Reading & Writing to Inform

Reading and writing to inform are key foundation skills for most of your college work.  Although much of the reading and writing that you do in college extends beyond information into analysis and evaluation, you need to be able to understand and articulate the main ideas of that information before you can work with it further.

Reading for Information

Reading for information is a more involved process than scanning information quickly.  Reading more fully for information involves understanding an author’s content and main ideas so that you can remember and repeat that content in your own words. However—and this is important—reading to inform, on the college level, involves more than just repeating information. As you read, you’re expected to think critically about the information, connect it with other information that you already know, posit new ideas based on that information, and create your own meaning from that information. In other words, you need to be able to apply “academic literacy” competencies, as defined by the Academic Senates of the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California (2002): [1]

“The following intellectual habits of mind are important for students’ success. The percentages noted indicate the portion of faculty who identified the following as “important to very important” or “somewhat to very essential” in their classes and within their academic discipline. College and university students should be able to engage in the following broad intellectual practices:

  • exhibit curiosity (80%)
  • experiment with new ideas (79%)
  • see other points of view (77%)
  • challenge their own beliefs (77%)
  • engage in intellectual discussions (74%)
  • ask provocative questions (73%)
  • generate hypotheses (72%)
  • exhibit respect for other viewpoints (71%)
  • read with awareness of self and others (68%)”

The same report asserts the following: [2]

“Reading is repeatedly identified as a most significant factor in the success of students in their college classes. Three fundamental reading competencies prove essential:

  • reading for literal comprehension and retention,
  • reading for depth of understanding, and
  • reading for analysis and interaction with the text.”

As you can see, reading for information, on the college level, provides the foundation skill for most of your academic work.

Writing to Inform

Writing to provide information involves explaining and describing concepts, people, processes, places, events, etc.  Writing to inform, on the college level, involves more than the direct provision of information as you might find in instructions or a brochure. It involves creating a focus for the information, developed as a result of your insight about what you’ve read.  A focus offers an over-arching concept or idea which you then develop with examples, descriptions, and details. In many cases, this focus is offered in a thesis sentence of an essay.

Although a thesis offers your own idea about a topic, when you write to inform, the thesis should not argue for one interpretation of information as opposed to another; it’s purpose is not to evaluate or assert your side of an issue or debatable topic. Instead, a thesis for a piece of writing intended to inform is non-judgmental.  It focuses your topic so your audience can understand and predict the explanations that follow.

Here’s a simple example using two thesis sentences to differentiate writing to inform from other types of college writing:

Thesis 1: Writing to Inform

  • Many people enjoy cooking; they enjoy the aromas, creativity, and cost savings as well as the results.

Thesis 2: Writing to React/Apply/Analyze/Synthesize

  • Everyone should learn to cook, because it results in better nutrition, cost savings and, most of all, stress reduction as a result of two things, 1) having to concentrate on one particular activity to the exclusion of others, and 2) creating an immediate and useful outcome.

The first thesis focuses a reader’s attention on aspects of cooking that people enjoy. It does not offer an argument about an issue, which is something that has two sides and can be debated.  It does not offer an assertion, evaluation, or judgment about cooking, but instead makes an observation about this topic. As a reader, you expect to read about three particular aspects of cooking: aromas, creativity, cost. You expect the author to offer details and examples about all three aspects.

On the other hand, the second thesis uses the same topic, but instead makes an argument about that topic, that all people should learn how to cook, because of the benefits it offers.  You know this is an issue because there is an opposing side—that cooking may not benefit all people. This analytical thesis offers the author’s personal assertion about a topic.  As a reader, you expect to read examples, details, facts, and other forms of evidence that help prove the author’s assertion.

Characteristics of Informative Writing

Informative writing considers the reader. What information does a reader need to have in order to understand your focus? How many examples and details does a reader need in order to understand it? In what sequence does a reader need to receive the information in order to understand it? What tone of language is appropriate to help a reader understand your information in the way that you want it to be understood? You need to consider the type, amount, specificity, sequence, and presentation of information when you write to inform.

Informative writing also makes you consider yourself as writer. What focus do you want to offer to your reader? What examples and details will help explain and highlight that focus? What information should you include to show that you have knowledge of this concept yourself based on the text/s you read? You need to consider overall focus as well as type, amount, specificity, sequence, and presentation of information when you write to inform.

Student Sample: Writing to Inform

The following is an excerpt from one student’s draft essay intended to inform readers about the concept of assimilation. The writer originally read a chapter from an anthropology textbook that talked about cultures and how newcomers to a culture become assimilated.

Assimilation into a Culture

Thesis: Assimilation into a culture exists in different ways.

Assimilation occurs when a particular group (racial, ethnic, or any other group) is absorbed into the larger or dominant group. The entering group loses its entire culture—”language customs, sense of history”—in order to blend into the stronger group.

There are two types of assimilation. The first is behavioral assimilation. Behavioral assimilation is when “a group surrenders all of its culture to be part of the stronger group.” The second is structural assimilation. Structural assimilation is “the final absorption, when the group can no longer be distinguished from any member of the stronger group and has in fact become an equal member of the stronger group.”

This example of assimilation may seem a little unusual, but it gives a perfect example of how assimilation works. In the world of Star Trek there is a race called the Borg whose main objective is to assimilate all other lifeforms. Any non-Borg lifeform is considered to be inferior until they are assimilated. Assimilation costs people their memories, names, language, and their complete identity. The Borg also surgically alter all people they assimilate to become part-humanoid and part-mechanical. All Borg are grey skinned in order to be exactly the same, and finally, are uniformed alike. At this point, these people are now Borg and have been successfully assimilated.

The student author takes a non-judgmental stance in order to explain the concept of assimilation, to inform a reader and to exhibit her knowledge of the concept.  (On the other hand, if the author’s purpose were to react or analyze, she might have made an argument about assimilation being an outmoded cultural value based on 20th-century waves of immigration, or an argument about whether assimilation should be required for immigrants to any country.)

How to Approach Writing to Inform

The following video discusses a method of approach to, and important characteristics of, writing to inform. It presents key information on creating a doable, focused, and interesting theses for informative essay writing.

The following video offers one formula (of many different approaches) for developing an informative essay.  Although it’s written for a high school audience, it provides a finely-tuned conceptual map of how to develop examples and details relating to an informative thesis: topic sentence, a claim related to that topic sentence, evidence to support the claim, and analysis of that evidence.  The video’s discussion of an informative essay nicely exhibits how support can be developed, and how it is linked to an informative thesis.


try it

Read the article “Getting All Your Ducklings in a Row: A Look Inside the Animal Mind.” If you were reading this article in order to inform others of its content, which of the following statements most precisely and inclusively captures the author’s main idea?

  1. Ducklings are more like humans than we thought.
  2. Research shows the similarities and differences in the process of imprinting among many species.
  3. The study of imprinting in ducklings shows that they are capable of abstract thought; further research can reveal if this is a basic trait of many species or a more exclusive ability.
  4. Ducklings have a “sensitive period” in which they imprint on anything based on shape and relationship among shapes.


[1] Academic Literacy: A Statement of Competencies Expected of Students Entering California’s Public Colleges and Universities © 2002 Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates (ICAS), pg. 13.

[2] Academic Literacy: A Statement of Competencies Expected of Students Entering California’s Public Colleges and Universities © 2002 Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates (ICAS), pg. 17.