Learning Center


Overcome “listy” writing with idea development

november 15, 2022

Long writing does not necessarily equate to strong writing. As we encourage students to write more, add details, and make their pieces longer, we must distinguish between writing that is long and “listy” versus that which is long and developed.

Understand the difference

When starting a new piece, it’s common to generate a pre-write that lists the important points. That pre-write is then used to generate a first draft. This is when most students will fall into the trap of taking each item on the list and plopping it into the piece as a stand-alone sentence.

This is the listy writing we want to avoid — when the author stretches each big idea into a vague sentence and then stacks them one after another. And no matter how many important points are mentioned, this type of writing produces a weak product.

"Listy" Writing Example

Define the development

Combat this common writing problem by first teaching students the meaning of “development.” Telling students to simply “add more details” is easily misconstrued as “tack on more loosely related sentences.” Help students understand that the term development means that the additional sentences will say more about what was mentioned—that these sentences will be inserted among the sentences already written.

This is true for the youngest writers, too. This kindergartner’s writing skills aren’t going to improve by simply adding more things that he likes about school. He is ready for his teacher to teach him how to develop each idea.

Illustrate the difference

One way to visually depict the difference between listy writing and developed writing is by using color. Assign a color to each pre-write idea as its corresponding sentence(s) in the draft. They understand that every idea written or drawn is a great topic sentence—for a paragraph that was never written!

Now, show them what developed writing on the same topic looks like. Emphasize that developed writing is longer, but more importantly, it’s also stronger. Each original idea was developed by adding more details– more related sentences.

"Listy" Color-Coded First Draft Writing Example
"Developed" Color-Coded Revised Draft Writing Example

This concept of idea development is relevant at every developmental writing stage. Do not wait until students are writing complete sentences to target this writer skill. When students are learning pictorial writing, label writing, and list writing, they can be narrowing their topic and adding small specific details.

Pictorial Writing - "Listy" to Developed Example
Label writing - "Listy" to Developed Example
List Writing - "Listy" to Developed Example
Sentence Writing Example

Teach specific ways to develop ideas

Once students understand what a developed idea is, now your direct instruction focuses on teaching them how to develop an idea. Depending on the grade level and/or writing unit—roll out different types of details to include in supporting sentences (or labeled pictures).

Be sure that your lessons include examples where you model stretching one important point into a single sentence, and then developing it with many supporting details.

Although many teachers presume these types of details are applied during revision, consider the potential if they were part of the pre-writing process. The goal would be for students to not only list the important points about a topic but also add smaller known details next to each one. Armed with this more thorough pre-write, now students compose stronger, longer, and better-developed first drafts.

5 2 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Super Saturday Writing Conference 2024
Develop paragraphs one sentence at a time


Develop paragraphs–one sentence at a time

Target picture writing to improve sentence writing


Target picture writing to improve sentence writing

Access free download for 20 ways to develop an idea


Access free download for 20 ways to develop an idea