The Endlessly Adaptable Three-Part Essay

Make a map to your paper with a 3-part outline.

Make a map to your paper with a 3-part outline.

The Three-Part Essay Format : Endlessly Adaptable

If you get familiar with the format of the three-part essay, you will be able to tackle almost any academic assignment.  This format is endlessly adaptable and expandable. It will fit a short essay (two-three pages, when it's often called "the five-paragraph essay") but can also be used to structure a long paper like a research project. That's because every essay has three basic parts: The Introduction, the Evidence Section, and the Conclusion. What will vary is the length and depth of that middle section (longer for longer papers, of course). 

We'll work on each part (Introduction, Evidence Paragraphs, and Conclusion) in this lesson. But first let's look how the secrets of the magic rule of three can get into that big middle section and organize that too.

Three has always been a magic number for humans, from fairy tales like "The Three Little Pigs" to sayings like “third time’s a charm.” Three seems to be an ideal number for us--including in the academic essay.

So whenever you are given a topic to write about, a good place to begin is with a list of three secrets to the Three-Part Essay! 

Secret #1— The Thesis With Three Parts

You've probably already worked on the thesis. As you organize and draft and revise the paper, you might find that you can turbo-charge that thesis, sometimes called the "controlling idea," "overall point," or "point statement." This is the main idea of the essay that you will try to prove, illustrate, or corroborate.

In a research paper, the thesis is what you've identified as the overall point about this topic, maybe something like:  Point is this(something else, usually about "How" or "Why"-- a "because").
I'm keeping that deliberately vague because the particulars will vary depending on what you're summarizing. But let's try this on a couple example:

Topic: How internet technology influences art
Major point:  Old applications like PowerPoint can spark artistic creativity.
How or why: Because the familiarity and and limited content makes it eternally flexible..

As you see, all we did was combine the topic, point, and how/why into a single sentence to produce the thesis:  Even the antique application PowerPoint can spark creativity because the familiarity and content limitation make it eternally flexible.  
Sometimes we can even have three "such as" items at the end of the thesis, as in this example: 

Topic: Online learning theory

Point: Distance learning can be shaped by traditional theories adapted to the new environment
Such as: Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

You might have to rewrite a bit to make this a good powerful thesis sentence, but don't forget the "three" aspect.

When you list "three" at the end of the thesis, you're previewing how the paper will be structured, so make sure the sequence in the thesis matches the sequence in the evidence (body) paragraphs! (See the chart below.)


Online learning can be shaped by traditional learning theories adapted to the new environment, especially behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

Secret #2: The Magic of Three
It's true... everything can break into threes. Just try this: Think of your topic and the major aspects or points about this, and try to come up with three. Easy, huh? Well, let's see how that can be shaped into a paper.

Topic: What are the essential points about Passive Green?
Think in threes and you might see a shape take form as you analyze the topic:

1.         Urban heat is the product of too much concrete absorbing the sun and can be abated by passive green techniques.
2.   PG minorly modifies standard road design.
3.   PG minorly modifies standard building design.

Certainly, there are more points you could name, but try starting with threes. Here's another set of points for a research, this one about learning theories in online classrooms:

Topic: How do traditional theories apply to online learning?

1.         Behaviorism applies to rote learning like quizzes and memorization.
2.   Cognitivism applies to skills learning like analysis and critique.
3.   Constructivism applies to active learning where the student learns by doing.

As you see, regardless of the topic, we can list three points about it. And if you wonder about the repetition of words and structure when stating the three points, in this case, repetition is a good thing. Words that seem redundant when close together in an outline will be separated by the actual paragraphs of your essay. So in the essay instead of seeming redundant they will be welcome as signals to the reader of your essay’s main parts.

So how would your paper's overall view break down into three supporting subpoints:

Topic:  How is (this aspect of our culture) affected by (whatever)? (NOTE: Your question and point about the overall topic might be different because you're focusing on something else. That's great! Just make sure whatever your point is, you support it with at least "three" ideas. )


See how identifying "the three" helps you mentally organize the source material? When we say, "Find three (whatever)," that actually makes it easier for you to read and understand the reading. And you'll find that once you get those three points for the middle section of the paper, the structure of the paper will evolve. (For longer papers, you might have more sub-points, but try starting with three big sections.)

Secret #3: Using Three to Organize the Structure

You can now take the "three" and then develop them separately in the (evidence) body sections or paragraphs, each starting with a topic sentence dealing with one of the three, something like this with the "three traditional learning theories".

Topic sentence 1: Behaviorism may be adapted to facilitate online learning by focusing on ways to "reward" learners for completing tasks.


Topic sentence 2: Cognitivism is another traditional theory that can be adapted to online learning by identifying the skills to be learned by each assignment.


Topic sentence 3: Constructivism is perfectly suited for the online environment as it indicates that learners learn by doing.

Just notice how you can "break down" the points within the thesis in the supporting paragraphs to come and their topic sentences.        


Introduction to the Online Learning paper

 Set up context of online learning.
Thesis: Traditional learning theories like behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism can be adapted to the new environment and shape online education.


 Evidence or Body Section- Three Parts (three paragraphs or with a longer paper, three sets of paragraphs)

 First aspect/subpoint: Behaviorism

Second aspect/subpoint: Cognitivism

Third aspect/subpoint: Constructivism



 Summarize the  points in different words.
Then finish with a final thought about the implications or importance of this, like "The old can be made new, as each traditional theory can give online teachers new strategies for creation of online learning materials."


 Introduction to the PowerPoint as Art paper:

 Set up context of technology and art.
Thesis: Even the antique application PowerPoint can spark creativity because its familiarity and limited content allow eternal flexibility.

 Evidence or Body Section- Three Parts

 First aspect/subpoint: Familiarity

Second aspect/subpoint: Limited content

Third aspect/subpoint: Eternal flexibility



Summarize the  points in different words.
Then finish with a final thought about the implications or importance of this, like ".


 As this outline shows, the three-part essay consists of one introduction section (with the thesis at its end), three body sections (each beginning with one of three main points) and one last paragraph—the conclusion. 1-3-1. Once you have this outline, you have the basic template for most academic writing. Most of all, you have an organized way to approach virtually any topic and assignment. You can expand this to organize your analysis of almost any length.

You try it now!



Set up context of topic


Evidence or Body Section- Three Parts

 First aspect/subpoint: 

Second aspect/subpoint:
 Third aspect/subpoint: 



Summarize the major point in different words.
Then finish with a final thought about the implications or importance of this, or what the future holds, or a recommendation, or.....