Information Sheet # 126

April 25, 2000

THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH THEME

[In the summer of ‘98, participants in the Wcenter Listserv for writing center administrators engaged in a lengthy discussion of the five-paragraph theme, its pros and cons.  The following excerpts reproduce the first few days of that exchange, which eventually resulted in over 100 postings.  Although this discussion did not settle the controversy concerning the benefits (or potential damage) from teaching such formulaic structures, the responses do highlight many fundamental issues in determining how we structure assignments for students and how we evaluate what they submit.]

A colleague told me last week that "we need to drill the five-paragraph essay into our students."  I am having a hard time getting over this remark, as it is so contrary to everything I believe about teaching and writing.  I would like to start collecting pieces written by students or theorists or practitioners that point out the problems with formulaic writing, and why many of us do not teach "the modes" anymore. Do any books or articles come immediately to mind?   – W.S.

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When I worked as a writing tutor in graduate school, I learned that I could help any student get a B by running a variation on the five-paragraph essay. It still pretty much holds true for most students in most courses.  It's not the end of learning to write . . . but it is a useful form to be able to manipulate, and the students who haven't figured it out usually lag behind those who have.  (To get an A you need to think, discover, and convince--but that's a different story altogether!).  I'd make the argument of "necessary but not sufficient" and suggest that merely drilling students on this simple form would be "dumbing down the curriculum" to below the college level.            – L.B.

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I agree that the concept of "drilling" any form into students is a bit scary, but I do teach my students the five-paragraph essay [as] a tool, not necessarily an end in itself.  I have found Richard Coe's article "Who Took the Form Out of Process?" . . . to be very influential in my adopting a teaching approach that aims for a balance of form and process and teaches that finding a structure is an integral part of a writing process.              – S.G.

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I would like to point out a contradiction in your argument.  You say you use the 5P, but you say that Coe was influential in this decision because "he teaches that finding a structure is an integral part of a writing process."   "Finding a structure" implies that the student may find a different and equally valid structural model.

Also, I think we CAN practice "process and product" without using the 5P. The 5P is only one form of many that an organized and focused essay can take. . . .  My main concern about the 5P is that it restricts the development of complex ideas.  It implies that all ideas can and must come in threes.  Students don't see 2 and 3 as a subset of 1, or 2 and 3 as being a result of 1 and this can prevent them from developing/building a line of argument, which is critical thinking and what we want from students.

What if the "thesis" were replaced with a question that the essay would proceed to answer, thus placing the argument toward the end of the essay? I see this "form" in many anthologized essays.  I never see the 5P.  When I ask students what an author is arguing, they look immediately to the first paragraph.  This lack of flexibility troubles me.  – W.S.

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I. I have decided that since my objections to the five-paragraph essay are the same in each case, a form letter is appropriate to criticize the formula and to try to convince you to abandon it.  My objections are three: it stops thinking, it results in superficial development 99% of the time, and it produces a generic essay, not one that shouts its writer's name.

     II.    A. The five-paragraph essay stops thinking. You can find three things to say about most anything, so as soon as you get the third, you can stop brainstorming.  True, sometimes you have to stretch for the third, which means part of your development will be skating on thin ice.  But on the whole, five-paragraph essays are like jokes--even the organization for emphasis is set up.  The punch line goes last, so all you have to do is decide which of the three topics to leave the reader with.

     B.     Secondly, the five-paragraph essay is usually superficially developed.  It's as if the end of the need-to brainstorm also means the end of thinking about the three body topics.  The recognizable form is all-important. Somehow the three body paragraphs say the obvious.

     C .   Finally, since the paragraphs say the obvious, it follows that the essay will be generic.  The writer's ideas don't dictate the shape of the essay.  The reader sees the three-pronged thesis and knows exactly what's coming.  There's no sense of being in the company of a unique person.   Since the form is predictable and the ideas are the obvious ones, the essay could have been written by anyone.  It often contains cliches, like "skating on thin ice."

     III.     In conclusion, while it's possible that an essay could happen to shape itself in five paragraphs, and that also a skilled writer could hide the stiff, mechanical topic sentences and transitions of the typical five paragrapher, 99% of the time the five-paragraph essay is objectionable because it stops thinking, is superficially developed, and is generic. – J.M.

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When I say I teach the five-paragraph essay, I guess what I mean is that I introduce students to it, in the same way that I introduce them to the idea of rhetorical patterns, like comparison and contrast, process analysis, or cause and effect.  I make it clear to students that these forms rarely exist in pure form.  But this is knowledge about the structure of language that most of my students don' t learn unless it's taught explicitly.  For students who don't even know where to begin to organize their ideas, they are grateful to learn that an essay is usually this thing with an introduction, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Language is not predictable in any way to many of my students.  When we examine other writings to see how they measure up to the five-paragraph model, it at least gives them some framework for considering structure. I might assign a five-paragraph essay as an exercise, or as a tool for trying to put some order into a random, unorganized free write or brainstorm of ideas.  I teach it as one possible starting place, but I also try to teach them that they need to vary it or throw it out and use another form if necessary to  find what works for their particular purpose.  I agree with you that if we teach the 5P form without flexibility we are not helping our students learn to be good writers. . . .     – S.G.

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I always ask my fyc [first-year composition] students if they've been taught the 5-P essay structure.  I confess that I like it when they have been taught that structure, because it gives me something to build on.  For all its limitations (which *are* disturbing) the 5-P essay at least teaches students that there is some other structure than chronological/narrative structure.  Generally, when I have fyc students who write papers as though responding narratively to homework assignments (for example, expository papers on visual semiotics that begin, "I looked at ads in magazines in the library, and I decided to write on three cigarette ads"), I know they haven't been taught the 5-P essay, which at least has the rudiments of argumentation implied in its structure.  Of course, I tell the students the 5-P structure might get them into college but it won't get them out *with an education*. 

However, if several of the students have had 5-P training we can open a discussion about why that structure might impress (or make things easier for) some evaluators and teachers.  Then we discuss why that structure might limit a *writer's* thinking and learning (often a startling recognition for the ambitious students who mistake audience-pleasing for academic success). Then we talk about how sometimes structures might actually *help* them generate thinking. We can go from there into creative problem-solving and various invention heuristics, if the discussion allows. (However, to stretch an old aphorism, sometimes you lead horses a darn long way to water, and even then--with buzzards circling overhead--you can't make them drink.)  This classroom method doesn't always work, but what classroom method always does?      – B.S.

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Though we might be sick to death of hearing the term--"The Five Paragraph Essay", the structure, form, or design is, in fact, a classic model of conceptual thought across all the arts. . . .  Go to your Mozart CDs.  Listen intently to the first movements of his symphonies and string quartets.  In the world of music the structure is so important. Listen for this classic design of First Movement Forms: 

EXPOSITION, where the two or three main themes are presented to the listener.  

DEVELOPMENT, where those themes become the great challenge to the musical skills of the composer to make them so interesting to the listeners that none of us will ever fall asleep.  These main themes are treated with changes in modulation, harmony, inverted intervals, timbre, instrumentation & orchestration, rhythm, volume, and so on.... And between the presentations of the themes there are bridge passages that lead gently on to the next one. Within all this development, there is one essential ingredient--TENSION and RELEASE.  The discords and then concords; the sudden rests or interruption of rhythm followed by the continued flow; the modulations from major to minor . . . these provide that continuous interest in the music.  Like good literature, or drama, this Tension-Resolution factor is paramount in good composing.

RECAPITULATION, which is almost a restatement of the Exposition except that the tonic-dominant relationship does not modulate, but goes right into a small coda or conclusion that ties up the whole movement. . . .

What if we use this terminology in writing also, instead of the INTRO -- BODY (what is that?) --      CONCLUSION.  Change the concept in the student's mind that, instead of being a pain and a bore, like dancing, like music, like drama/acting, like painting--writing is a PERFORMING ART!

Now, what if we get our students to listen to these works of music, and then transpose that idea across to them as writers.  They are now the Master composers--not of sound, but of ideas; not of tones but of words!  This does make a great difference to their CONCEPT of who and what they are as composers/writers. . . .

So, this "5-P-Essay" is no longer a burdensome, brain-boring structure, but rather a dynamic mode of thinking that will make my writing come alive and produce those fantastic original ideas from original word-play.  It is a simple structure to start with but has great potential as a profound structure for production of powerful thought. . . .      – R.B.

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You use the example of students of music looking at the structure of the compositions of real composers.  How about having writing students look at the structure of the compositions of real writers?  How many real writers do you know who actually use the five-paragraph theme structure? 

Students do need to know something about structure, but filling a structure with content is one of the hardest things I have ever done as a writer.  As a student in a master's program, I had a composition pedagogy class in which students had to write from the modes.  I couldn't do it!  I found it very difficult to start with a structure instead of an idea.

Students who have learned the five-paragraph theme structure want to write everything that way.  Unfortunately, that structure has a very limited application.  Why not do as you suggest and have students look at how real writers structure their ideas?      – L.B.

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yup, it's still troublesome to use the classical music analogy.  Gotta remember the cultural context for the development of classical music's "rules."  Then, some composers (in various periods, more in Romantic and later) would intentionally shoot holes in those rules or somehow set them aside.  Schubert's "Erlkoenig" does not follow such formulas, but is instead "durchkomponiert" (trans. "through-composed").  And don't forget Ravel's "Bolero", written on a bet (supposedly) that he could develop a theme using nothing but repetition and slight changes in orchestration.   We have seen "durchkomponiert" writings from both students and pros, and they are quite satisfying; we call them "stream of consciousness".  But I shudder to picture a piece of writing analogous in form to "bolero."     – J.W.

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Consider a comparison with reading.  Kids are sent home from school and told to enjoy reading!  Are they punished for this?  How often do kids go home from school with the instruction simply to "enjoy" writing?????  And if ever that happens, then their writing is suddenly an instrument for measurement and testing and assessment--it HAS to be corrected! All RULES must be followed!   So all thru life, our present college students, and professors too for that matter, have been "taught" to fear putting their ideas on paper because it WILL be eventually criticized!  Are art classes at school treated the same way? Obviously, art techniques are eventually taught, but it is the natural expression of ideas thru participating in creating an artwork that is encouraged and rewarded first.  Why not writing pedagogy the same?

I see a strong correlation between art & writing. Obviously, writers need to have skills & techniques, but let's make writing an artistic activity rather than a scientific analysis.  Using music formats in the teaching of writing is but a metaphor for student writers to consider. . . .

Now, who is imposing structures on writers?  Whenever do we USE essays in the real world--apart from publication?  Well, of course we do read essays, but those essays are in the form of aesthetic reading--not for assessment and measurement like WE impose on writers in academia.  Perhaps we need to start at "zero" writing pedagogy and come up with a whole new paradigm/concept of what writing should be at the undergrad & graduate level.  Start rewarding creativity: stop punishing writers for not following rigid rules.  – R.B.

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I think [the 5P model] has very wide and multi-faceted possibilities for application. . . . I've helped students take their muddled, jumbled, dis-organized writing (what they called a draft, but what read like brainstorming) and turn it into a reader-friendly communication by using the 5-paragraph model, expanded perhaps, and adapted to the particular issues and purposes they were aiming at.  There's no intrinsic reason, it seems to me, that this form or any form (the sonnet, for instance, or the sestina) necessarily leads to mindless writing or prohibits more complex thinking.   If it is taught and learned as a mindless formula (x is true because a, b, and c), it will probably produce dull thinking; but if it is taught as a means of organization--not a means of generating ideas, not a means of simplifying them, but a means of communicating them--it can be a very useful tool.   – B.L.

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I remember asking my students once why they thought a writer would deliberately and consciously choose to use a constraining format?  Why use a 5 paragraph theme or a fugue or a Shakespearean sonnet, with the specific constraints imposed by these forms?  Why not free verse instead?  Or jazz improvisation?  I played a Bach fugue for them and then a piece by then-Prince, from the Purple Rain soundtrack, "Computer Blue."   Both pieces mathematical and structured to a fare-thee-well.  Why did the composers do that?

The question is not that a fugue is better than jazz improvisation, because anyone who knows anything about music knows that each requires skill and a deep understanding.    We should be asking instead, when is one more appropriate than the other?  What would I learn, as a musician, from a fugue that I could later apply to the jazz improv?  And vice versa? To present the five-paragraph theme as the only way to write is equivalent to saying that all music must be in the form of a fugue or a waltz, played only on the piccolo.  We don't want to forget that fugues, waltzes and piccolos all contribute to the corpus of music we enjoy.

-Writing a Shakespearean sonnet teaches us about poetry.  Writing 5-paragraph themes, as someone said so well, teaches us something about structure and organization.  Sometimes you want the thesis at the beginning.  And sometimes, it works best as a cannons-and-trumpets ending. Sometimes, suspense is a value in an essay and sometimes it isn't. 

My point with all this rambling about music, poems, and essays is that we need always to be careful of setting things up as an either/or polarity.  We don't need to say 5-paragraph themes are good or bad. We need to say, what can they teach?  Where do they fit into the scheme of things?  What other forms might also be taught?  How do we teach the idea of form? How can we encourage students to come to the question: what form would work best here?  And sometimes, the answer might very well be, a five-paragraph theme would work best.   – J.S.

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Group, when we talk about the 5-paragraph theme, I always think of my daughter taking ballet classes and performing in the Nutcracker.  At those classes, the dancers stood at the bar repeating certain moves over and over.  Then came the time for the rehearsals for the Nutcracker, a ballet that incorporates lots of the moves she had been learning during all those classes. And she danced.

Sometimes I think we expect our students to dance a ballet, expecting as an audience to see certain kinds of steps executed in particular ways and are critical when we don't see those steps or are critical when we see the steps performed too obviously.  Or perhaps we don't even want to see a ballet; perhaps we really want to see modern dance--but don't the dancers practice those steps/moves for modern dance, too.

Consequently, I don't find the 5-paragraph essay that offensive.  It is a model which less proficient writers can use to survive in an academic environment. . . . The 5-paragraph essay crops up in the letter of application, though it may be only 4 paragraphs--an introduction, a paragraph about relevant educational training, another paragraph about relevant work/volunteer experience, and a conclusion.  It also crops up in personal statements in applications for internships, etc., usually sans the intro and conclusion.  It's a way of organizing information so that a reader can access it easily.  It's also a way for a writer to focus what he/she wants to say.      – L.F.

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The joy of expression and even transgression (I'm thinking of Bell Hooks's "Teaching to Transgress”) is what I find missing in many of the 5P essays I read. . . .  I would rather have the messy but thinking students in my 101 any day. Can the perfunctory essay writer be compared to a dancer who does a perfect box-step but has no sense of expression or connection with what she is doing?  Or who really does not enjoy the even more “basic" act of touching others and whirling them around the room?

The 5P teaches important stuff like how to organize, how to support an argument, how to introduce and conclude.  These are good.  But what if we were to replace the 5P with another model that encourages critical thinking and analysis as part of its structure.  What about placing a question where the thesis conventionally goes, using the next 3 paragraphs to explore 3 (or so) different answers to that question, and using the last paragraph for the author's "answer," based on careful consideration of other perspectives?  This model encourages analysis, includes multiple (enveloping perhaps multicultural) perspectives, thereby ridding us of the ideologically troublesome issue (if you don't agree with me I'll bomb you) of pretending that the writer's point of view is the only one that exists.     – W.S.

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I agree with your post, particularly the part about using a question instead of a thesis because I've actually done it with wonderful results.  I tell my students that their job in writing is to pose a question about a text or idea that they want to see answered and then to explore the range of possible solutions in their essays.  Requiring them to come up with three possible solutions, but in the end argue for one or a new combination of views produces students who are able to look at the question from several perspectives and then analyze the proof of each of those solutions and determine which of them seems most persuasive.  The argument derives from the student demonstrating why a particular perspective or solution is persuasive, but that can only be accomplished after looking at the available alternatives.  I don't believe the restrictions of the 5P allow for that.   After all, isn't what we do in our academic papers to identify a question, research possible solutions to the question and then argue in favor of one perspective, whether our own or some combination of ours and another's? If our goal is to teach "academic writing" and "critical thinking", then why should we ask students to do something that we don't?     – S.W.

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I spend a great deal of time un-teaching the forms and structures planted into students before they enter my composition and essay classes.  Form and structure become, at best, a convenient way for writers to feel that they've done the job even when they haven't.  "Let's see, now, did I give a thesis statement?  Did I use 23 quotations per page to substantiate it? Did I blow the opposition out of the water?  Is the closing conclusive?" It's easy to teach, easier to grade, and terribly illusory, this business of form and structure, when it comes to working on authentic writing and thinking skills.

Why are we teaching students a "structure" that is outmoded and often ineffective? Particularly, why are we privileging this structure, with its roots in Bacon's attempt to write in a scientific way, over all others?  Just once, I wish someone would say, "I sure am glad my students were taught the power of associative linking in their essays back in high school, so we can build on that now in college!"      – K.F.

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Suppose that you were a Martian.  You came to earth in 1958 and visited an auto showroom for a little while.  Quite possibly you would return to Mars and explain that earth vehicles had to have large tailfins and acres of chrome in order to function.  That neither of these was a salient feature of an automobile might never occur to you unless someone suggested otherwise.

I think that the 5-paragraph theme is a Martian automobile lesson reflecting something called "real academic writing" (doesn't it curdle your blood to think of teaching young 'uns how to write that stuff, knowing how nearly unreadable and uninteresting much of it is?) as understood by a person who was in the showroom for only a little while and who never really test drove the car. The pseudorules and facts about these exercises (and about paragraphs themselves, for that matter) have been understood as salient, completely missing the point of the exercise itself: it is an “exercise,” intended to focus on one or two specific skills.    – J.S.

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Formulae and such for writing (whether the 5P essay or the 1P essay) seem to me to carry powerful assumptions for how one learns to write. Sure, some students need to have a sense of "how" they might say something before they can get those words down, and sometimes it's a 5-paragraph deductive structure that we offer.  But I think it's easy to assume a building-block approach to writing development w/ such strategies, the kind of thinking that has given us textbooks on sentence and paragraph mastery.  After all, the thinking goes, those students aren't "ready" for essay writing! (And, yes, I've taught the lowest level basic writing and ESL writing where students certainly had little mastery over syntax and such).

I mean, why do we assign the darn tasks anyway?  Is it for students to learn some sort of technical prowess?  It's like knowing fifteen different languages but having absolutely nothing to say in any of them. I drone on and on in my classes about how form and content are intertwined, inseparable.  Sure, some topics lend themselves to certain set forms (e.g., compare/contrast, cause/effect), but I think it's real important for students to discover both what they have to say and how to say it.  In class, we read a great deal to examine how others have dealt with issues of structure/content, but for me to dictate structure is as stultifying as for me to dictate content.  I've done it in the past, but now I'm trying to learn from those mistakes.  Too many deathly boring student essays to read (and for them to write).  I'm drawing a line in the paper pile.     – N.L.

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There are often unspoken presumptions that even if they are boring, at least if students use academic and traditional forms, they will attend to logical thinking and "doing the job" (whatever that is).  I think those presumptions need to be re-examined. . . .  In a post modern age in which we try to prize multiple answers as well as multiple questions, where learners and teachers/writers and readers aspire to share the space, what place does both the structure as well as what it engenders have in institutions that hope to inspire thinking?

I went through high school in the 70's when I was OK and the teacher was OK and anything we wrote or thought was OK.  Consequently, I never learned, as a student, to write according to the dictates of an academic form.  By the time I had to write that way, I already knew about writing, already was strong enough to try on the various styles and forms to suit my purposes or to make the teacher happy.  I *can* write that way, but I doubt I'll ever choose to, not even in the academic press.  Why should I ask so little of my students?      – K.F.

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I find that at the college where I work, my developmental students frequently are aching for some sort of form upon which to hang their ideas.  Throughout their education they have been urged to "express" themselves, but being alliterate (all too frequently) they do not have any idea how to proceed, do not have any comfort with reading, and do not have any confidence in their own voice. . .  Is formulaic writing an artificial construct which developed in academe?  Hell yes, just as essay exams are.  But as a tool or stepping stone which is introduced as such, it seems to work well for most of my students.  I sometimes think that we, as a profession, all too often view something as an archaic bag of tricks rather than as a potentially useful trick to add to our bags.     – R.A.

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...Another thing that has struck me in this discussion is the assertion that little professional writing is formulaic. I have to say that I don't think this is true. I know what a lot of literary non-fiction is not formulaic, but having worked in the legal profession (as a secretary/para-professional) and in a law library (as a clerk), I have to tell you that lots of that kind of writing is formulaic, whether it's drafting a pleading, preparing a research memorandum, sketching out a letter of intent, etc. . . .  Many is the time my boss said on a tape, "You know what we need, fill in the blanks."

This is true, too, in the sciences and in those professions requiring technical writing. It's also true for mechanical engineers, etc. Reports are a basic feature of many jobs, and so I don't have a problem with devoting a goodly bit of time to formulaic writing.

But, as I also said before, I enjoy teaching more free-flowing essay forms or raising possibilities as far as construction of essays. But the other thing that comes to mind is the fact that . . . there are teachers who may also have 100 essays to look at a few times a quarter (if not more), and they want the thesis statement, etc. laid out for them. As I said, I like teaching the art of writing, but some departments are not looking for that from my students. I perhaps err on the side of the practical, but certainly, when I see a student constructing a logical argument, being inventive with paragraph breaks, doing all the things that a good essay does without fitting the 5 paragraph theme, I encourage it, not squelch it because I know that the chances are that that writer will be able to adapt herself/himself to the "fogies" who want a 5 P essay.

On the other hand, when you have so many students coming to college without having written much of anything in the past few years, it seems only right to give them a basic tool to work from, then, as the semester goes on, you talk about choices in thesis placement, sentence length, transitions, etc.   – D.R.

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The first paragraph was found deep in the jungle of what used to be the Congo. It was transported by armed guard to the ruler's court, and left there. Nobody much noticed it, perhaps because it lacked the stature of a main idea.

The second paragraph was likewise single, without a mate, and couldn't be forged from the first, as there was no rib or cloning available.  But it was a little longer, and cried out for some Ahab to fill it with long strands of legalese as big as a giant squid. Like a photograph, it began to develop...

The third paragraph, as if it were part of that Fibonacci of the mind where things grow in patterns, evolve like bullets or bombs between enemies--a matter or scale--continued to grow. it liberated the first paragraph from a museum in Cairo, and moved it and the equally lonely second paragraph into a dive on the west bank in Paris.

There was a lot of smoking, swearing and drinking. As a result, the fourth paragraph walked up to the table of paragraphs and began sketching them. He was an illustrator, and rather fancied the by-then well-developed second paragraph.  He looked at his sketches and wondered what to do.  The waiter insisted these rather lazy paragraphs settle their bill, and summarized the way all of them had been sitting about, sucking on gaullois and drinking fine bordeux all afternoon.

He came to (be called) the conclusion that the world was chaos, and all hope of form and decorum was lost.  but at that very minute, in Borneo, famous archeologist prof. Dee Tritus was unearthing the unthinkable: the lost sixth paragraph.  Years later, after prof. Tritus and her co-horts had died from what was believed to be a poisonous resin attached to the sixth paragraph, the five-paragraph essay achieved a sacred status.  From time to time people around the globe predict the discovery of the seventh paragraph that will bring world peace, but no one has actually yet been brave enough to hit the return button and...       – M.S.


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