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Writing Conventions Across Cultures

Writing conventions differ across language groups and cultures. It takes time to become accustomed to the expectations of writing in the U.S. higher education context.

Students collaborate in Riddick Hall.

Perceptions vs. Expectations

It is important to keep in mind that:

  • expectations of what constitutes “good” writing are not uniform across different countries, cultures, and contexts;  
  • writers are expected to conform to the conventions of the language group, subject discipline, and community in which they find themselves;  
  • applying conventions from one context to another can be problematic, especially for those writing in a language that is not their own or in a discipline outside of their major or specialization.  

To an international student, English academic writing may seem:

  • dry, formulaic, dull, arrogant, and repetitive (“Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them”);
  • inconsiderate to the reader as it discounts the readers’ background knowledge;
  • lacking in descriptive and expressive language.

English academic writing tends to:

  • have a clear thesis statement in the introduction;
  • be very linear and intolerant of digressions, asides, and ambiguity;
  • favor deductive rather than inductive reasoning;
  • use details, data, and statistics to support assertions;
  • critically evaluate evidence or quotes from experts in the field;
  • utilize extensive citations to track contributions in a specific field;
  • require extensive paraphrasing and summarizing skills;
  • require the writer to take a stance or position.


  1. Tell students that there is no one right way to present information in a higher education context. Rather, it is important to follow the conventions of a given discipline and meet the expectations of a given audience.
  2. Remind students of the audience to whom they are addressing their writing. Is the writing for their professor, classmates, someone in their discipline, or the general public? Is the audience specific to NC State or will it be read by a more global audience?

Writing Assessment of Non-Native English Speakers

Maintain high academic standards while being sensitive to language related issues

General Writing Challenges

Aside from language-based issues, many international students may have difficulty with the following and will need extra assistance, feedback, and practice:

Skills for summarizing and paraphrasing

  • In some cultures, it could be interpreted as disrespectful to change or alter the words of an expert.

Critical thinking skills 

  • In many cultures, students are not taught to challenge the ideas of others or offer their own opinions as they are not the authorities or experts in an area.

Determining what constitutes background knowledge  

  • Background knowledge is likely to be dependent on the audience and context in which a piece of writing is being written. As a result, some information may need to be cited for certain audiences and not others.

Receiving outside assistance   

  • Students are often unclear on what kind, if any, outside assistance would be permissible. For example, would it be OK for a student’s roommate to edit a paper for grammar and spelling?


  1. Explain to students the purpose of summarizing and paraphrasing and when to use each over a direct quotation in the context of your discipline.
  2. Tell students that we often explore ideas through our writing and that one need not be an expert on something to have a valid opinion and voice.
  3. Be explicit on what types of outside assistance, if any, may be used on writing assignments.