Writing@CSU Guide

Developing Your Ideas

Updated Jun 2022

Details bring our ideas to life. A conversation without details is like a blank canvas, plain and lacking color until the painter arrives. When we talk with others, the details we provide help our listeners better understand our ideas. Providing details and support for our ideas is called development. Writers who develop their ideas usually do a better job of keeping their readers' attention and gaining their readers' trust.

To develop your ideas, you'll need to know what types of development you should use with your particular audience and focus. With this information, you can then present convincing details to your readers.

A Definition of Development

Development is how writers choose to elaborate their main ideas. Typically, we associate development with details because specifics help make generalizations (the main idea, claim or thesis) more concrete.

Reasons for Developing Your Writing

Kate Kiefer, English Department
Students need to be concerned with development for two main reasons:

  1. Details tend to be more persuasive and engaging than generalities. Most readers tend to get tired of reading texts that require them to fill in the gaps. (Obviously, those texts leave more room for readers to fill in what they want to and not necessarily what the writer intended, and so general texts also tend to be less successful in communicating ideas.) Details are more memorable than generalities and keep readers' attention more fully engaged on the text.
  2. Details tend to show what we know. In an academic setting in our culture, grasp of details sets apart the "C" student from the "A" student. Academic survival often depends on being able to prove control of a subject matter, and that control gets communicated through effective use of detail.

Types of Development

Steve Reid, English Department
We think about development as being a variety of different things. It can be a specific example from the writer's experience. It could be statistics that the writers have. It could be quotations from authorities that the writers have found. It could be first-hand observations. It could be an interview.

All writing uses various devices to develop ideas. Some are more appropriate than others, depending on the writing task. As a writer, you need to know what counts as development in the discipline you are writing for.

Writing about the same topic for different assignments often requires you to adjust what details you use. For example, one essay on OJ Simpson might require your personal reaction to the verdict, while another essay might require researched statistics. Often, you will combine different types of evidence to develop your writing.

Amplification

Amplifications expand previous ideas. Writers use this form of development to clarify and further explain the points they make. This helps readers gain a complete understanding of the topic being discussed. The previous three sentences are good examples of amplification. Each sentence elaborates the first idea, "Amplifications expand previous ideas."

Appeal to Emotions

An appeal to emotions can make your claim more effective in some situations. It is often used, for example, by anti-abortion groups. They use emotionally charged words to support their position on the issue. This is often quite effective and is used more and more on both sides of the abortion issue.

Appeals to emotions can be used in various arguments. You can use one in an article about computers, in which you suggest that computers are the soulless creations of a godless world. You can use them in an article about kitchen utensils, in which you say the type of pots and pans you recommend would harken back the good old days of homemade soups slowly simmering on the stove, of bacon and eggs prepared with the care and concern of those who cook for the ones they love.

The important thing to consider in an appeal to emotion is the type of emotion you want to arouse in your reader, the effect you want this emotion to have, and the way that you can instill the emotion into your main idea.

Cite Authority

To cite authority means to quote or use information from a respected person in the field in which you are writing. If you are writing an article on the space program, it might be useful to quote Werner Von Braun. If you are writing an article on religion, you could quote one or more theologians. If you are writing on psychology, you might want to look at books or articles written by people who are doing important work in that field.

Cite Common Assumptions

People find it easy to agree with things that "everybody knows." If you can cite commonly held assumptions to back up your claims, your reader will often be more receptive to your claims. To use a common assumption, you need to understand the background of your readers. What are their prejudices? What are their concerns? How do they differ from other groups of people?

This strategy is similar to citing authority. It has limitations, and it runs the risk of backfiring if you later discover the assumption you've cited is not one your readers share. But it can be effective and, if done subtlety, can strengthen your argument considerably.

Definition

Provide your readers with a definition if you need to specify exactly what you intend by your topic. Giving a definition of your topic does not mean looking it up in a dictionary. Different words hold different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For instance, the word "drug" to a pharmacist means prescription medicine while to law enforcement officers visiting school children, the word "drug" refers to illegal narcotics.

Qualification

If you have taken an unusual position on your topic, you might qualify your ideas. This means you will limit the number of interpretations readers may have by stating exactly what your stance includes. For example, just because I support filter ware for the Internet does not mean I support government censorship.

Use Analogy

You can often make a claim based on the similarity of one thing to another. You might argue, for instance, that buying a home computer is like buying a new car: Before you buy it, you want to take it out for a test drive. The purchase is likely to be a major one -- you may want to get a loan. Once you take it home, it will take a little while to get used to it.

Analogies are convincing because they can make something unfamiliar or complex easier to understand. If the reader can see how something is like something they are familiar with, then the claim is likely to be more effective.

Use Analysis

In your paper, you can present an analysis of the data you've assembled to support your claims. The analysis itself becomes an important claim in your paper -- in a sense, you put yourself in the position of being an expert. If your analysis is sound, it is likely to be convincing.

Use Association

Association is an effective strategy. General Mills uses it all the time for Wheaties cereal. By placing a famous athlete on the box, they associate Wheaties with excellence. The message is, if you want to be like the famous athlete on our cereal box, you should eat our cereal.

You can use association in several ways. If you are arguing that one type of aspirin is better than another, you can say that four out of five doctors recommend the type you like. If you are arguing that one type of literary analysis is better than another, you can say that an authority in the field uses your method. You need to understand that association doesn't necessarily mean what you say is true, simply that someone else endorses or uses it.

Association can also be a dangerous strategy. If you are associating your main idea with a controversial figure, you may find that you convince some people, while you turn others off. Picking the people you associate your main idea with is extremely important.

How Audience and Focus Affect Development

All readers have expectations. They assume certain details should be included within certain texts. For instance, readers would be shocked to read NFL statistics in Vogue magazine. Biology students wouldn't expect a paragraph on the artistic value of a pond in an article discussing pond algae.

How you develop your ideas depends on your audience and focus. While it may seem obvious to include certain details, some forms of development work better with particular audiences. Further, your details should work together to support the overall idea of your writing.

Development and Audience

Michael Palmquist, English Department
Most writers want their readers to understand what they write. Unfortunately, many writers present their ideas so poorly that readers sometimes feel as if they had walked in on the middle of a conversation. In a sense, the writer has abandoned readers--leaving them to figure out what the writer intends through hints and inferences.

Your audience is who will read what you write. Different audiences expect certain details from texts. For instance, suppose you are writing about the representation of women in a particular novel. You will need to provide background details about the characters if your audience has not read the work. Or suppose you are writing to an organization to propose a new facility. Your audience might expect financial details, design details, or a mixture of both. Knowing who your audience is will help you determine what details to provide.

Development and Focus

Kate Kiefer, English Department
Development and focus go hand in hand. Writers find it extremely difficult to include lots of specific detail if they haven't focused narrowly, mainly because it's hard to move a reader quickly from a very wide view to a very detailed support. Having established a narrow focus, however, writers need to provide detailed support for that focus, and so these are the skills most college writing assignments stress.

The focus of your writing is the main idea you convey. Focus is what guides how you develop your ideas. For instance, perhaps your focus is proving a scientific concept incorrect through an experiment you conducted. You would then develop your report by describing what you did, your results, and how your experiment disproves the concept. Or perhaps you're writing to disagree with a philosophical concept. You would then develop your essay by presenting the concept and the reasons why you disagree with it. These reasons might be your opinions, criticisms from another philosopher, or perhaps even interviews with instructors.

Strategies for Developing Your Ideas

Donna Lecourt, English Department
What counts as evidence is disciplinary specific. A quote from a novel is evidence, is development. A research study is evidence. Observational research is evidence. So, yes, we always develop our arguments, but the ways in which we develop in various disciplines are going to be radically different.

Developing your ideas requires fine tuning. Whether you are reciting your personal experience or interviewing multiple people, you should always consider how your readers will receive your ideas.

Cause/Effect

Consider this strategy if you need to show your readers why something happened or the consequences of a decision or event. For example, company executives decide to use electronic mail because employees are not communicating job tasks with one another (cause). As a result, employees not only increase work production, but they also use the mail system to advertise social events (effects).

Depending on your focus, you may need to present only the causes or only the effects of your topic.

Compare/Contrast

If you are writing about a complex topic, you might consider using a comparison or a contrast. This will help your readers understand your topic by reminding them of something they already know. For instance, electronic mail is similar to hand delivered mail in that both require an address to deliver a message. However, they are different because one is delivered more quickly than the other, one may seem more personal than the other, etc. This type of strategy is also known as an analogy.

Interviews

Interviews allow you to quote information from a respected person in the field in which you are writing. This makes your ideas more believable since someone else also agrees with what you have to say. This strategy is also known as citing an authority.

Library

Use the library to locate books and articles on your topic. Using outside resources in your writing conveys to readers you have researched your topic. This makes your ideas more believable. This strategy is also known as citing authority.

Visual Representations

Consider using visual representations if you need to depict data to your readers. Charts, graphs, figures, and drawings help readers envision your ideas. For example, with readers who have never used electronic mail, you might draw a picture of what the screen looks like. This type of strategy is also known as analysis. You become an expert on your topic.

Be careful not to bombard your readers with too many visual representations.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web offers many resources about every topic. By surfing the Web, you can find organizations, archives, and many other types of documentation.

Be critical of the sources you locate on the Web. Since anyone, anywhere can create their own Web pages, make sure you quote from reliable sources.

Your Experiences

Using your personal experience shows your readers you have first-hand experience with your topic. For instance, recipients often misread emotions in electronic mail. One time, I sent a sarcastic message to a friend who took me seriously and then refused to talk to me for two months.

Consider the circumstances in which you are writing. Be sure that using personal experience is appropriate for your audience and subject matter. Ask yourself whether your readers will accept personal experiences as evidence.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Reid, Stephen, & Dawn Kowalski. (1997). Developing Your Ideas. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guides.cfm?guideid=27