equally beneficial physically. But for me, the most valuable benefit of all is the emotional "high" I get when I play a pro-caliber shot.

 

     One way or the other may work better for you, but for your reader's sake, it's important that somehow or other you collect all your supporting reasons and present them at the same time. By doing this, you ensure that your reader's perspective moves back to the big picture you're painting rather than staying zeroed in on one of your points but missing that big picture. On the other hand, this summarization is also important for you as a writer, because if you find that it makes no sense to present your main supports together, it may mean that they do not all actually support the thesis you began with. One or more may have wandered off-topic. You can catch this in your summarization. Another problem you can catch is a serious lack of any organization in your main body. The symptom which might reveal this is if you have a hard time going back and spotting just what your main supports were. That's probably because you didn't systematically devote one main body paragraph to each main support. Again, you can catch this in your summarization.

 

     The other crucial element of the conclusion is to restate your thesis. One reason to do this is to test whether you ever got around to stating a thesis in the first place. If you haven't, it will be hard to go back and identify it, let alone rephrase it in the conclusion. Thinking of the reader, this rephrasing is just one last assurance that your central point is coming through loud and clear. For example, to restate my thesis in the golf essay, I might add the following sentence to the summarization of main supports:

These are the things that golf does for me, and when I talk about them, I'm more convinced than ever that golf isn't a joke at all; it's a truly enjoyable and beneficial activity.

 

     The key thought here is that I have reemphasized that golf (my essay topic) is beneficial (my overall opinion on my topic).

With that, this discussion of the basic three-part essay is complete. With a reasonable amount of practice at it, you will almost certainly start to see some improvement in your writing. With mastery of it, very few writing projects will be beyond your reach. But just in case your head is swirling with details, let me do as I have preached, and summarize my main points. Remember, above all else, that this three-part essay can be divided in its most basic form into five paragraphs, with the introduction getting one paragraph, the main body three, and the overall conclusion one. Remember too, however, that this number of paragraphs is not carved in stone; for instance, more or fewer reasons will change the paragraph total to perhaps six or four. And even with three supporting reasons, if you have a lot to say in a body paragraph, it's a good idea to look for a likely place to split the paragraph--my suggestion is between the explanation and the specific example.

 

     The most crucial ingredient in the introduction is the thesis sentence, which should name your topic and state your opinion on it as well. The other main part of the introductory paragraph is the preview, which simply lists the three supports. The three paragraphs of the main body should each deal with one support, or reason, for the opinion in your thesis. Each of these paragraphs will contain a topic sentence, preferably as the first sentence each time. Each topic sentence will, in turn, be supported first by your general explanation of it, and then by your specific illustrating example(s), which in turn are connected to the topic sentence by the paragraph's concluding sentence. In your overall conclusion, you should summarize your three main supports from the main body and restate your thesis.

 

     To summarize all this even more briefly, you will have done three things: You've told the reader what you're going to tell him or her; then you've told him; then you've told him what you've told him. These are the crucial points. Get these firmly in your head, and the details will become clearer as you go along. Remember that writing, just like baking, basketball, or bringing up children, takes practice. If you take time for that practice, not only will your writing improve, but it might become something you find yourself doing just because you want to. Stranger things have happened.