Common Methods Of Essay Development

Development is the process by which you support or explain the central idea of a paragraph, essay, or other piece of writing.


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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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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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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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.


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:

  1. Orthodox Jews place a charm . . . .
  2. 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.


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.


The cause-and-effect method is useful in explaining why something happens. Take this paragraph on the causes of avalanches:


Read the paragraph on avalanches again:

Where is definition used in this paragraph? How about comparison?

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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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Some people have no problem sitting down and writing a number of ideas on a sheet of paper at any given time on a particular subject. However, after they have jotted down these thoughts, they review their work and realize that the subject matter is completely unorganized, and that there is no flow between the sentences.

These situations are where paragraph development, a system for putting together unified and cohesive sentences, comes into play.

Methods to Develop Good Paragraphs

Several methods exist for developing paragraphs. Some writers may find that simply using an outline helps them to better enhance their skills, while others may discover that they need to combine all of these techniques to put together stronger writing.

Here are some methods of developing paragraphs:

  • Creating an outline
  • Topic sentence development
  • Supporting details
  • Using quotations and evidence
  • Analyzing quotations and evidence
  • Providing strong, relevant information
  • Using concise language
  • Using colorful and clear words
  • Crafting a strong conclusion statement
  • Utilizing appropriate transition words
  • Following proper grammar rules

By using any of the methods in this list, writers, students and others can create stronger, more developed paragraphs.

How to Implement These Methods

It is important to understand each of the methods available to develop paragraphs. One of the best ways to gain that understanding is by reviewing examples of how to tackle each of them.

Outlining and Topic Sentences

Before beginning any type of writing, creating an outline is key.

  • Write down the main points that you wish to discuss in the paragraph first. Aim for two or three main points.
  • Underneath each main point, add a piece of supporting evidence from a journal, novel, poem, etc.
  • After the evidence, offer a brief explanation.

Once you have put all of this information together, return to the topic sentence. The topic sentence should serve as a mini guide to the rest of your paragraph.

Support, Evidence and Analysis

The heart of the paragraph is the evidence used to prove the point. For example, a piece of support in an essay about drug usage could read, "Drug usage is becoming an increasing problem in the United States." After that, introduce a statistic showing the rise of drug usage over the last decade. Once you have cited the statistic, include a piece of analysis that explains why and how this rise is detrimental to the country and to the future.

Paragraph Strength and Language

To craft a strong paragraph, important facts, textual analysis and all of the information must be relevant. In an essay on the importance of gun control, going off on a tangent about other types of weapons could be detrimentally off topic. Stay focused.

The language that you use will also affect the development of the paragraph. Words such as "good," "nice" and "bad" are extremely vague and should not be used in professional writing. Find clearer words - "respectful," "giving" and "selfish," for example, with which to replace these vague words.

Furthermore, do not using confusing words or words of which you do not know the meaning, because your lack of understanding will translate to the reader.

Clear Transitions

Crafting a strong concluding statement helps to transition into the next paragraph. At the end of one paragraph, suggest that there is another idea that piggybacks on top of the one that you have discussed, or state that there are some disagreeing ideas in the field. Then, go on to write about them in the next paragraph.

Following Grammar Rules

Even if you have the most organized paragraph in the world, it will not be considered well-developed if there are grammar mistakes everywhere. Consult a guide, such as the collection of helpful articles here on YourDictionary in the English Grammar Rules & Usage section to ensure that your paper is free of grammar errors.

Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.

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Examples of Paragraph Development

By YourDictionary

Some people have no problem sitting down and writing a number of ideas on a sheet of paper at any given time on a particular subject. However, after they have jotted down these thoughts, they review their work and realize that the subject matter is completely unorganized, and that there is no flow between the sentences.These situations are where paragraph development, a system for putting together unified and cohesive sentences, comes into play.

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