Abstract The basic equations describing the non-linear ion-acoustic waves in a cold collisionless plasma, in the longwave limit, is re-examined through the use of a modified multiple-scale expansion method. Expanding the field quantities into a power series of the smallness parameter ε, a set of evolution equations is obtained for various terms in the perturbation expansion. To illustrate the present derivation, a localized travelling wave solution is studied for the derived field equations and the result is compared with those of Malfliet and Wieers (J. Plasma Phys. 56 (1996) 441–450), who employed the dressed solitary wave approach from the outset of their study.