Formal Writing Assignments


Writing to communicate, which we call "formal writing," is an essential academic and professional skill. But how do students' undergraduate experiences advance them towards writing competence at the professional level? Since scholarly and professional writing are so thoroughly grounded in the discourse conventions of the disciplines, we should look to the academic disciplines to play a key role in developing writing competence, making learning to write well an integral part of the student's education.

Of course, writing competence, which develops over a long period of time, neither begins nor ends at the university. But the university experience--which should be a significant period of intellectual development--can and should be a significant opportunity for developing strong writing skills. Our aim is to help faculty establish programs that support the long-term development of students' writing competence. We believe that students learn to write well when they:

  1. understand the kinds of writing expected of them,
  2. internalize the criteria that define good writing,
  3. experience guided practice in which their writing is shaped through a process of revision and editing, thus internalizing an efficient and effective composing process,
  4. learn to compose with a strong awareness of disciplinary conventions and the needs, knowledge, and attitudes of their audiences, and
  5. become progressively better at self assessment.

At a Glance

Purposes of Formal Writing Assignments

  • to give students opportunities to give form to and demonstrate the knowledge and the intellectual skills they have acquired
  • to acquaint students with the discourse conventions of a particular discipline or intellectual community
  • to allow students guided opportunities to practice those conventions

Types of Formal Writing Assignments

  • scholarly papers: research reports, review articles, critical essays
  • professional writing: reports; proposals; memos; essays, articles, and instructions for a lay audience; letters to the editor; editorials; brochures; critiques & reviews
  • academic papers: term papers, seminar papers, essay exams

Techniques for Helping Students to Succeed

  • establish context for the student's text:
    • why is the student writing the text?
    • who is going to read the text?
    • why is the reader reading the text?
  • reveal and explain your evaluation criteria
  • break down the assignment into intellectual tasks that the students must perform according to an established timetable
  • monitor the students' progress
  • show them models or examples
  • define the conventions you want the students to use (e.g., documentation forms, textual
    format, levels of diction, organizational patterns)
  • create opportunities for students to receive feedback on proposals and drafts (feedback
    from peer groups? from you? from the Writing Center? from departmental tutors?
  • distinguish and separate feedback from evaluation

We do not have a preconceived, one-size-fits-all definition of "writing competence." Rather, individual faculty define competence as it applies to their disciplines and to their undergraduate students. To facilitate this analysis, we distinguish among three broad categories of formal writing:

  • Academic writing. 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.
  • Scholarly writing. 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. 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.

Note: This page is currently under revision.


Bryan Kopp
Writing Programs Coordinator and
Assistant Professor of English

426G Carl Wimberly Hall