Many of our informants were confused about why their teachers in the U.S. placed so much emphasis on structuring a paper, including having an explicit thesis and topic sentences. For many, this confusion stems from their experiences writing within “reader-responsible” cultures. In “reader-responsible” languages, according to John Hinds’ influential “typology” across languages, the burden is on readers for extracting the meaning from the text. In Asian cultures in particular (e.g. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai), readers expect ambiguity and imprecise writing as they work their way inductively through the text. In contrast, in our writer-responsible culture, English-speaking readers expect writers to be explicit and direct. Because of these differing expectations, Hinds says, English-speaking writers typically compose across multiple drafts whereas Japanese writers, for example, may compose only one draft, which is the final product. Even in highly structured genres like the scientific research report, according to many scholars of contrastive rhetoric, reader-responsible conventions are still apparent1.
In a writer-responsible culture such as ours, we typically expect the writer’s thesis or focus to appear somewhere in the first or second paragraph and to indicate clearly the purpose and direction of the paper; similarly, topic sentences focus paragraphs and point back to the thesis. In turn, each paragraph is expected to provide evidence for the points being made. All of our informants were easily able to describe these features of academic English, which, they said, is “straightforward,” “obvious,” easy for readers,” direct,” “straight to the point,” “clear,” “simple,” “concise,” “open,” “efficient,” and “honest.”
Conversely, many described writing in their native languages as being much more “abstract” with little need for explicit signposting. Although we hesitate to make generalizations, we noticed that students from Asian backgrounds in particular tended to see writing in their native country as having a more subtle, implicit approach.
~At the beginning, my [native] language influenced my writing in terms of wording. I remember my first essays; I started writing them the ways that I was taught in high school to write, in a more abstract way, in the way of like going around the topic, but sometimes you would never actually get to your point. Just going around it and making your reader connect the dots and get to your point. That was emphasized a lot. This abstract writing. I guess, reader responsible writing. Making the reader think about it, this was valued. When I had my first conference with my English professor here, he said “remember, you are not writing for Germans, you are writing for Americans”. So he pointed out the audience and how, I guess, English audience relied on writer responsible pieces instead of reader responsible pieces. But then I started reading in English and I saw how professors started expecting me to write. So reading in English was a lot, a lot of help in getting the point: “get to your point. State your point and support it instead of leading me to your point.” So it was a lot of impact. I was struggling with that, but with the reading, it all came into place now.
~One of the things that I was taught back home to be a good example of writing was long sentences. While here it is short clear sentences; that was a thing I learned here. So short, clarity, straight-forwardness and being able to ultimately be understood by your audience is important here because you’re writing for a specific audience. The audience wasn’t stressed much in Bulgaria, but it’s stressed a lot here.
~My English 101 teacher said “Think of your audience” when you write. That’s one of the best comments that navigated me towards good writing.
~In response to what it would be like if she wrote the “American way” in Bulgarian:
In a professional environment you would look very…I don’t want to say low-level, but too straight forward. Academic writing I’ve read in high school was in geography, psychology, philosophy, and history, mostly. And I still remember a history textbook that I had to read over and over again to realize what a sentence was talking about. It was written from academics to academics and not to students. So it was very hard. I’ll definitely need editing to make it to the academic level which is very reader responsible as opposed to writer responsible as it is here.
~In my native language…again it was mostly analytical. It’s interesting because it always comes back to me reading, to mimicking someone else’s writing. Because, if I had to analyze, say a book, I would take someone else who analyzed it or analyzed parts of it and then take someone else and see how they structured it, and in a way try to create, see what the general idea of what all that is and try to create my own way of analyzing it. I would put it in my own thoughts , but put it in a frame that’s suitable. So, reading was a big part of learning the frame of the discipline and fitting in your thoughts.
~On how he structures his writing in Chinese:
Almost like English, but we have different thought. Thesis is very obvious, but in Chinese, we don’t write something so obviously; we like to allow the reader to think about it. In China, I wrote short essays; awkward parts are awkward to Americans, but Chinese understand because of culture (points to head).
~In U.S., organization, transitions, focus are very important; they want this essay to be easier for readers; the readers don’t need to think about something because writers have to write everything.
~On writing in the French academy:
They focused a lot on the way you stressed your ideas. Here it is more straight to the point and there it was also the way you focused it and how you made it more appealing or interesting.
~I would tell them [students coming from Spain] to be really concise, to keep in simple. Not to use fancy words or expressions in English even though to him it may sound better; they are really needless. I would tell him to just explain the best he can the topic he is focusing on.
~At first, [in U.S. academy], I considered the paper as a chance to kind of show my knowledge of the language and how I mastered it. Now I see it as a way of making sure someone understands what you are saying. Tell me what you are going to tell me, tell me, then tell me what you told me.
~Here, in English, to emphasize that certain essay or a book is well written you’d use like a big vocab word, something you don’t use in regular speech, like I don’t know “discombobulated” or something like that. You’d see these weird words. In Russian, I think most of the words that are written in books you use them in regular language, so it’s not considered as something big or at least that is what I think.
~Here, I think it is just more open, more laid back. I don’t think it is secretive, you know. And there, it is like more…you keep to yourself; the whole society, they will open up to you when they get to know you. Here, it depends on individual because there are so many different kinds of people. Here, you know, obviously it is okay to be different so you can tell your story, but there, you just keep to yourself. So in terms in writing, I don’t remember writing about my life, like my family, issues, and things like that. It would be more like strictly academic: you write about a book, you write about an event, or historic event, or whatever.
~ I think American people are more straightforward. Even in the classroom, somebody present in the classroom, the other students said “oh this is not good, this isn’t really good.” But in Korea they don’t really mention exactly what they think honestly, so even if not that good, they say “oh you did a good job.” They all the time pointing the good thing’ they don’t want to mention the bad thing, even though they think it in their mind. The American people are more directly focused on this. But in Korea they don’t directly mention it; it is a cultural thing. Even in the personal relationship, they don’t directly say “I don’t like you because…”
~I think people would look too critically, feel too personal when you’re writing here; back in my country, it’s more objective. Particularly academic writing is more objective. Not so subjective; you don’t bring your personal opinion. People don’t care about your personal opinion; you just analyze the data in a more clinical fashion back home. You write in the third person; you would never insert “I” into an academic piece. Ever. You’d always write in the third person. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
~[When I first came to the U.S. academy], my sentences were far too long and you know verbose, so I had to cut that down, which was a sad thing for me but also I realized the function of part of it. The summer I was working at the Inspector Generals office for the postal service, and I realized that those memos or even the emails, you just have to be to the point. And that makes a lot of sense; it is very efficient that way. You don’t waste too much time or anything. Very simple language— you don’t use big words at all, even if there was a big one you would probably try to think of an easier word and try to tone it down before you send it out to anyone. Even in school, I noticed unless it is technical word, very often they encourage you to use the easier word in place of the more difficult one. So that way I think I left a lot of words by the wayside and styled my writing also to suit what is demanded here. It is a bittersweet kind of experience because I am sad to let go of the some of the words.
~Generally speaking, I am not a writer or anything, but when I write in Urdu, my cultural thing comes to me, like speaking to elders and all that. How I am going to put that [in English], you know? For instance, I am writing a dialect, I would bring back my cultural thing, how we are treated and how we would speak to them and the religious aspect as well. Whereas in English, I am not that much influenced with the culture, so its more about the movies that I watch and I use that; although I know that it’s a wrong thing to use the image of the movies while you are writing the paper. It’s much better to try and use some book or stuff. But, when I write in Urdu, I am more into it; I feel comfortable because I think I know more about my thing, but in English I have to say, “okay, the reader is going to read this what will he be thinking?”
1 Hinds’ theory connects with Edward Hall’s typology of “high context” and ”low context” cultures, with the former valuing an implicit communication style (writer-responsible) and the latter an explicit style.