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Formal writing

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Formal writing assignments invite students to consolidate their understandings, to demonstrate their progress toward course goals, and to learn the writing conventions of particular disciplines, communities, and professions. Whether improving an existing assignment or designing a new one, consider the following questions:

  • Genre: What kind of writing or genre is most appropriate for the class, discipline, program, profession, etc.? What previous experience or prior knowledge do students have with the genre?

  • Purpose: From the student point of view, what are the ultimate goals or purposes of this assignment? (that is, in addition to earning course credit)

  • Process: What steps or process will students need to work through in order to be successful? What kinds of informal writing, research, planning, drafting, feedback, revision, editing, etc. tasks are essential?

  • Audience & Context: What audiences, communities, roles and organizational contexts must students keep in mind?

  • Product: What does success look like with this kind of writing? What should the final product look like? What evaluation criteria help differentiate good from bad work?

Examples of formal writing assignments

Scholarly writing assignments

This includes all the types of writing a working scholar might do. The purpose of such writing is to communicate about the ideas, theories, inquiry methods, and research findings of the discipline. Majoring in a discipline involves entering into and becoming a member of a discourse community-learning to think and communicate like other members of the discipline. Thus, an important aspect of teaching students to write is developing their ability to participate in the discourse community: to use the well-established conventions, rules, and practices that govern scholarly communication. The obvious and most common example of scholarly writing is the article in a scholarly journal. Other types of scholarly writing include grant proposals, laboratory reports, field study reports, critical reviews (of a book, an article, software, a visual object, etc.), review essays, opinion pieces to a professional journal, scholarly response articles, and scholarly essays.

Professional workplace writing assignments

This includes all the writing a working professional must engage in. Some graduates will engage directly in the scholarly discourse of their discipline after graduation; many will become professionals whose primary work is not scholarly. Academic majors, after all, are also pathways to future employment, and a university education can help prepare students for the kinds of writing common in the workplace and professional life. Of course, it is not possible to prepare students for every type of writing they will encounter, but students should have some experience with and expertise in common forms of writing used in the professional workplace. Perhaps most importantly, students should develop a facility to analyze a communicative situation and determine what kind of writing is most appropriate for specific audiences and contexts. Some examples of workplace writing include program proposals, business letters, interoffice memos, reports to co-workers, feasibility studies, program assessments and evaluations, and many different types of writing for lay audiences, such as brochures, pamphlets, guides, instruction sheets, etc.

Academic writing assignments

Perhaps the most common type of formal writing in school is purely academic. Its major purpose is for students to demonstrate their knowledge about a specific subject. It is prompted by instructor questions to describe, explain, discuss, analyze, evaluate (and so forth) and is written for the teacher as the sole audience for the work. Many types of reports and papers fall into this category: essay exams, short answers on exams, research projects, book reports, papers that analyze or critique a specific topic, issue or problem, etc.

Tips to implement formal writing effectively
  • Establish a context for the student's writing assignment:
    • Why is the student writing the text?
    • Who is going to read the text?
    • Why is the reader reading the text?
  • Make formal writing assignments as authentic as possible to improve student motivation and increase the chances for the transfer of learning.
  • Explain your evaluation criteria. Develop rubrics to clarify expectations and help students internalize evaluation criteria.
  • Provide instructor feedback in a timely manner.
  • Create opportunities for peer review. feedback or editing.
  • Break down the assignment into intellectual tasks that the students must perform according to an established timetable.
  • Monitor students' progress with informal writing.
  • Show students models or examples of work similar to what they are producing.
  • Define the conventions you want the students to use (e.g., documentation forms, textual format, levels of diction, organizational patterns).
  • Distinguish and separate feedback from evaluation.

Kopp, B. (2015). Formal writing. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from