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Best Practices for Writing in the Disciplines

by Karen Carlisi

Students benefit from doing assignments that reflect the kind of writing done in that discipline.   For example, students need to learn how to write a lab report for chemistry, a care plan for nursing, or a literature review for sociology.   Not only will this type of writing make the content of the class more meaningful, but students will feel the instrumental benefit of learning a skill that will serve them well in a future job. However, these are types of writing that are not taught in English Departments, but which are essential for students to learn.

The first step in helping students to increase their writing proficiency in a particular genre is to point out the key characteristics of that genre.   Students may have read material with these characteristics, but they need assistance in identifying them. It is important that students understand the analytic processes involved in the writing rather than merely imitate form.   For example, often students will copy form by using similar section headings, number of pages, etc.    When you introduce a particular genre of writing, provide a sample of the form and help students to identify and analyze the key characteristics:  Analyze models of the form; give students “Form Guidelines”; give students practice opportunities to write in the form.


Sources for good professional models:

  • Professional Journals
  • Textbooks
  • The Workplace
  • Student-authored samples from the web
  • Student-authored samples from previous classes.

Tips on how to analyze the model:

  • Use class discussion or homework assignments as the forum for analysis of a model 

  • Analyze models before students make attempts to write in that form

  • Have students write an outline of the model

  • Have students create a chart that represents the content for different parts of the model, e.g. purpose, necessary information, key components, format

  • Ask students to answer a list of homework questions about the model.  

Possible questions:

  • What is the primary purpose of the model? What are possible secondary purposes?
  • Who is the audience? What assumptions about the audience does the author seem to make?
  • How is it organized?   Why is it organized this way?
  • What is the function or purpose of each section?   How does each section contribute to the whole?
  • What information is included in each section? How did the author get the information?
  • What do you notice about the language, style, and length of each part?
  • How do the characteristics of this model compare with characteristics of other forms of “special” writing that you have written or read?
  • What documentation does the author use to refer to outside sources.

  Use Student-Authored Models

Demonstrate the possibilities for achievement by using a student-authored model.   Choose models that are good but which have some imperfections so as to provide opportunities for assessment.   When you use a student-authored text, the following approaches can be taken:

  • Ask students to examine the model and ask these questions:   What works well?   What could be improved?
  • Compare two student-authored models and ask:   What are the similarities? What are the significant differences?
  • Ask students to revise a student-authored text and discuss their revisions.   Use shorter models for this activity.


Once students have studied the models, they will be prepared to do the necessary reading, investigation, and analysis for their own writing.   Follow these steps to help them with form guidelines:

  • Summarize the key characteristics of the form, (e.g. assumptions, methods, and structure)
  • Create form guidelines for the students, OR do a class activity in which students collaborate to create form guidelines
  • As you review the guidelines, offer tips for following the guidelines
  • Encourage students to use the guidelines as they write
  • Ask students to use the guidelines as a checklist that they submit with their draft
  • If you use peer feedback, the guidelines can be used to give direction to peer responses
  • If the guidelines are well-written, they can also help with instructor feedback on student drafts.

  Here’s an example of form guidelines for a review article:  


The introduction:

  • Defines and identifies your topic

  • Points out trends in what has been published about your topic

  • Identifies conflicts or gaps in the research

  • Establishes your reason for reviewing the literature

  • Explains the criteria used in analyzing and comparing literature.

The body of the review:

  • Groups research studies into clusters or subtopics (they are not presented chronologically unless there is a compelling reason to do so)

  • Emphasizes the main findings or arguments (using quotations sparingly, if at all).



As students practice writing in the form keep these considerations in mind:

  • Use POWER whenever possible (Prewrite, Organize, Write, Edit, Revise)

  • Encourage them by reminding them that genres are typically complex (even for you)

  • Practice one form a number of times

  • Communicate with instructors of other classes to investigate opportunities for reinforcement of the form for majors.


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