Writing tip: Determining writing expectations

Theresa Bell

It can be daunting to write for a new audience, especially when that audience is an instructor who will be grading the work. Instructors have a clear idea of what content they want from students' writing, but students may find it challenging to determine what approach, style and formatting an instructor prefers. In particular, students may find it difficult to identify differences in expectations between instructors. The list below presents questions students often ask the Writing Centre when they are writing for someone new, and students are welcome to use the questions as a starting point for conversations with instructors about writing expectations. The list isn't intended to be exhaustive, so please use and/or adapt any information that is relevant to your writing process. 

A. Audience: Should students write specifically with the instructor in mind and therefore they do not need to explain course content in detail, or should they write so that a broader academic audience could understand the discussion (see "Audience Awareness")?

B. Tone: What are the expectations regarding the formality of language in different types of assignments?

  • E.g., Should a personal, reflective essay be written using a formal tone, or is a more informal tone appropriate (e.g., using idiomatic language, metaphors, contractions)?

C. Personal experience: May students refer to their own experiences in an assignment, or should the focus exclusively be on information gathered from research literature?

D. First person voice: May students use the first-person voice when describing their own experiences (see “Can I use the first person voice in my academic writing?”)?

E. Title page:

  • Should assignments include a title page?
  • What information should students include on title pages?
    • Should page numbering start at “1” on the title page (APA Style) or on page two at “2” (academic convention)?
    • What information, other than the title of the work, should be provided on the title page? E.g., student’s name, date of submission, course name, program name, author note?
    • Does the instructor have a sample title page that shows the desired formatting?

F. Table of contents: Should essays include a table of contents? If it depends on the number of pages, what is the minimum number of pages that qualifies for a table of contents?

G. Section headings: Should students use section headings? If so, should the headings be formatted per the APA Style rules (see "What are the APA rules for section headings?")?

H. Paragraphs: Should each body paragraph provide one main argument and follow the typical analytical structure of an academic paragraph (e.g., topic sentence with a claim, evidence, analysis, conclusion, and transition), or should paragraphs have more of a report style with shorter, descriptive paragraphs that do not need transitions?

I. Word count: How closely should students adhere to word count limits? E.g., exactly the word count, +/- 10%?

J. APA Style rules: Should the student adhere to the following APA Style rules, or does the instructor prefer exceptions? Instructor preference takes precedence.

If you have any questions related to this writing tip, please contact the Writing Centre.

Theresa Bell
Manager, Blended Learning Success


McAdoo, T. (2010, March 2). Lists, part 5: Bulleted lists [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2010/03/lists-part-5-bulleted-lists.html