Effective Writing Assignments

Writing Guides

In our earlier sections, we discussed the usefulness of providing students with writing guides, short descriptions of the way that writing functions in your discipline. Although prompts provide only the information necessary for a particular assignment, writing guides provide students with transferable information and skills that they can apply across your course and your discipline. We’ve divided our discussion of writing guides into two sections: disciplinary writing guides and genre writing guides. 

Disciplinary Writing Guides

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when students come to us from high school, many of them have never written a paper for a class other than English. Because the conventions for writing vary dramatically from one discipline to the next, providing students with a disciplinary writing guide for your field can be very useful.

The DEWC is currently collaborating with faculty members in each department to produce a set of disciplinary writing guides that might be used across the university. Eighteen of these guides are available here. 

There are many ways to organize a disciplinary writing guide. Generally, however, these guides cover the following points: 

  • Common approaches to disciplinary writing
  • Conventions of evidence use
  • Common genres (assignment types) in the discipline
  • Style guidelines for usage of language
  • Style guidelines for formatting and citation
  • Common errors to avoid

Below, we include some questions and elaborations that may be helpful as you develop disciplinary writing guidelines for your students.

Common approaches to disciplinary writing

What types of thinking will your discipline ask writers to do?

Conventions of evidence use

You might consider:

  • What types of evidence are used in your discipline?
  • How is information drawn from outside sources incorporated?
  • When, if ever, should students quote instead of paraphrase?
  • How should quotations be introduced?
  • How should they be cited?
  • How should students include data?
  • How can students best avoid plagiarism?
Common assignment types 

These can be more fully addressed in genre writing guides, but it’s helpful to provide students with a brief overview of the types of writing associated with your discipline.


Style guidelines for usage of language

You might consider:

  • What pronouns should students use? (I/we/no personal pronouns?)
  • Are bullet points expected?
  • Should students use active or passive voice?
  • Is tense an issue? (history papers, literary present)
  • Should sentence structure be complex or simple? Should students write short, subject-verb-object sentences, or should they try to write more complex sentences?
  • Should language be concise, or is there room for metaphor?
  • Is there a style guide for your discipline? (AIP, APA, Paramedic)
  • Should students not include their own opinions?
  • Are there other conventions (people-first language) that students should be aware of?

Providing a few short models in this section can be particularly helpful.

Style guidelines for formatting and citation 

You might consider:

  • What citation style is most commonly used in your discipline?
  • How are tables, graphs, and charts formatted?
  • Should students use footnotes or endnotes? How should they appear?
  • Are there conventions for quotations (like poetry, or block quotes)?

Again, here models are helpful.

Common errors to avoid 

Do students frequently begin arguments with the phrase, “Since the dawn of time, humans have…”? Do they often include value judgments in their formal analyses? Here’s a moment to warn them off.

Again, this is just one possible organization for writing guides; we encourage you to adapt this template to best fit your needs.

Genre Writing Guides 

Genre Writing Guides explain the purposes and conventions of a particular type of writing, like a research paper or lab report. They can be distributed any time during the semester when you are modeling writing, or they may be distributed with the first prompt. Genre writing guides can also present students with skills and knowledge that can transfer across assignments, courses, and even disciplines.  We’d love to build a bank of genre guides developed by Southwestern professors, so if you have one you’d be willing to share, please let us know.  In the meantime, we’ve assembled a list of links to online genre guides for the most common assignments, available here.

These guides to include the following information:

  • name and purpose of the genre
  • general guidelines on length
  • suggestions for approaching writing
  • suggestions for organization
  • citation guidelines
  • common errors to avoid 

Below, we expand a bit on each of these sections of the guide.

Name and purpose of the genre

It may be easiest to draw these directly from your prompt, where you articulate the learning goals of the assignment and the assignment type.

General guidelines on length 

Although this is certainly flexible, it’s useful for students understand to understand that research summaries are generally limited to one or two pages, while journal articles run more like 25 to 30 pages (depending, of course, on your discipline). 

Suggestions for approaching writing

Will students need to conduct ethnographic research? Will they need to attend a performance? Are there certain tips you can offer about brainstorming, outlining, or other prewriting? This information can be helpful to include in your assignment guide.

Suggestions for organization 

Generally, this will be the bulk of the genre writing guide.


Models are particularly helpful in this section.

Citation guidelines

Often, students are unsure which citation style to use and where they can find more information on that style (DEWC’s Student Resources for Writing page provides links to style guides for APA, MLA, CMS, ASA and Turabian style guides). Models here can be helpful as well.

Common errors to avoid

As in the disciplinary writing guides, this is a section in which you can ward off possible student missteps.