Category Archives: Modes of development

Sidney Poitier

Several people have been asking questions about obtaining permission to reprint. Instead of taking you through the steps, I’m going to tell you a true story about a particularly thorny permissions problem I ran into myself.

Some years ago I wrote a study skills textbook for college students. Early in the writing process I spent several Saturday mornings in the biography section of local library, scanning the early chapters to look for true stories from famous people about their early learning experiences.

I struck gold with actor Sidney Poitier’s memoir This Life. (He’s since written another one.) Poitier described arriving in New York City from the Bahamas as an ambitious 17-year-old with little education and limited funds. He supported himself washing dishes and dreamed of becoming an actor – but he couldn’t read well enough to get through an audition.

A Jewish waiter saw Poitier struggling to read a newspaper and offered to help. Years later, Poitier vividly remembered those reading lessons. One especially helpful skill was learning how to figure out the meaning of a word from the context. It was an impressive story, well told, and I gladly paid the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company $100 for permission to copy Poitier’s story in my chapter on reading.

Happily, my study skills book eventually went into a second edition. But not so happily, I had to redo all the permissions, and the Poitier selection became a problem. Knopf no longer owned the rights – they had been transferred to Poitier’s law firm.

In those pre-Internet days, it was no small feat to learn who Poitier’s lawyers were – and that was only the beginning of my struggles. The permissions fee was too small for the firm to be concerned about. I called multiple times, explaining that my book was about to go into production and I desperately need that permission form. Each time they promised to take care of it and immediately forgot.

One morning I went through my spiel for about the twentieth time (it seemed that someone different answered the phone whenever I called). I was put on hold. After several minutes, someone came on the line and asked what I wanted.

I was getting fed up with telling my story over and over – but common sense won the day, and I politely explained what I wanted.

“Can you tell me more?” the voice asked. And suddenly it dawned on me that I was talking to Poitier himself. The attorney’s office had patched my call through to his home phone.

I explained how impressed I’d been with his story about the dishwasher and newspaper lessons. Poitier gave me his fax number and asked me to send the chapter to him so he could see what I’d be doing with his story.

Three days later I opened my mailbox and found the signed permission form there. He was the only author who didn’t ask for a permissions fee.

A great and generous man.

(Because I’ve been hearing so many questions about modes of development, I’m adding a postscript. If I’d described the permission steps in a general way, this would have been a process article. Because I told you a story that happened once, it’s a narrative.)

Actor Sidney Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.

Actor Sidney Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.



Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Who should be featured on the new $20 bill – Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Many progressives were pleased when the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with Harriet Tubman. Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, is one writer who favors the change.

(Allow me a detour for a moment: Robinson’s column is an example of stellar writing. That’s not surprising, since Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize winner. If you read the column, you’ll learn not only about Tubman and Jackson, but also about writing.)

Tubman was an escaped slave who returned to the South to lead 70 other slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, she led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River that freed more than 750 slaves. Robinson says she was probably “the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed assault.”

Now let’s turn to Andrew Jackson. Before he became President, he was a military hero who won the pivotal Battle of New Orleans. But he was also the driving force behind the “Trail of Tears” that robbed thousands of Native Americans of their tribal lands and – in many cases – their lives.

Robinson calls that undertaking “genocidal.” But a number of commentators feel that Jackson’s military success and Presidential accomplishments more than offset the harm wrought by the Trail of Tears – former Presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, for example. (I was appalled by his column, but I’m providing the link so that you can read it yourself.)

This blog is about writing, not history, so I’m going to change my focus here and explain why I’ve been thinking about the Tubman vs. Jackson debate in the context of writing. What interests me is the link to a thorny issue – modes of development.

If you take a college composition course, at some point you’ll study modes of development: Narrative, Comparison/Contrast, Definition, Process, Classification, and Cause/Effect. The model paragraphs and essays in your textbook will probably be lists of boring information: The steps in changing the oil in your car. The differences between sports cars and sedans.

Most textbooks don’t provide the slightest clue about why you’re studying these modes and how they apply to real-world writing. The fact is that very few workplace tasks call for a specific mode. Yes, you might be asked to write a narrative about a business trip, or a comparison/contrast report about new models of copy machines. But most people I’ve talked to say they rarely use modes of development the way they’re taught in schools and colleges.

So the modes are a waste of time, right? Wrong! Modes of development are highly useful if you combine them. If you’re defending – say – the decision to feature Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill, you could include a narrative paragraph (the story of her life), a comparison paragraph (stacking Tubman against other historical figures), and a contrast paragraph (demonstrating why her accomplishments matter more than Jackson’s).

Many workplace writing projects can benefit from a similar integration of various modes. Sadly, though, few textbooks encourage students to take that step.

It takes time to develop skill with these modes, but the investment in time and energy will pay huge dividends. Start learning about them, and start looking for them in your everyday reading. You’ll be surprised how useful they are – and your own writing will benefit.

$20 bill




Writing an Effects Essay

After watching The Help (a great movie!) this weekend, I started thinking that it might be useful for explaining how to put together an effects essay.

Effects are results, so my essay will focus on what happened to me as I watched the movie.

My first step is to do some freewriting to explore my reactions. (I did that before I started writing this post.) Reading over my freewriting, I realized that rage was my strongest reaction. So now I have a thesis: The Help enraged me. That will go in my first paragraph, after I’ve written an attention-getter (probably a little story from the movie) and some background (the basic story line).

Now I have to write three body paragraphs about rage. This is where it gets tough. I will have to omit many interesting and moving parts of the film because they don’t fit with my thesis (the humor, for example, the love story, and the deep friendships between the Black domestic workers).

Sticking to the thesis is hard for most writers (including me). I’d rather wander all over the events in the movie – but that’s a discovery draft, not a finished essay that can be submitted to a teacher or professor.

OK. I’ve done more freewriting and realized I felt three kinds of rage. Now I’m ready to write my essay. Each body paragraph will deal with a different kind of rage I felt:

1)  Black citizens in the Deep South were denied basic protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (such as freedom of speech and assembly).

2)  No legislation covered the working conditions for Black domestic workers (no paid vacation, minimum wage).

3)  White employers demeaned their Black domestic workers (it was ok for Black women to rear white children but not to use the family bathroom).

Each paragraph must stick closely to the type of rage I’m exploring (basic protections, working conditions, demeaning attitude). Every sentence I write has to be connected to rage.

My conclusion will wrap up the essay. I have to be careful there not to wander off into a new topic.

Writing a good essay about effects takes time and effort. (So does any kind of good writing!) Having a plan eliminates a lot of wasted time and ensures a better result.

logo for The Help film


Writing a Definition

If you’re working on modes of development in a writing class, you may be assigned a definition paper. Writing a definition can be challenging! Here are some tips to get you started.

First let’s define “definition essay.”

A definition essay is a general description of a broad category of things or people.

That phrase “broad category” is essential. Don’t write about one specific thing. For example, you could define “godparents,” but you couldn’t write an entire essay about your own godparent.

If your instructor assigns a definition essay, you will need to write more than a simple dictionary definition of a word or term. You have to provide details and examples to bring your paper to life.

Many writers enjoy writing definition papers because they allow you to showcase your personality and experience. You can be humorous or serious, an advocate or an opponent. To get you started, here are some possibilities:

good/bad date


good/bad instructor

good/bad roommate


New Yorker


perfect [anything]




By now you’ve probably noticed that taking an attitude towards your topic is a big help when you’re writing a definition paper. Defining something neutral (like an egg) or abstract (like love) is much harder than defining something you can pin down, like a “true friend.”

Here are elements you might include in your essay:

  • a dictionary definition if the term might be unfamiliar to readers
  • details
  • negations (what makes your item different–for example, a motel won’t offer room service and other benefits you expect from a hotel)
  • causes (such as experiences that might make a person adopt a particular political viewpoint)
  • results (pointing out that a bad boss eventually causes firings and resignations)

As I mentioned earlier, definition writing can give you a chance to show off your sense of humor. Here are some examples that could be expanded into essays:

A bride is a radiant young woman who’s oblivious to her parents’ panic about the cost of her wedding.

A cat is a small, furry mammal with a long tail, a sharp brain, and a total inability to learn any tricks.

First love is a temporary form of insanity.

Many famous people have written clever definitions. You can find examples at using definition as a Google search term. Here are a few examples:

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.  (Oscar Wilde)

A cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  (Oscar Wilde)

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies. (Groucho Marx)

Writing a good definition can be both challenging and fun. If you’re stuck for an idea, think about the people around you and the roles they perform. You’ll soon be on your way.


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


What to Write about: Modes of Development

“What am I going to write about?” That’s the usual response when students have to write a modes of development paragraph. Not knowing how to choose a suitable topic, students often fall back on repetitive (and weak) subjects: For a comparison/contrast paper, sports cars vs. SUVs. For a process paper, a recipe. And so on.

So I’m going to offer some suggestions. You’ll notice that all these recommendations have something in common: a meaning. There’s a reason for making the comparison, outlining the process, and so on. (For an introduction to modes of development, click here.) A good modes paper doesn’t just list facts: It always gives readers useful information.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Comparison (notice that all these topics show that two things that seem very different are actually very similar)

  • public schools offer the same educational experiences as private schools, at a much lower price
  • a low-cost US vacation offers the same enjoyment as a pricey European trip
  • volunteer work can be as impressive on a resume as a full-time job
  • rescue animals are as much fun to own as purebreds
  • the fitness facility on campus is just as good as a gym you pay for

Contrast (notice that all these topics show that one thing is better or worse than another)

  • a Mac is better than a PC
  • term insurance is better than whole-life insurance
  • reading on a Kindle is better than reading a conventional book
  • taking a year off after high school is better than going to college right away

Cause (notice that you’re focusing on factors that that came before a problem or event)

  • why students drop out of high school
  • what inspired you to enroll in college
  • reasons you broke off a relationship
  • what your committee did to ensure that your prom was successful

Effect (notice that you’re focusing on factors that that came after a problem or event)

  • problems students face when they don’t complete high school
  • how your life got better after you break off a relationship
  • how a part-time job helped you mature
  • results of a new law in your state

Process (notice that all these topics show how to do a step-by-step process in a better way OR take a stand about a process, showing that it’s easy, beneficial, or harmful)

  • how to bake a better cake
  • a better way to organize your tax documents
  • a soothing way to get your child ready for bed
  • how to disagree without damaging a relationship
  • what happens to a fetus when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol
  • donating blood is easy
  • a task you know how to do better than other people
  • an environmentally friendly way to clean your apartment
  • a process that more people should do
  • a process that’s a waste of time

Classification (notice that all these topics offer readers multiple options for dealing with a particular situation)

  • three types of diapers
  • three ways to discipline a misbehaving child
  • three ways to study for a test
  • three ways to amuse a cat
  • three ways to get experience to put on a job application
  • three types of birth control
  • three ways to stop procrastinating

Definition (notice that these define the best or worst person or thing in a particular category)

  • the best (or worst) date
  • the best (or worst) parent
  • the best (or worst) boss
  • the best (or worst) party
  • the best (or worst) place for students to live

Narrative (notice that every story happened ONCE and makes a point)

  • a disagreement that you resolved in a positive way
  • an experience that taught you something
  • a time when you realized how much you appreciate your family
  • an experience that caused you to end a relationship
  • a time when you solved a problem in a creative way

There you have it! I hope these suggestions will help you find a topic that’s meaningful and meaty enough to earn you a good grade.


Modes of Development: Classification

Classification (sorting items into categories) is an exceptionally useful way to develop an idea. Classification is a great tool for challenging the oversimplifications of either/or thinking – the habit of reducing a problem to two choices. You can use classification to show that there’s a third (and sometimes a fourth, a fifth, and so on) possibility.

My favorite example of classification is educator John Holt’s essay “Three Types of Discipline.” It’s a perfect example of how classification can challenge reductive either-or thinking.

What Holt does is to challenge the widespread assumption that there are only two ways to discipline children: Force or permissiveness. Holt’s essay instead discusses three methods: “the Discipline of Nature,” “the Discipline of Society,” and “the Discipline of Superior Force.” It’s a non-preachy and very effective answer to the old argument that you can either hit misbehaving children or sit back and do nothing.

Everyday life is full of experiences that teach us to look beyond obvious either/or thinking to a third possibility. How many of us, for example, had friends in high school who decided to get married right after graduation because they hated living with their parents? It never occurred to our unhappy friends that there might be other escape routes – finding a roommate, joining the military, or becoming a live-in nanny or au pair.

Spend a few minutes thinking about classification, and you’ll probably come up with many examples of simplistic thinking that can be critiqued through classification. This ability to break through our narrow thinking patterns is one of the great gifts of language. Maybe we should also make a resolution to appreciate that gift more often.

(For an introduction to modes of development, click here. For suggested topics, click here. To read about narratives, click here. You can also click links for other modes:  cause/effect and process.)

Student Thinking 2


More about Narrative

I just came across a story that helps explain a point I was making two days ago – using a narrative, rather than a lecture, to make a point.

This example comes from a collection of stories by Kathryn Forbes called Mama’s Bank Account. If you’re old enough, you may have seen the movie based on the book (I Remember Mama, with Irene Dunne) or watched the TV show (with Peggy Wood) back in the 50s.

One of the stories is about teenaged Katrin, who gets a part-time job in a drugstore while Mr. Schiller, the owner, goes home for lunch. Katrin’s friend Carmelita often drops by. They’re constantly tempted by a counter display for a wonderful chocolate candy. At first they eat the candy only when they have money to pay for it, but as time goes by they start taking some for themselves.

When Mr. Schiller finds out, he fires Katrin, and his wife calls her a thief. Mama, though, reassures Katrin that there’s a difference between doing something wrong (fixable) and permanently identifying yourself as a thief (a big mistake). To show Katrin that mistakes can be overcome, Mama tells Katrin a story about herself:

Before her marriage, Mama lived with her Aunt Lena, a woman who baked superb cakes. One time, after Aunt Lena had made one of her famous cakes, Mama sneaked into the kitchen and ate all the frosting. Aunt Lena went ahead and served the bald cake to her guests, who included the man Mama was dating, and she explained why there was no frosting. “What happened when he found out what you’d done?” asked Katrin. “He married me anyway,” said Mama.

It’s a great story about getting unstuck after you’ve made a mistake – and it’s also a great example of using a narrative to make a point.Forbes


Modes of Development: Cause and Effect

This week we’re focusing on modes of development (also called patterns of development). Both student writers and professionals often use these modes to organize ideas and emphasize a point.

Today we’re going to consider two of these: cause and effect. It’s appropriate to think about them together, since they’re two ends of the same writing seesaw. Causes make effects happen; effects are the result of causes.

For example: A woman moves into a new town and feels lonely, so she adopts a dog from an animal shelter. As she walks the dog every day, people come over to admire him, and she makes new friends.

Causes (reasons for adopting the dog): moving to a new town, loneliness.

Effects (results of adopting the dog):  new friends.

Personal issues also have causes and effects. Think about the break-up of a romance: What caused it (jealousy, incompatibility, infidelity)? What are the effects (a broken heart, grief, or relief and freedom)?

Here are some pointers for writing about cause and effect:

  • Focus on either causes or effects, not both. Mixing them together creates confusion.
  • Follow your instructor’s directions carefully. If you’re confused, email your instructor and ask for clarification.
  • To write an exceptional cause or effect paper, dig deep into a subject and find an unexpected cause or a surprising effect. For example, consider unusual ways that recent technology advances have changed our lives (effects) – or think about reasons why few people are reading newspapers (causes).

Politicians and community leaders often focus on causes and effects when they’re advocating change. Look around your community and your region: What issues interest you, and what are the causes and effects? Often you can find effective topics that way.

Both cause and effect are tremendously useful ways to organize and present ideas. Adopt the habit of thinking about both!

(To read about narratives, click two links – Part I and Part II. For suggested topics using modes of development, click here. You can also click links for other modes: process, and classification.)


Modes of Development: Narrative

A narrative is simply a story. In writing classes, it’s usually a true story (unless you’re enrolled in a creative writing course).

Narratives are solid gold. The more stories you can tell, the better your writing will be.

The love for stories is universal, and stories have the additional advantage that they’re one of the best ways to make a point. The next time you need to talk to a child about a misdeed, skip the lecture and tell an appropriate story instead. You’ll make your point much more effectively, and the lesson will stick.

Narratives are tremendously useful to writers. For example, you can kick off an essay or research paper with a quick story about your subject. Another effective strategy is to tell an illustrative story in every paragraph.

What about narrative assignments? Beware! (Remember, I’ve spent 30+ years as a writing teacher.) Here’s what often happens: Students have a great story that they’re just bursting to tell, but it doesn’t make a point.

When you’re assigned to write a narrative paper, think of the point you want to make and choose a story to match. (Most students do exactly the opposite: They think of a terrific story first and try to make it fit the assignment. Usually that doesn’t work.)

Here’s an incident that’s fresh in my mind because it happened last semester. I asked students to choose a person they knew, identify a quality that person had, and tell a story to illustrate that quality.

To help them understand, I told them my own story about a time when I was dating my husband. He left me alone for a moment to help an inebriated man cross the street safely, and I was touched by his compassion.

At the next class, in came the papers. One was about a camping trip a student had taken with her family. The person she chose to write about was her father, but he came across very fuzzily. I couldn’t identify the special quality she had chosen, so I asked her to rewrite it.

Back it came with more details. The sunsets! The campfires! The lake! But Dad continued to be a fuzzy figure.

I suggested a conference to talk about the paper. As we talked, I realized what was wrong. She barely knew her father, who had abandoned the family when she was a small child. The camping trip was almost her sole memory of him. It would make a great memoir for her children and grandchildren to read someday, but it didn’t fit the assignment.

Bottom line: If you’re assigned to write a narrative, pay close attention to the directions you’re given, and choose a story that fits what your teacher is looking for. Don’t just pull out a great story that you’re eager to tell.

Did you notice that I told a story to make my point? In fact I include narratives (little stories) in many of my posts. Start developing the habit of thinking about stories. It’s a great way to enhance your writing.

(For an introduction to modes of development, click here. To read more about narratives, click here. For suggested topics, click here. You can also click links for other modes: classification, cause/effect, and process.)