Introducing Modes of Development

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), processcause/effect, and classification.

Student Writing 2002


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