Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students write in such a strange style?

U.S. faculty member, CMU program overseas

Faculty in the U.S. complain that their students can’t write, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the writing problems I’d find working at an overseas campus. I expected students’ language skills to be weak, but the style problems were even more pronounced. Students use flowery, overblown language and take forever to get to the point. I’ve stressed the importance of being clear and direct, and the need to state a demonstrable thesis up front. But I sense some resistance from my classes. I showed some student papers to a colleague from their culture, expecting him to commiserate, but he didn’t. In fact, in one paper, he praised some of the features I found most problematic.

I was so baffled by my colleague’s response that I did some reading on the subject. It turns out that “good writing” means something different in different cultures. In some places, for instance, students are taught not to lead with the thesis, but rather to present general information and only very subtly suggest an argument, allowing the reader to reach her own conclusions. In those cultures, stating an argument too directly is considered insulting to the reader! In other places, poetic and emotional language is regarded as more persuasive than dispassionate prose, even in academic writing. I realized that I’d never given much thought to the cultural values embedded in the writing conventions I’d been taught, and I’d never considered that there might be legitimate alternatives. That was helpful to learn. Still, when all is said and done, this is an American university and I want my students to learn the conventions of U.S. academic writing. But now I take the time to explain what these conventions are and how they may differ from what students are used to. I also don’t refer to them any more as the characteristics of “good writing”, but rather “the writing conventions expected in U.S. academic contexts.”

Other strategies

  • Writing conventions differ by discipline as well as culture: the style and format of a scientific paper is not the same as a paper in the humanities and vice versa. While this may be obvious to you, it isn’t always to students. Thus, it’s important to teach students how to write in disciplinarily appropriate ways. This will require you to think hard about what those disciplinary conventions are and make them explicit to your students.
  • Take several passages from a book or article and discuss them with your students, asking: What makes this effective writing, given the intended audience and purpose? Use this discussion to highlight the writing conventions you do and do not want to see in student papers. Your students may not agree that it is, in fact, effective writing, so be prepared to explain why you think it is.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.