If you’re a writing student, you can expect assignments using various modes of development, including narrative, comparison/contrast, cause/effect, definition, classification, and process.
Depending on your viewpoint, these modes of development (or patterns) are either wondrously useful or a pain in the neck. If you’re a student assigned to write, say, a process or classification or comparison paper, you may not be too happy about it.
But if you’re a serious writer, you’re probably grateful to have a smorgasbord of these patterns available so that you can choose the one that’s best for the task at hand.
It’s sort of like standing before a buffet table with six types of potato dishes to choose from. There – the scalloped potatoes with just a smidgen of paprika! That’s what I want!
But students often miss the point when they start learning about modes of development. I’m recalling what used to happen with my own students when I assigned, say, a contrast paper. Male students their late teens or early twenties invariably wanted to write about the differences between sports cars and SUV’s because a) they were passionately interested in cars and b) they could easily come up with a detailed list of contrasts.
But there’s a problem: Whoever walked into a dealership wondering whether to buy a Jaguar or a Ford Explorer?
So here’s the first principle for working with modes of development: Choose a meaningful topic.
Another problem is that modes papers often lack a point. When I used to assign process essays, students would hand in either cake recipes or step-by-step instructions for washing a car or peeling a banana.
Now I will grant you that creating recipes and writing directions are useful skills. But they’re more appropriate for a technical writing course than first-year composition. I was looking for a paper that showcased the process that the student had selected – why a particular way of doing something is better, or why more people should adopt that process, or why it was important, or dangerous, or interesting.
Second principle: Use the mode to make a point.
Textbooks were often the unwitting source of the third problem – failing to appreciate the special advantages of each mode. When a sales rep from a textbook company dropped by to show off a new textbook, I always looked at the comparison and contrast chapter to see if the authors got it right. Usually, alas, they didn’t.
Here’s what I was looking for: Comparisons are useful when you’re trying to emphasize the similarities between two things that seem very different. For example, suppose you knew a high school senior who was afraid to enroll in college. You could show her that college is a lot like high school, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.
On the other hand, you could use contrasts (emphasizing differences) to persuade a student who hated high school to enroll in college.
But the sample essays in the textbooks usually discussed…similarities and differences between sports cars and SUV’s.
Third principle: Match the mode to your purpose, using its special features to your advantage.
Help is available! For suggested topics you can use for a modes of development assignment, click here. You can also click links for other modes of development: narrative (Part I and Part II), process, cause/effect, and classification.
Development is the process by which you support or explain the central idea of a paragraph, essay, or other piece of writing.
USE SEVEN METHODS OF DEVELOPMENT
Depending on your purpose—what you want to accomplish—you can use several methods of development:
Each method can be used separately or in combination with any of the others.
Learning which methods best suit your purpose will help when you create outlines and write first drafts of paragraphs and essays.
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LEARN TO NARRATE
Use narration to recall an event or explain how a process works. A narrative is a story. It arranges information in chronological (time) order; one event in a story or one step in a process follows another just as it happened.
Narratives contain action words—verbs and adverbs—that help move the story or process along and make it more interesting. They also use transitions such as first, then, soon, after, and suddenly, which maintain coherence and show movement from one event to the next.
Read this paragraph from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It recalls a childhood incident when neighborhood children mocked her and her grandmother. Action words are in red; transitions are in blue:
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LEARN TO DESCRIBE
Use description when you need to explain the nature of people, places, and things. It's always a good idea to start a physical description by relying on your five senses to gather details about what your subject looks, sounds, feels, smells, or even tastes like.
Unlike narration, which presents information from beginning to end, description can be arranged in any pattern you think best. Usually, the pattern is spatial, presenting things as they appear in space. But each writer chooses his or her own perspective—the position from which to view a subject. And each decides where to begin and where to end.
Read this paragraph from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou doesn't simply describe her subjects' appearance; she uses description to explain their characters. She also uses it to reveal her emotional reaction to their behavior.
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LEARN TO EXPLAIN, CONVINCE, AND PERSUADE
Narration and description can also be used to explain an idea or statement, to convince readers that an opinion is correct, or to persuade them to do something. But such purposes also lend themselves to other methods.
FIVE WAYS TO EXPLAIN, CONVINCE, AND PERSUADE
Depending on what you want to accomplish, you can choose one or more methods to develop your central idea:
Illustration: Uses examples.
Comparison or constrast: Points out similarities or differences.
Definition: Explains what a term means.
Classification: Distinguishes between types or classes.
Cause and effect: Explains why something happens.
Illustration explains abstract ideas by providing clear, specific, and concrete examples. Take this paragraph from "A Few Kind Words for Superstition" by Robertson Davies:
There are two concrete examples here:
- Orthodox Jews place a charm . . . .
- Some peoples of Middle Europe believe . . . .
A comparison explains similarities. A contrast explains differences. The first half of the following paragraph compares a harpsichord and a piano. The second half contrasts these instruments.
The harpsichord and the piano are closely
related. Both are keyboard instruments, and
both produce sound when jacks or hammers
attached to keys strike metal strings. The piano
is a direct descendant of the harpsichord and takes
its shape from that instrument. In fact, many musical
compositions played on one can be adapted to the other.
However, today the piano is the more popular
of the two instruments. It is capable of producing
greater volume and variety of tone, and it is more
versatile than its predecessor. Pianos provide
accompaniment for vocalists both classical and popular,
and they are used in every instrumental group
from the small dance band to the grandest symphony
A definition identifies a term and sets it apart from all other terms that may be related to it. Often, definitions begin by mentioning the general class to which a term belongs. Then they provide specifics to distinguish the term from other members of that class. For example, if you were to define whale, you might start by saying it is an aquatic mammal. Then you could talk about its size, shape, varieties, environment, breeding habits, and so on.
Read this paragraph. Try to determine the general class to which the subject belongs; then find specifics that distinguish it from other members of that class.
COMBINING METHODS OF DEVELOPMENT
One method of development can be used in combination with others. Reread the paragraph defining the viola. Pick out examples of comparison and contrast.
Classification—distinguishing types or classes—can help you explain a great deal of seemingly unrelated information in an organized and easy-to-follow manner. Take this paragraph that explains stringed instruments:
Once again, remember that two methods of development can be used together. Read the paragraph on stringed instruments above again. See if you can find places where the writer has used definition and description.
USING CAUSE AND EFFECT
The cause-and-effect method is useful in explaining why something happens. Take this paragraph on the causes of avalanches:
COMBINING METHODS OF DEVELOPMENT
Read the paragraph on avalanches again:
Where is definition used in this paragraph? How about comparison?
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MASTER FOUR PATTERNS OF ARRANGEMENT
As you have learned, there are several ways to develop details in a paragraph. These methods—narration, description, comparison/contrast, definition, classification, illustration, and cause and effect—relate to the paragraph's purpose. You should also learn patterns of arrangement—ways to organize details in a paragraph.
There are four basic patterns, but there are as many variations on such patterns as there are writers who use them. Study these four patterns of arrangement. You can use any of them regardless of the method of development you choose.
Begin with a general statement (topic sentence); develop the rest of the paragraph with supporting details.
Begin with supporting details that lead to a broad concluding statement (topic sentence).
Begin with a question; follow with details that answer that question.
Begin with the least important detail; end with the most important detail.
The pattern that begins with a general statement followed by specific supporting details can be used to argue a point or make an abstract idea clear. In the next paragraph, the writer starts with the idea that living with an alcoholic parent is difficult. This is the topic sentence. She then gives details to explain how difficult this problem is.
This pattern can help you create suspense or build to an emotional high point. The following paragraph starts with a specific detail that leads to a more general topic sentence.
Beginning with a question can capture the reader's attention. It is also an easy way to arrange information. After asking the question, you can fill the rest of the paragraph or essay with details that answer or relate to it.
Fiction writers often save the most important or startling information for last. This technique helps them maintain suspense and create emphasis. You can use this pattern whether your purpose is to tell a story, describe a scene, explain an idea, or defend an opinion. The next paragraph is a good example.
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