Culture and Writing Style: Structure and Style

International students are usually trained to write for their own academic systems and audiences, so they will typically apply those patterns unless they are taught otherwise. The examples that follow highlight some typical style and structure differences.

Argument Structure

In typical American academic writing, writers are expected to present their thesis or main argument, then go on to tell why it valid. The classic American notion is that writers should "say what we’re going to say (introduction and thesis), then lay it out in detail (body), then summarize what we just said (conclusion)." This can appear very simplistic and too direct compared to other cultures’ writing traditions.

Thesis at the End

In many cultures, the expectation is that writers will present their ideas and evidence first, gradually bringing their reader to their thesis only in the conclusion of an essay so that the reader will say to himself, “Yes, of course!” However, for many American readers the reaction can be: “Well, why didn’t he say that in the first place?” As strongly as Americans expect a pattern or roadmap to follow, that “map” is not universal.

Indirect Communication

The United States is a low context culture, which means Americans tend to communicate very directly to ensure "clear" understanding. The sentences are usually in the active voice, and American writers expect the readers to be able to follow the arguments quite easily since they are directly laid out. However, in many cultures, indirect communication at both the sentence level and the essay level creates writing that expects readers to do much more connecting of the dots.

Thesis Presented, but Deviation from Argument Expected

In some writing traditions, the writer is expected to introduce the topic, and begin to inform us of its background, but then take a sort of side journey that can include a story or anecdote that does not seem to relate to the topic. This is deliberate, and this seemingly unrelated aside will circle back to the topic and be woven into the final conclusion. For an American reader, this can be very disconcerting as we wonder where the argument has gone.

SEE: Oregon State University and Student Writing Services at the University of Minnesota have both made excellent videos in which international students discuss their differences between writing in their own cultures and in an American academic system which you can view here: OSU video (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) and SWS video