On the Spartans and the Perfect Paper
I have a ten page paper due in 3 days and I’m not worried about it at all. In fact, I haven’t had to worry about a paper since before high school. I’ve developed a formula for your academic paper or essay that has been so successful that in almost every English class I ever used it in, the teacher printed it out and taught it as curriculum. So far I’ve been hesitant to teach to more than a few friends, but I figured I can give it away here.
Let’s begin with a bit history to lay the foundation. The tactics of Spartan general Brasidas are an apt analogy here. Brasidas stood apart from his Peloponnesian comrades due to his rhetorical skills and ability to see war–as Von Clausewitz put it–as the extension of politics by another means. In other words, he fought with ingenuity and a level of elegance unseen in the rest of the brutish Spartan ranks. Particularly in retreats, Brasidas would bring his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle. 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.
This essay format works similarly. 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 it never abandon entirely, the safety of the formation. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. Your thesis–like the intro–imitates the square, so it so it always a point of return. Chuck Palahniuk calls these “chorus lines” and you can see in books like Fight Club, how whenever the plot skitters too far to the fringes he immediately comes back to one–“I am Jack’s sense of rejection.” And so the reader is once more protected in the center of the squared troops and doubt is successfully fended off.
So let’s look at the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:
Introduction: (see an entire one here)
1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the metatheme of the paper. Ex: “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.”
1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
-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.'”
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.
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
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
1. Restate hook/metatheme.
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. 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.”
And that’s it. So 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. The idea that you ought to “reread your paper to make sure you have a thesis” is completely irrelevant here in that the paper literally could not exist without one. In most cases, I’ve already written the entire paper before even sitting down at the computer. Just like the tactics of Brasidas , you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense. No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by fulfilling them. 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.
Consider how well–if done right–this format addresses every possible angle of the subject. The thesis is buttressed at the top by your metaphysical hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle then, is simply dealing with reality, the easily quantifiable part.
Consider too, how easy this is. 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 metatheme, 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. 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.
Update: I posted on this topic again, and fleshed out the entire introduction for a paper I wrote.
Update #2: Xenophon vastly improved Brasidas’ tactics, which I discussed here
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Nice. I developed a similar system back when I took English classes.
An English instructor once explained the intro as an upside down triangle. Meaning you start out general, and progressively get more specific.
Except he advocated using the thesis as the last line in the intro. I combined that with the classic “although” statement: “Although X says Y, I disagree and think Z.” By contrasting an opponent’s view, you can explicitly define your assertion. With this at the end, you have an awesome lead-in, and the reader (and more importantly, you) knows exactly where it’s going.
The rest goes pretty much exactly as you described. Once I had everything filled in, the next step would be to get as many edits as possible. Throw in a few big words and you’re set.
I killed with it. “A” every time. Damn, this makes me want to write a paper again.
This is a great post. I worked with this exact formula/strategy during the majority of high school and found that the papers would end up writing themselves. This was an awesome reminder of something VERY useful that I learned in school, and the Brasidas analogy was a cool way to buttress this idea. Nice.
My best english teacher gave me this bit of advice on papers: a good paper is like a skirt. Short enough to keep your interest, but long enough to cover the subject. Not quite the same level as your rubric, but it stuck in my head.
Thanks Ryan. Do you at times do this with your blog posts/ forum posts to ensure a high level of quality in what you put out?
I don’t see why someone couldn’t use the same format if they were struggling with creating quality posts. But perhaps it would come out too academic/forced and lack personality.
You guys are spot on with the comments.
I can’t stress this enough, the teacher has already decided on your grade by the time they finish the intro. All you have to do from that point forward is prove that their initial judgment wasn’t wrong. Like Brasidas, all you have to do is maintain the square.
As for things other than an essay, yeah the format works there too. Especially in the cases of say a newpaper article–where I have a slightly different form that uses most of the same logic.
If you do it right you shouldn’t have to worry about personality either. That’s more to do with your personal style, which the format really doesn’t deal with. So long as you fill in the blanks with the tone you want, you’re golden.
Great piece. I am ashamed to admit I was pleased to find your technique for writing papers similar to mine. The extended metaphor is also infinitely excellent.
I am newbie,
you created the peculiar work =)
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I was never any good at papers. I think I got bad grades on every single one I did. One of them actually got me kicked out of school. xD
You actually got kicked out of school for a paper? Did you threaten to kill the teacher in it?
Yes, I did actually get expelled from school for an essay. I wrote a graphic social commentary with one of the examples describing an intimate sexual encounter with one of the professors. Although true, the dean and the head of the English department didn’t believe it was tasteful. The blatant disregard for social norms in describing my oral pleasuring of a certain person was adequate enough for my immediate removal. But to get back on topic, I enjoyed your blog. It was quite informative and should help me finish my online degree from the University of Phoenix.
i teach english composition and i would never teach your approach. it’s a formula and not very well explained. try teaching this & you will confuse novice writers, that’s for sure.
Do you teach capitalization in your “english composition” class?
Have your junior college class try it out, see what happens. Until then, shut up.
This is awesome.I can’t believe you actually posted this on the Internet. I would keep it secret, then again, that reflects my selfishness.
I will definitely look at this again when I have a paper due. Thank you.
Hah. I teach freshman and sophomore composition. I’m posting a link to your method on my class Livejournal.
I don’t care how they learn to write good papers, as long as they write the papers.
If your method can get them through their undergraduate years, brilliant. If they stay on after that, they’ll have gone beyond your method anyway.
There’s no downside, and the comment from the teacher without a Shift key was amusing.
This format, and ones similar to it, seem so intuitive to me that it boggles my mind why any middle/high school teacher would refrain from teaching it.
Joined with asking oneself the question “What am I trying to say?” it makes for a stellar essay. Tucker mentioned that as the basis of his writing process on one of the message boards.
I do not worry about my grip, I pick up my long sword to cut someone.
The problem with the five-paragraph style essay is not in its effectiveness. The blame lies most heavily upon its teaching. If you teach this format (as opposed to learning and discovering a format that is appropriate for you), you run the risk of pushing students toward a formula.
For validation’s sake, I am a college composition teacher in a program wherein students are asked to write about themselves as opposed to blovating about their dissection of a text.
The state of Georgia is sacrosanct about the five paragraph essay in high school, ergo we (the comp teachers) are forced to beat it out of the students’ heads because we want their voice and not their voice constrained by the repeat, repeat, repeat, ad nauseum constraints of that bastard of a formula. I mean, really, I don’t want to read (or grade) 46 papers with the same format. If I wanted the mundane, I’d stop drinking to excess.
The best way of writing an essay (at least in my school) is with an emphasis on the epistemic (ie: what have you learned about yourself from this experience).
Prescriptive rules do not a writer make. They make a technician.
I made sure to bookmark this page as I knew I had a paper coming up. I just finished and I think I nailed it. It’s similar to how I used to write, but at some point I began to forget the basics. Thanks Ryan!
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Ryan, if brevity is an issue (say a maximum word limit of 1000 words), which pieces of the paper can afford to go, assuming you want to conform to an: introduction, 3-paragraph body, conclusion – style format?
It’s better to cut from the body, two strong body paragraphs are better than three weak ones.
I have used your format for a few papers, most of them have turned out pretty well, except my last one which was about Roman Comedy. I had completely reworded the sentences from th intro for th topic sentences and stuff, pretty much like u said. But my teacher keeps saying theres too much repetition and ive have used this same format for other classes and it has been fine… im not sure if it is just my teacher or if im doing something wrong.. any advice? thanks
I thought this article did a great job of feigning great insight. This is exactly how I was taught to write a paper in elementary school, and there’s nothing innovative in this post at all. What other method of writing a five-paragraph essay – or any essay for that matter – is there?
I think it’s the analogy
I know it’s old but thank you so much for sharing this with everyone. I’ve been coming back to this website and making sure to follow this format for almost 4 years now when plagued with papers and It’s been very effective, useful, and a nice guide to fall back on.