Composition 05a: Developing Details and Evidence 2


Methods of Development: Building Your Discussion


Development happens differently in different pieces of writing. As a writer, you must often make choices as to which kinds of development strategies are best for your particular writing task.  


In most cases, the length and purpose of a piece of writing factor into the development decisions you make.  The piece of writing above was a simple narrative paragraph, which required more descriptive details and some additional background information, in the form of a couple of additional sentences.  Longer pieces of writing, like essays, might require entire paragraphs dedicated to different aspects of development.   An essay arguing a particular position on gun control, for example, might devote a paragraph to describing current trends in gun violence in America’s inner cities and then provide two paragraphs narrating or telling the story of different efforts at controlling the flow of guns into urban communities.  


The following sections outline some different strategies for developing your writing.  Use them in conjunction with the major modes of discourse that we have discussed before—Narration, Exposition, Compare-Contrast, Argument, and Writing Process Analysis—to provide depth, detail, and evidence for your writing. 




One of the key ways to develop a piece of writing is to use the technique of exposition.   Exposition means to provide background information on the people, places, things, and ideas that are central to the piece of writing.  Think of the first chapter of a novel or the first part of a movie or television show.  What happens?  Often, you learn about the situations or conflict in the story to be told, about the people involved, when and where these events are taking place.  This − sometimes called “back-story” − is information that is central to your understanding of what will come later.   In narratives, exposition usually sets out the cast of characters (and their basic roles and character traits), when and where the narrative takes place (the setting), and the basic conflict or event that the narrative will address.    In compare-contrast and argument essays, exposition (which usually comes soon after the introduction of the piece) usually provides descriptions and background on the things being compared or on the general topic of the argument. 


Here are a couple of examples of some uses of exposition as a way of developing an essay:


In a short piece narrating the story of some charitable actions or accomplishments of a non-profit organization called the Sunlight Foundation (or arguing that these actions are admirable), a writer might use exposition to discuss what the Sunlight Foundation is, what it does, and perhaps a bit of its history: 


[Introduction] This morning, in a ceremony at City Hall, Mayor Walter Childers awarded the annual Richmond Medal of Service to the Sunlight Foundation.  This organization embodies the highest ideals of service to the community, and we as citizens of this city should emulate this organization’s dedication and integrity.


[Exposition] The Sunlight Foundation is a charitable organization founded by University of Richmond students Suzy Markos and Will Sams in Richmond, Virginia in 2004.  Sunlight’s mission is to provide free home-cleaning and housekeeping services to disabled and elderly people living in the greater Richmond area.  Sunlight volunteers, working with local healthcare providers and social workers, identify citizens who are unable to clean their own homes, and either provide direct, volunteer cleaning services or contract with a local cleaning service company to ensure that the elderly or disabled person has a clean and safe place to live.    


Exercise:  Expository Paragraph Practice


As practice, write a short expository paragraph giving some basic background information on one of the following topics:


  1. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  2. Rosa Parks, Civil Rights activist
  3. Sexual harassment in the workplace.


What information would be relevant and important for readers to know about this subject? What might a particular audience already know about these things?  What would a writer need to tell them?   You should consider brainstorming or generating ideas (see The Writing Process, Chapter 05) on these topics prior to writing your paragraphs.  





A narrative tells a story.  This is a major technique in writing—so much so that this course even focuses one of its key assignments (The Narrative Essay, Chapter 03.2) on the dynamics of telling a story.   For more help with the specifics of narration, see that chapter. 

When used as a technique of development, narration is often used to provide key history or context on a subject to readers.  In many cases, a short narrative covering how the event, idea, situation, or controversy came to be can add significant flavor and depth to a piece of writing.  Here is a short example that could easily be added to the piece above on the Sunlight Foundation:


NarrationIn March of 2004, University of Richmond undergraduates Will Sams and Suzy Markos were working as volunteers with a local charity that provided meals to the elderly, disabled, and others who could not provide for themselves.  When delivering a meal to one of their clients, a Mr. Smith, both Markos and Sams noticed the condition of his apartment—it was badly in need of cleaning and even some minor repairs.  Mr. Smith, who had advanced Parkinson’s disease, was unable to clean his home effectively, and he had no family to help him.  It was at that point that Markos and Sams saw a need in the community.  They then talked to a classmate of theirs who ran a small professional cleaning business, and negotiated a deeply discounted rate for cleaning Mr. Smith’s apartment on a bi-weekly basis, funded by small donations from family and friends.   In a few months, Markos and Sams had forty-three clients and had set up a website for local community members and businesses to donate for or “sponsor” the cleaning projects.  The Sunlight Foundation was born.   Today, the Sunlight Foundation handles or subsidizes over two hundred cleaning jobs per month.  Thousands of elderly and disabled citizens in the Richmond area live in cleaner, more sanitary, and safer spaces because of the work of Markos and Sams.  


You should notice in the passage above that the writer uses key transitional words and description to give his narrative some depth—the same basic techniques that we use in longer narrative essays, here just compressed into a single paragraph.  The bold words above show the development of the narrative over time, and the words that follow describe the specifics of each event or scene in the story.  Even with a moderate amount of descriptive detail, the reader gets a nice overall history of the Sunlight Foundation’s origin and history.  


Exercise:  Narrative Paragraph Practice


As practice, write a short narrative paragraph on one of the topics below:

  1. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  2. Rosa Parks, Civil Rights activist
  3. Sexual harassment in the workplace.


What is the basic “story” of each of these three subjects?  What historical background might a reader need to know?  Imagine for a moment that you are writing a piece about events / protests taking place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  (“The March for Our Lives” for example), an essay on the importance of women—and Rosa Parks in particular—in the Civil Rights movement, or an essay on the nature of sexual harassment in the workplace.    In the space below, choose one of these subjects and write a short narrative outlining the basic “story” that readers would need to know:




Description is a key technique of development:  it provides vividness and specificity to your writing, giving your readers details, images, and impressions that they need to fully understand and appreciate the content of writing.  Good description appeals to the senses:  sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch— can all be effective in connecting with the reader.   Here is a descriptive paragraph relating to the Sunlight Foundation piece above.


[Description] Walking into the Sunlight Foundation’s offices, one might be surprised by their sparseness.  Some flickering fluorescent lights hang in casings from the ceiling, itself spotted and water-stained from leaking pipes and careless upstairs neighbors.  The office furniture for the volunteers is mismatched:  a particle-board desk, worn swivel chair, and ancient PC whirring next to a gigantic monitor and phone whose handle is worn smooth with use sit next to an aluminum schoolteacher’s desk, with broken drawers and pockmarked with graffiti.  The air smells of coffee, courtesy of a battered pot in the corner. Phones are always ringing.  The office that Markos and Sams share is not much better:  they sit face-to-face in a windowless interior room, flat-screen computer monitors (a luxury) back-to-back.  Pictures of their clients plaster one wall of the office, smiling old faces reminding these young people every day of what they come to work for.  


Which of the five senses does the writer appeal to in this passage?  What does he accomplish by doing this?   What does it feel like in the offices of the Sunlight Foundation? 


Exercise: Description


Describe in a short paragraph the items / places listed as best you can using details that appeal to the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste):


An Apple iPhone

The neighborhood surrounding your university

One of your classrooms at your current university

Now, what types of descriptive details would be relevant for an essay on one of our three topics?


  1. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  2. Rosa Parks, Civil Rights activist
  3. Sexual harassment in the workplace.


As practice, write a descriptive paragraph on some element of one of these three subjects:





Examples are one of the most effective means of developing a piece of writing.  They provide concrete evidence for general or more abstract statements made by a writer.  These are often specific happenings or occurrences of a phenomenon the writer is commenting upon, individual cases that support the writer’s point, or specific facts or situations that illustrate the writer’s meaning.  


For the Sunlight Foundation piece above, one might select examples of the types of clients that the Foundation serves, giving real-world information about what the organization does and how it does it:



[Example]     A perfect example of a typical Sunlight Foundation client is Marvin Withers, who began receiving services from Sunlight when his Multiple Sclerosis (MS) entered an acute phase in 2007.   For four years, Sunlight has helped Mr. Withers, who has great difficulty walking and remembering things, keep his home clean and safe.  “Sunlight really helps me out,” says Withers, who turned 82 last month, “In my youth I always liked things nice and clean, but now I just can’t do it. They really make my life better.”


Colleen Queenish of Rockland Heights is another type of Sunlight client.  Paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident, Ms. Queenish has her small apartment cleaned by Sunlight once a month.  “The nurses who help me are great, but I shouldn’t expect them to clean the house.  Sunlight has been a godsend.  My mom is my only family, and she needs a break from time to time from cleaning up this place.” 



 As in any other type of writing project, considering the purpose of your writing and its audience is key in your selection of the examples you choose to use in developing your piece.   Think of examples as the specific evidence that makes your point clear to your audience, supporting and illustrating your thesis.  Are you outlining possible outcomes of a course of action?  Showing that someone or something has done good (or bad) things?  Describing the features of a piece of technology?  Reviewing the highlights of an essay or film?  Discussing a condition or situation that you want achieved, sustained, or changed? 


A resume, for example contains a list of examples of the worker’s education, experiences, responsibilities, and accomplishments:  the specific elements under each heading offer support and development for the job-seeker’s application for a particular job. 


Advertisement and other public writing often makes its point through the technique of exemplification (i.e., providing examples).    Car advertisements often provide information about the safety features on the vehicle—airbags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact reinforcements, even collision sensors.  Each of these features is an example of the things that the car-maker includes to make the vehicle more safe (and thus more attractive to a given audience).  When the same car commercial shows one feature in action—like a car avoiding a collision because of its anti-lock brakes, it is further developing the example through description. 


Good arguments of all kinds employ examples.   In advocating for health insurance reform, for example, a writer might use some specific examples—in the form of real people’s stories of dealing with health insurers—to show how inefficient or unfair the existing system is.  Similarly, one might argue the other side of that argument by showing examples of governmental regulation that hinder or make the system less effective.   Or, one might use examples showing the benefits (or costs!) of another system, like France’s—one might talk about how a French mother  used her mandated six months of maternity leave, or tell the story of a retired worker who had his cancer surgery paid for by the national health insurance system.   Conversely, one could also show examples / tell the stories of people who suffered negative consequences—illnesses that got worse because of long waits for government doctors, or patients who were denied care due to bureaucratic red tape.  


Consider, for example, (see?), a piece of writing on the pervasiveness of the use of smartphones by young people.  What kind of examples might a writer choose to develop the following topic sentences?



Exercise: Exemplification



Smartphones like the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy provide many functions crucial to the lifestyles of young people today.  


Example 1:

Example 2:

Example 3: 



Smartphones, however, have some serious drawbacks that anyone considering one should know about. 


Example 1:

Example 2:

Example 3: 


What types of examples would be relevant and important for an essay on one of our three topics?


  1. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  2. Rosa Parks, Civil Rights activist
  3. Sexual harassment in the workplace.



As practice, write a descriptive paragraph on some element of one of these three subjects:




When writers talk about definition as a concept, they often mean far more than the simple meaning of a word provided in a dictionary.  Definition means offering an explanation of a given idea, with examples and other necessary information.   Developing a definition often includes outlining the groups or categories to which the term belongs, the key features and characteristics of the term, and contrasting it from things from which it is different.  


Why Define? 


Defining terms is a crucial part of many types of writing.  When writers define the terms with which they are working, the clarity of their work is improved, and their audiences gain a more sophisticated understanding of what the writer is discussing. 


In many contexts, the specific meanings of a key word are often important—and it is the writer’s job to call his or her audience’s attention to these meanings.  The term “engagement,” for example, means one thing to a soldier (a “battle”) and another to someone considering marriage.  Likewise, definitions of terms in the legal profession (“brief,” “claim,” “plead,” “assault”), are specialized and might be unfamiliar to audiences outside that profession. 


When should a term be defined?


Like many decisions in a piece of writing, choosing when to define terms is determined primarily by the audience the writer is trying to reach.   Is the target audience one that would be familiar with the terms being used in the discussion?  Is the writing’s purpose to inform an audience of something they might not otherwise know?  How specialized is the writing?  Is it directed to a specific group of people with specific knowledge and experience?  




Exercise: Defining Key Terms


As practice, consider some terms that would need to be defined in the following writing situations:


  1. An instruction manual covering the proper operation of a Sony Blu-Ray player, written for new owners of the player.


Terms that need to be defined for this audience:



  1. A news article in the Baltimore Sun describing the accusations of financial crimes against the CEO of WorldBank.


Terms that need to be defined for this audience:



  1. An English 101 essay (written for a general audience) discussing the causes of low retention and graduation rates at U.S. urban universities.  


Terms that need to be defined for this audience:






Categories and Defining Features


A convenient way to begin defining a selected term or idea is to decide a.) to what general category of things the term belongs and b.) what the specific defining features of that term are.   Defining the term “crime,” for example, might involve establishing that crimes belong to the category of “actions” and that its defining feature is that the action is prohibited by law.  Without the “defining feature” of “prohibited by law,” the action would not be considered a crime.  As you consider “defining features,” remember that these are requirements to be considered part of the term—a ball isn’t a “football,” for example, without being oblong and flying best in a spiral.  In the space below, consider the basic categories and defining features of the following terms:









Defining Features










Defining Features










Defining Features














Defining Features








Strategies for Defining


Below are some essential strategies for approaching or developing a definition.  Consider these as starting points for your thinking, and build further on them. 



Categorization or Classification


An easy way to develop a definition is to focus on establishing the group, category, or class that an item, concept, or term belongs to.  One can then, using the features of this class, discuss the particular idea being defined more specifically as it relates to this class or category.




Semtex is a powerful form of explosive, usually used in large-scale mining and demolitions applications.  Coming in malleable, clay-like blocks, this substance is particularly well-suited to shaping and directed-charge tasks. 


“Gangsta Rap” is a type of hip-hop music, developed in the mid- to late- 1980s in both New York and Los Angeles by artists such as Ice-T, Schoolly D, and N.W.A..  Like most hip-hop, “gangsta rap” prominently features drum-beats and other studio production effects, as well as the standard hip-hop focus on rhyming and lyricism.   What sets “gangsta” apart, however, is usually its subject matter—crime, gangs, violence, and “life on the streets” in urban America.  




Equivalent Terms / Synonyms


Often, it is convenient to define terms by simply finding equivalent terms for them—or words that are synonymous with them. 




Plagiarism is a term that teachers and other academics use for “cheating” or “stealing someone else’s ideas.” 


“Larceny” is the legal term for stealing. 




Negation or Contrast


A concise definition of a term is often easy to develop by beginning with what it is not.  Many writers find this strategy best employed along with another—some writers begin a definition with negation and move on to comparison, description, or other forms of definition. 




Totalitarianism is neither an economic system, like communism or capitalism, or a system of government, like democracy or dictatorship.  It is, rather, a philosophy, determining how a nation relates to its citizens.  


Driving is not a right, but a privilege earned through responsible actions.


Parenthood is not a fun-filled party: it is a serious, full-time job that requires constant diligence and dedication. 



Definition through Description


One of the most direct ways to define a term—particularly an object or event, or something relatively concrete—is to describe it by using detailed, vivid terms. 




Lobster bisque is a seafood soup that has a creamy texture, a thick consistency, and loads of fresh cooked lobster meat.  The best bisques are slightly spicy, due to a bit of cayenne pepper added while cooking, and also rich, owing to the heavy cream and whole condensed milk used in the preparation of the broth.  Some people add cooked chopped potatoes to the mixture for added filler. 


The Alpha Rev X is an MP3 player that competes with Apple’s iPod line.  The Rev X comes in 120, 180, and 240 GB sizes, and uses a touch-sensitive wheel for navigation and activation.  Made of a lightweight aluminum case and a high-density glass face, the Rev X feels substantial in a user’s hand—a plus for some customers, who like a more durable player, but a problem for others who enjoy the lighter iPod.  The Rev X offers wireless syncing to computers, peer-to-peer song and playlist sharing, and video-out support.  


Mardi Gras is a Carnival Festival held in the New Orleans French Quarter every year, just before the beginning of the period of Lent.  During Mardi Gras, visitors and New Orleanians hold parades, balls, and other parties, often lasting long into the night.  Mardi Gras is often associated with much public consumption of alcohol—particularly the famous “Hurricane” drink—and general rowdiness, particularly on Bourbon Street.  At times, establishments on Bourbon Street are so packed that party-goers have difficulty moving from one side of the street to another, or even finding an unoccupied restroom. 


Operation / Specific Usage


In many cases, a writer needs to define for her readers a specific usage of a word, rather than the “general” or commonly understood definition of it. 




According to the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, “delusion” is defined by “feelings of being followed, poisoned, infected, deceived or conspired against, or loved at a distance.” 


For the purposes of this discussion, “theft” will mean the removal of a person’s property from his or her possession without his or her explicit consent.  According to this definition, it is clear that John committed theft when he took Paul’s 1975 El Camino on a joyride.  


“Unreliable” means something different to a literary critic than to someone else.  Critics and students of literature consider “unreliability” as a possible feature of a narrator’s truthfulness, rather than an assessment of how well the character works or how predictable he is.  


Most car insurance policies indicate that the “primary driver” of the vehicle is anyone who drives it more than 50 miles per week. 



Analogy or Comparison


It is often profitable to define something by discussing similar ideas or concepts, which may be more familiar to your audience.  




Oxycontin is a narcotic painkiller very similar in its effects and function to older drugs like Demerol or Vicodin. 


Spring rolls are like egg rolls in that they are filled with cabbage, vegetables, sprouts, spices, and often chicken or shrimp, but are different in that they are not fried.


Vietnamese is a language very similar to Chinese and Japanese in the formation of many of its phonemes.  Where Vietnamese differs, however, is in its heavy reliance on subtle tonal shifts in the speaker’s presentation—a single mispronounced syllable can often change the meaning of whole words.


A rugby scrum is not that unlike the collision between the offensive and defensive lines in American football or the pileup that results from a fumble.  A scrum often involves many people struggling for possession of the rugby ball.     



Discussing similarities and differences is a useful way for writers to add depth and development to a piece of writing.  This strategy can be used to develop essays and paragraphs in many modes of writing—narrative, argumentative, and of course comparison-contrast.


In narrative essays, comparison-contrast paragraphs can be used to enhance and amplify descriptions, clarify characters and conflicts, and to develop the overall meanings for the narrative.    




Arriving on campus for the first time when I was a freshman was a bit like visiting another country.  I did not know where anything was, I did not know anyone, I needed a map to get around, and every person seemed to be speaking in some kind of foreign language.  


My cousin John was striking in his resemblance to Denzel Washington, and many people commented on it to him.  He was tall, powerful, and had a commanding presence.  His chin was sharp and square like Denzel’s and he had deep and probing brown eyes, just like the famous actor.  John loved this resemblance because it made meeting women extremely easy.


 The process of building a solar-powered car for the Solar Decathlon was a lot like putting together a huge, complicated puzzle.  Only when building the car, the team had nothing to go on but their own ingenuity and knowledge of the basics of engineering.  There were over six thousand moving parts in the final design, each fitting together in a unique way to make the car go.   


If you’ve never jumped out of an airplane, it feels like running down a hill at three hundred miles per hour, with the wind whipping past your face. 



In argument essays, comparison paragraphs can be used to argue by comparison and consistency:




Electing a different president or changing a government in the middle of a war is like switching horses in the middle of a race.  The expertise and personnel in charge of the nation’s resources are best used consistently and resolutely, in pursuit of clearly stated goals.  Changing directions and policies during a war sends entirely the wrong message to the nation’s enemies. 


When  a student fails to go to class, it is like purchasing something expensive—like a car—and then abandoning it.   The valuable thing that a student gets when she takes a class is the experience and the knowledge that the class can provide.  Not attending, not taking advantage of the faculty member’s expertise is a waste of time and money.


Building solid infrastructure for a region—roads, bridges, utilities, public transit—is very much like maintaining healthy bones, blood, and organs in a human body.  Just like a person can’t function when his liver or kidneys are not working, a city can’t function when its wastewater treatment plants are inefficient.  Well-developed public transit systems help move people and resources around to where they need to be, much in the same way that arteries and veins move red and white blood cells to important parts of the body.      



Testimony and External Evidence


One of the most common ways that writers develop their paragraphs is through the use of testimony – as in the opinions of experts or reliable sources on their subjects.   In most cases, this means using quoted, paraphrased, or summarized information.  See Chapter 08, Introduction to Academic Research, for more information on introducing, using, and citing information appropriately.  


It is important to note, however, that when writers use Testimony and External Evidence, they are making a careful rhetorical choice: they must choose sources that will be effective for both the audience of their writing, and that will advance the purpose or task of the writing.   “Getting some quotes” means screening information and selecting it carefully to achieve an intended effect in the writing.


Here are some examples.  In what situations might these sources (and the information they provide) be most effective?

Dr. Marlo Henderson, Chief of Surgical Service at St. Bonaventure Medical Center in   Waxahachie, Texas, remarked yesterday that the new pain medication by Prolactis was very effective in reducing pain from abdominal surgery (New York Times 3/27/2012).


Dale Freeman is a police officer with over thirty years’ experience investigating violent crime in urban environments.  He writes in his article “Get the Guns,” that “an aggressive campaign to get illegal guns off the streets” of many inner cities would reduce the number of homicides in the vast majority of communities.  “It’s just too easy for anyone to get a gun,” he writes, “which makes it easy to take a ‘beef’ with someone to a deadly level” (Freeman 320).  


Reflecting on the 2011 season, linebacker Mark Allison told the Times that “we had a great year in a lot of ways, and it was nice to see some of the younger guys develop.  I wish we would have done a better job protecting our quarterback in some games, and forcing more turnovers—especially late in games—but we took some important steps this year” (Davenport 3).