Development in Composition: Building an Essay

Learning to support your main ideas with pertinent details

Bulbs growing flowers at different stages of development

 Lisbeth Hjort/Getty Images

In composition, development (also known as elaboration) is the process of adding informative and illustrative details to support the main idea in a paragraph or essay. Paragraphs and essays can be developed in many different ways. In conventional composition courses, the following patterns of exposition are often presented as the standard methods of development in expository writing:

Observations on Development

"[The] methods of development aren't empty jugs to pour full of any old, dull words. Neither are they straitjackets woven by fiendish English teachers to pin your writing arm to your side and keep you from expressing yourself naturally. The methods are tools for achieving your purpose in writing, whatever that purpose may be. They can help you discover what you know, what you need to know, how to think critically about your subject, and how to shape your writing."—From "The Bedford Reader" by X.J. and Dorothy M. Kennedy

The Importance of Providing Supporting Details

"Possibly the most serious—and most common—weakness of all essays by novice writers is the lack of effectively developed body paragraphs. The information in each paragraph must adequately explain, exemplify, define, or in some other way support your topic sentence. Therefore, you must include enough supporting information or evidence in each paragraph to make your readers understand your topic sentence. Moreover, you must make the information in the paragraph clear and specific enough for the readers to accept your ideas."—From "Steps to Writing Well" by Jean Wyrick


"What the opening of an essay promises, the body of the essay must deliver. This is known as 'developing your ideas,' but I like to use a body-building metaphor because it implies adding not just bulk to a framework, but musculature. In other words, good essay development strengthens, not merely fills out. . . .
"What is the best way to reinforce the main idea of your essay? You can do some by making good use of any combination of the following six methods of development:
"By using these bodybuilding elements, you are telling your readers, 'I don't expect you to take my word for these claims; I want you to see for yourself!"—From "LifeWriting: Drawing from Personal Experience to Create Features You Can Publish" by Fred D. White

Multiple Patterns of Development

"Although most short papers may employ one primary pattern with other patterns woven throughout, longer papers may have two or more primary patterns of development. For example, if you are writing a paper on the causes and effects of child abuse in the foster care system, you might, after the causal analysis, shift the primary focus of the essay to prevention, thus continuing the essay with a process analysis of what the state might do to prevent child abuse. Then you might end the essay by addressing the objections from those defending the system, shifting the focus of the essay to argumentation.
"Your decision to include other primary patterns depends on your purpose and audience. Your thesis makes your purpose clear to your reader. Then as you develop your essay, you may integrate other patterns into your paragraphs."—From "Bridges to Better Writing" by Luis Nazario, Deborah Borchers, and William Lewis

Further Resources


  • Kennedy, X.J.; Kennedy, Dorothy M. "The Bedford Reader," Seventh Edition. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000
  • White, Fred D. "LifeWriting: Drawing from Personal Experience to Create Features You Can Publish." Quill Driver Books, 2004
  • Nazario, Luis; Borchers, Deborah; Lewis, William; "Bridges to Better Writing. Wadsworth." 2010
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Nordquist, Richard. "Development in Composition: Building an Essay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Development in Composition: Building an Essay. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Development in Composition: Building an Essay." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).