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Navigating the AI Writing Landscape: Lessons From First-Year Composition

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Writing is an essential skill in the workplace, but employers are noticing a gap that higher ed can fill by teaching students how to write effectively using industry tools from their very first year. 

What can employer research about the written communication skills gap teach us about preparing students to use AI effectively on the job? To be honest, higher education had enough to tackle before GPT and other AI writing tools came on the scene. Employers regularly named written communication as one of the most important job skills with one of the biggest gaps (Finley, 2021; Kleckner & Butz, 2021). Meanwhile, studies suggested grads have unjustified levels of confidence in their own writing abilities (Arputhamalar & Kannan, 2017; Lichtinger, 2018), and they do not grasp how important developing their writing skills is for their future success (Schartel Dunn & Lane, 2019).

Throw the fast-evolving world of AI tools, methods of use and highly debated ethics into the mix, and you can see why college instructors are seeking guidance from their institutions. How can we provide our learners with consistent and clear guidance for effective and ethical AI use for writing when standards are emerging and differ greatly across disciplines? Fortunately, higher ed leaders can find insight at the intersection of employer research on written communication and the rich resource of contemporary scholarship on college writing pedagogy.  

A Good Bit of Advertising Copy is Bad Police Reporting 

In 1990, the British linguist John Swales related an amusing story about when he tried to participate in the newsletter of a Hong Kong stamp collectors’ hobby group. Posing as a member, he submitted an article claiming one could confirm a historic stamp’s disputed value through frequency analysisa common research approach in applied linguistics. In following editions of the newsletter, he was soon to find his claim entirely panned by stamp enthusiasts. What was the problem? However valid frequency analysis was in linguistics research, this community had its own inviolable research conventions.

In the words of one club member: “Mr. Swales, we won’t change our minds without a chemical analysis,” (Swales, 1990, p. 28). His story illustrated the significant role of context on what one may consider good or effective writing. Apart from our disciplines, the varieties of language our home communities use and our generational differences shape how we judge writing as well (Moss, 2018; Baker-Bell, 2020).

The result is that we—faculty, hiring folks, managers, etc.—assess writing using subjective criteria that we ourselves may not deeply understand. More recently, Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle and other scholars of writing studies have labored to highlight the unique blend of influences that shape our individual definitions of good writing and to pin down the most universal truths that drive effective writing (Adler-Kassner et. al, 2019). These threshold concepts are in turn filtering into modern updates to first-year composition and writing across the curriculum. 

Behaviors and Dispositions  

Employer research has influenced higher education leaders to rework degree programs to align ever more closely with industry needs. When it comes to a highly subjective skillset like writing, there are limitations on what we can gather as educators based on employer report. Moore and Morton noted in 2017:  

  • Individual managers may not be aware of the uniqueness of their workplace writing conventions while expecting new hires to arrive prepared to apply them.  
  • Restricting writing instruction to professional conventions of specific regional industries may negatively impact students preparing for roles outside that region or industry. 
  • There is no one set of professional writing conventions, and they can differ greatly even across roles within the same workplace.  
  • New hires need time and support to learn about and adapt to new writing conventions.  

As an administrator who cares deeply about the role writing preparation plays in social mobility for graduates, I wondered if we could learn more from employers about what good writers are doing well in their writing process. What I learned has big implications for teaching about AI in writing too. 

  • Good writers know what they don’t know. Managers said the best writers asked questions about the audience they were writing for and took time to research and understand their needs before starting to draft.   
  • Good writers find writing mentors. The employers I spoke with consistently told stories of a key person in their work life (usually a manager) who helped them adapt their writing to fit their new role. 
  • Good writers are always learning. Managers spoke highly of employees who were willing to start a writing project independently, bring specific questions and seek feedback throughout their process. 

These learnings suggest we should reserve some instructional space for preparing our students to ask which AI tools and approaches are considered acceptable, ethical and conventional in each new context. They also indicate these are important guidelines to be transparent about when asking students to practice new kinds of writing in their discipline.  

First-Year Composition: Prompt Engineering 101 

The tech people sharing prompt engineering content on LinkedIn and other sites offer some useful tips for new users, provided that the writer knows enough about the document they’re trying to produce. The process of determining what will make for a successful piece of writing is prewriting, the core of contemporary first-year composition curricula. To write an effective prompt or help refine a draft, we teach developing writers to think critically about the elements of the rhetorical situation: context, audience and purpose. What we know about these things will help us to make choices about form, style, tone and so on that make for effective writing. Students who are given opportunities to build prewriting muscles will be more independent when writing on the job and better able to control and assess any content AI tools offer up, including whether sources of information meet conventions.

When we teach writing with AI, we can provide scaffolding by integrating the language of prewriting to trigger prior learning for students (Yancey et al., 2014). Other lessons from the field of writing studies extend to AI use as well; when we teach fixed rules for college writing and present them as the only rules for writing, we hamper our grads’ awareness of the need to adapt to potentially quite different writing conventions on the job, including for AI use. A more responsible and enduring approach capitalizes on composition learning, acknowledges the evolving variety of tools and approaches used in the workforce and emphasizes the importance of taking the time to learn about them before diving in.  

Can you learn everything you need to know about using AI to write in first-year composition? Maybe not, but it’s a solid foundation with a well-tested set of concepts and vocabulary that will help our learners thrive as flexible and adaptable writers well into the tech-enabled future, starting with crafting that cover letter.  



Adler-Kassner, L., Estrem, H., Nowacek, R., Shepherd, D., Wardle, E. (2019, March 15). Learning and/as performance: Expanding disciplines, threshold concepts, and boundaries [Conference presentation]. Conference on College Composition and Communication, Pittsburgh PA. 

Adler-Kassner, L. & Wardle, E. (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Utah State University Press.  

Arputhamalar, A., & Kannan, S. P. (2017). Why can’t tertiary learners write a “decent” business letter? IUP Journal of English Studies, 12(1), 84–90. 

Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge. 

Finley, A. (2021). How college contributes to workforce success: Employer views on what matters most. Association of American Colleges and Universities. 

Kleckner, M. J., & Butz, N. (2021). Addressing undergraduate skill gaps in higher education: Revisiting communication in the major course outcomes. Journal of Education for Business, 96(7), 411–423. 

Lichtinger, E. (2018). Gap between self-efficacy and college students’ writing skills. Journal of College Reading & Learning, 48(2), 124–137. 

Minnaugh, J. (2023). Employer Perceptions of the Skills Gap in College Graduates’ Written Communication (30420656). [Doctoral study, Walden University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. 

Moore, T., & Morton, J. (2017). The myth of job readiness?: Written communication, employability, and the “skills gap” in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 591–609. 

Moss, K. D. (2018). Decoding generational discourse: Cracking the code to improve communication across generations. Nurse leader, 16(1), 34-37.  

Schartel Dunn, S.G., & Lane, P. L. (2019). Do interns know what they think they know? Assessing business communication skills in interns and recent graduates. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 28(2), 202-21 

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic research settings. Cambridge University Press. 

Yancey, K., Robertson, L. and Taczak, K. (2014) Writing across contexts: Transfer, composition, and sites of writing. Utah State University Press.