Tag Archives: modes of development

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.


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: 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.)