The Five-Paragraph Essay; or, Written Elegance
Azerbaijan is full of unexpected features for the uninitiated Westerner. Yet, English-language essay writing was not on my list.
I am a Five-Paragraph Essay devotee. If there was a Facebook page devoted to the Five-Paragraph Essay, I would Like it. If there was a +1 button on Google Plus for the Five-Paragraph Essay, I would +1 it. Before coming to Azerbaijan, I was into this essay format. After living in Azerbaijan for nearly two years and reading through countless essays in English by non-native speakers who were not steeped in the practice, I can say definitively that such a structure is far superior to any other format. This clarity arose because of the noted lack of structure in essays here and the subsequent mess of writing that results from a lack of structure.
America’s education system taught me well the five-paragraph essay format. However, Azerbaijan, influenced by Russia, does not stress such a layout for essays. Instead of the repetitive organization of the writing, I’m told that most Azeri and Russian writings lack this type of structure. The best essays are the ones that are the longest, including the most content (related to the subject at hand or not). This is much like classroom instruction here, where the student called on in class is expected to pontificate for as long as possible, and the student who talks the longest (substance and organization notwithstanding) is the one who gets the highest marks in class. Or, at least that was the Soviet system, if it’s not still prevailing today.
If that’s how writings are expected in Azeri and Russian, that’s fine (for them, anyways). In English, though, we expect a certain degree of organization in an essay. And essays without good structure, even if they have great information, don’t get very far. It is for this purpose that Mason and I have started a weekly essay-writing class, emphasizing the five-paragraph essay. Starting with the basics has been an interesting process to observe. I can understand how it would be difficult for some because the structure is repetitive. If you aren’t accustomed to that, are told that that’s a waste of space to repeat yourself, then cramming essays into the structure will be a bit confounding.
The most interesting part of the class so far, though, is that when someone actually follows the structure of the essay, even on their first try, it transforms the written word into a more serious form of argument. Suddenly, logic is underpinning the whole piece and everything else falls into place. One student, Ramil, made his first gander at the essay and we had no problem breaking it down to its component parts and understanding his argument (we had assigned a tough topic: Why is Peace Corps presence not good for Azerbaijan? After doing outlines for the positive aspects of having PC here, we thought it’d be good to stretch their minds a bit.) The students are also noting how simple it seems. Instead of long, winding writing, we’re emphasizing simple and structured. It’s a big change and, hopefully for those who have to read essays from these folks in the future, a big improvement.