GUIDE – Rhetoric of academic writing conventions

I know “conventions” is kind of a funny word, but I’m using it because that’s the word that shows up on the state-mandated learning goals for all writing classes, as well as on the learning goals for all classes in the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition across the country, which is what our class fits into. (Didn’t know there were state-mandated goals? Check out the Learning Goals page on the Syllabus!)

Basically the word refers to “customs” that are typical of of certain kinds of writing. For example, one of the conventions of text messaging is to use abbreviations that save typing time as well as screen space, such as BTW for “by the way” or AFAIK for “as far as I know.” Using those conventions has a practical purpose, but it also shows that you’re aware of how conversations usually work in that particular context, which impacts the impression readers get of you. But different contexts have different conventions, which is why you don’t use abbreviations like that in, say, an email to your boss or an academic paper.

One of the conventions of academic writing is citing the sources for any information you supply that didn’t come from common knowledge, using an established citation style (such as MLA, APA, Chicago, AMA, or CSE). Using this convention has a practical purpose: to allow readers to find the sources for the information or ideas you discuss. But it also shows that you’re aware of how conversations work in academic contexts, which helps to enhance your credibility as an educated person.

However, depending on who your readers are, simply citing the source isn’t enough if you don’t also follow the specific guidelines for formatting citations set out by the governing body for the appropriate academic discipline. In other words, while citing a source using your own invented citation style is better than not citing it at all, that won’t do much to show your professors that you are “literate” in the conventions of academic writing. To do that, you need to follow the appropriate citation style, down to the nitty gritty details of where to put commas and periods, and you should probably have some idea why the different styles exist.

As you might expect, given that I’m bringing this up, the styles actually have a rhetorical purpose. Consider what information is being emphasized in each pair of in-text and bibliographic citations below:


(West and Zimmerman 131).

West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1.2 (June 1987): 125-151. Print.


(West & Zimmerman, 1987, p. 131).

West, C., & Zimmerman, D.H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and Society, 1(2), 125-151.

(Note: In in-text parenthetical citations, the period always goes after the closing parentheses because the parentheses are part of the sentence)


Did you notice that some kinds of information are included in one style but not the other? What about the placement for the date of publication? Those are not arbitrary. As with any other aspect of writing, they convey meaning, and that meaning has a rhetorical purpose.

In the Humanities, scholars tend to acknowledge the presence of the individual researcher and his or her influence on the research, so the bibliographic citation style includes the author’s first name as well as last. Humanities scholars also put more emphasis on the title of the piece and the publication it appeared in, rather than on the date, given that Humanities scholars are often working with texts from earlier time periods, and in the contexts of their research, the earlier dates have no bearing on the currency of the source.

In the Social Sciences, by contrast, scholars tend to want to de-emphasize the individuality of the researcher as well as the idea that the researcher might influence the research results, so the bibliographic citation style reduces the author’s first name to initials only. This also has an interesting but unintended side effect relevant to our class: it obscures the gender identity of the author. Social Sciences scholars also put a lot of emphasis on the date of publication, given that they want to easily locate the most current research on a subject.

A Little Background

MLA style, which is set by the Modern Language Association, is the one most commonly used by students and scholars in the Humanities, although History often uses Chicago style instead. Most students learn MLA first because that’s the style their English teachers were trained to use.

To learn more about the nature of research and citing sources in the Humanities, read this short overview from the Research and Documentation online handbook.

APA style, which is set by the American Psychological Association, is the one most commonly used in the Social Sciences, although some disciplines, like Sociology and Business, also have their own specialized versions. APA is the second most common style that college students learn to use, and the one most commonly used in Gender Studies, although I often use MLA because it’s the one I’m most familiar with.

To learn more about the nature of research and citing sources in the Social Sciences, read this short overview from the Research and Documentation online handbook.

Which style should you use? The answer depends largely on the expectations of the audience you’re writing for. So if you’re not sure, ASK! If you’re writing a paper for an English class, it’s safe bet that you should use MLA format. But what about a class in International Affairs, Business, or a foreign language? Or what if you’re writing for a magazine or a web site instead of a class? Every publication has a “style guide” that answers such questions, but you have to be rhetorically savvy enough to ask for it.