illustration of boy writing

The five features of effective writing

By Kathleen Cali and Kim Bowen

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Support and elaboration consists of the specific details and information writers use to develop their topic. The key to developing support and elaboration is getting specific. Good writers use concrete, specific details, and relevant information to construct mental images for their readers. Without this attention to detail, readers struggle to picture what the writer is talking about, and will often give up altogether.

Two important concepts in support and elaboration are sufficiency and relatedness.

Sufficiency refers the amount of detail — is there enough detail to support the topic? Any parent who has asked his or her child what happened at school knows how hard it is to get a child to elaborate on a subject. Teachers have a similar problem getting their students to elaborate when they write. Good writers supply their readers with sufficient details to comprehend what they have written. In narrative writing, this means providing enough descriptive details for the reader to construct a picture of the story in their mind. In expository writing, this means not only finding enough information to support your purpose, whether it is to inform or persuade your audience, but also finding information that is credible and accurate.

Sufficiency, however, is not enough. The power of your information is determined less by the quantity of details than by their quality.

Relatedness refers to the quality of the details and their relevance to the topic. Good writers select only the details that will support their focus, deleting irrelevant information. In narrative writing, details should be included only if they are concrete, specific details that contribute to, rather than detract from, the picture provided by the narrative. In expository writing, information should be included only if it is relevant to the writer’s goal and strengthens rather than weakens the writer’s ability to meet that goal.

Teaching support and elaboration

The first step in developing a story or essay is learning to add sufficient information. In many classrooms, the recipe for improving support and elaboration is to “sprinkle” a piece of writing with more details. But randomly adding details without relating them to the overall purpose of the writing rarely improves quality.

Why do students have so much trouble developing and elaborating on their topics? Many of the problems students have with elaboration stem from their inability to take the perspective of their readers. In oral language, children have conversational partners who can ask for more information as it is needed. When students make the transition from oral to written language, they need to learn to provide those conversational prompts for more information on their own. This means they need to learn to think like a reader, to read their own writing from the reader’s perspective, filling in the gaps for an audience that is not physically present.

Conferencing is at the heart of helping students develop support and elaboration in their writing. Students can learn to revise by asking questions about their writing and the writing of others during conferences with the teacher and with peers. Teachers can first model how to ask questions to add more information, from general requests to “tell me more” to more specific “who, what, where, when, why, and how” questions. Once students have learned to ask questions and add information, they can learn to delete irrelevant details that weaken the writing and to make details more specific and concrete.

Show, don’t tell: support and elaboration in narrative writing

The best advice for developing support and elaboration in narrative writing is “Show, don’t tell.” Good writers help their readers imagine the story by describing the action, providing sensory descriptions, and explaining characters’ thoughts and feelings. Poets are especially adept at using precise details to focus on specific, concrete, observable things or experiences.

Some ways that writers “show, don’t tell” include the following:

  • Description of action. Students often have difficulty elaborating on action in their narratives. Many beginning writers rush through the action in a story, condensing it into a few short sentences. Just as slow-motion replay helps television viewers understand the action in a sporting event, good writers can slow down a moment, breaking down an event into a moment-by-moment replay of the action. Students can learn to use slow motion replays to slow down a moment and to use action chains to elaborate on the actions in a sentence.
  • Description of physical states. Good writers use sensory details to provide their readers with concrete images that help them construct a picture of what is happening in the story. Good writers use sensory details to show readers what things in their story look like, sound like, smell like, taste like, and feel like. Similes and metaphors can also help readers construct a picture by comparing the object being described to something they know. Students can learn to construct images with words by identifying the imagery in poetry and using guided imagery to construct their own word pictures.
  • Descriptions of internal states. Although most students would rather watch the movie than read the book, books have an advantage over movies because they let the reader inside the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Beginning writers, though, often neglect to include either their own or their character’s thoughts and feelings when they write. “Thoughtshots” (Lane, 1999) and journals help students get inside the minds of their characters and reveal their inner thoughts and feelings. Thoughtshots and journals can also be used to help students learn to take different perspectives by getting inside the minds of people from different times, places, cultures, and backgrounds. Good writers also use dialogue to reveal a character’s personality, internal thoughts, and feelings and to provide background information about the story.

Finding the right information: support and elaboration in expository writing

Information is the key to developing support and elaboration in the expository genres — informational, critical, and argumentative writing. While writers of narratives can often rely solely on their own observations and inner resources to develop their writing, writers of expository genres have to look outside themselves for the information they need to develop their writing. As a result, in expository writing, the ability to find relevant information is just as important as the ability to effectively use that information to develop a topic. Knowing how to use facts, statistics, examples, and anecdotes to develop a topic is not enough; students also need to learn the research, evaluation, and notetaking skills that will help them find that information.

Finding sufficient information. In the Information Age, students have no trouble finding lots and lots of information on any subject they can type into an Internet search engine. Many students never bother to consider the source of their information, though, giving equal weight to information they find in the equivalents of the New York Times and the National Enquirer. The real challenge, then, is not finding sufficient information, but teaching students to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As a result, teaching students research and evaluation skills is critical to the development of support and elaboration in expository writing. Students need to be taught how to (a) locate multiple sources of information in books, on the internet, and from people in their communities, (b) critically evaluate the credibility, accuracy, and relevance of that information, (c) separate fact from opinion, and (d) cite their sources so their readers can make their own judgments about the credibility of their information. In addition, teaching notetaking and summarization skills cuts down on plagiarism by helping students learn to translate ideas into their own words.

Finding relevant information. Knowing who the audience of a piece of writing will be is critical to developing relevant support. When children target their writing to a specific audience, they quickly learn to select only the information that is relevant to that audience. Information that is convincing or useful for one audience may have no effect on a different audience.

Students can learn rhetorical techniques to tailor their support to their audience, asking whether their audience would respond better to using facts, statistics, or personal anecdotes to support their argument. Students can also learn strategies for selecting the information that is strongest and most relevant to their audience, to delete weak, irrelevant information, and to arrange their information from strongest to weakest. Summarizing the same information for different audiences also helps students learn to identify the facts that are relevant to a specific audience.

Guiding questions for support and elaboration

For narrative writing:

  • Is your story developed with specific details that are related to the main event?
  • Do all of the details move the story along?
  • Does your story have enough elaboration so that your reader can see and feel what is happening? Can you show me an example where your reader can see or feel what is happening?

For informational writing:

  • Is your essay developed with specific information (facts, statistics, etc.) that is related to the main topic?
  • Does all of the information support the main topic?
  • Does your essay have enough information to fulfill your reader’s needs?

For argumentative writing:

  • Is your essay developed with specific details that are related to the main topic?
  • Does all of the information support the main argument?
  • Does your essay have enough supporting evidence to persuade your reader?


Narrative writing

Atwell, Nancie (2002). Lessons that Change Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lane, Barry (1993). After the End. Shoreham, VT: Discover Writing Press.

Lane, Barry (1999). The Reviser’s Toolbox. Shoreham, VT: Discover Writing Press.

Informational Writing

Harvey, Stephanie (1998). Non-Fiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Stead, Tony (2002). Is That a Fact? Teaching Non-Fiction Writing K-3. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Capital Community College Guide To Grammar and Writing. This guide to grammar and writing includes sections on developing an argument and rhetorical devices.