College-Level Academic Writing Expectations

Acquiring Academic Literacy

Language and literacy development is a process that takes time and practice, involves adapting to new contexts, and is individualized and nonlinear. Literacy skills—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—may develop at different rates. These challenges to developing advanced academic proficiency in Standard American English may be exacerbated for students who speak non-mainstream dialects, international students for whom English is a second language, and domestic second language students who might identify as early-arriving (students who have been in the U.S. longer than 8 years), late-arriving (students who have been in the U.S. for less than 8 years), or Gen 1.5 (U.S.-born children of first-generation immigrant parents whose primary language was not English). 

All students encounter challenges as they acquire advanced academic literacy proficiency due to its complexity and contextual variation. While academic discourse shifts across disciplinary contexts, there are some generalizable features to U.S. academic writing.

Academic Writing in the United States: Writer-Responsible Text

Most academic writing in the United States demonstrates features of writer-responsible texts (Hinds, 1987). In writer-responsible texts, the writer takes on responsibility for clearly and concisely conveying ideas to a reader: readers expect writers to do the heavy-lifting. As such, writer-responsible text should demonstrate the following three qualities:

  • Unity: all elements of the text contribute to communicating a central idea
  • Coherence: all elements of the text are linked and follow a recognizable organizational pattern (e.g., general information to specific, cause to effect, question to answer)
  • Emphasis: the main points of a text are adequately developed and organized according to their importance.

While different academic disciplines may employ specific conventions, these general qualities of unity, coherence, and emphasis are widely applicable. Writers can employ specific techniques in order to demonstrate unity, coherence, and emphasis within their writing. These techniques include:

  • Signposting: language that guides the reader through the text (e.g., topic sentences, transition phrases)
  • Forecasting: pointing the reader in the direction of the writer’s argument (e.g., a summative thesis statement)
  • Claim-first: the writer’s argument is placed near the beginning of paragraphs, sections, and/or chapters
  • Known-new contract: the writer consistently begins with ideas that the reader is familiar with in order to lead them to the next point (e.g., a topic sentence will include a known idea that refers back to a previous idea before introducing new information later in the paragraph)
  • Novelty moves/CARS: the meta-conversation around a piece of writing in which the author situates his/her/their project within a larger academic conversation and clearly articulates what interventions the writer’s project is making in the field.

If you would like to learn more about academic discourse conventions and how to apply them to your own writing, please see our Academic Writing resource page or schedule an appointment with one of our consultants.