Seven Types of Paragraph Development. Annotated examples of narration, exposition, definition, classification, description, process analysis, and persuasion.
When people use language, they don’t reinvent it every time they want to say something. They use certain recurring forms of communication. These forms work because both the speaker and the listener understand how to use them as a way of thinking. So do the writer and the reader.
Some of the “modes of discourse” (to use the formal name) such as narration, have been expertly used by humans since the first storytellers, and persuasion has existed since the first argument.
Most of the modes, however, gained so much power with the invention of writing and printing that it was as if they were reinvented then. When people read and go to school, among the most useful tools they learn are these modes of discourse, which become so internalized that they function without notice.
The modes are deeply embedded in how we think. They are essential parts of the mental technology of civilization, made possible by the alphabet that led to written language, amplified by literacy, and promulgated by education.
The modes are ways of thinking that literacy has made into almost universal, shared, powerful ways to communicate meaning through words. If you use the modes consciously when you write, you will write more effectively.
This approach applies to a certain kind of writing, what is sometimes called “expository fully-elaborated nonfiction prose” — as in nonfiction books, magazine articles, college papers, and official reports. These are “fully-elaborated” in the sense that the writer has thought them through, spelled out the implications, and there are no huge gaps in reasoning or content.
The modes of discourse work not because they help you write better, but because they help readers understand what you write. To readers, these are modes of thought, and they work unnoticed to interpret what was written.
Of course you want to be creative and original. You want to write things that stand out, leap from the page — words that get up and dance.
But extraordinary moments happen only when there is a functional, effective, comfortable background of ordinary moments. Mastering these modes of writing will help you create that background. These ordinary modes may, indeed, be enough by themselves, because most articles don’t need to sing and dance — they just need to help readers learn in 10 minutes something that took you 10 hours (or 10 weeks!) to learn, think through, and write down.
In succession, the following paragraphs illustrate the modes of narration, exposition, definition, classification, description, process analysis, and persuasion. Each is followed by a brief commentary.
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