Some college writing courses include the study of literature in support of writing skills. More frequently, however, writing courses focus on practice in writing essays, research papers, and creative genres such as poetry and short fiction. Literature courses focus on research and analysis of major genres such as poetry or the novel, or on specific periods of history such as the Renaissance or 20th century literature. Literary study may also focus on the writings of various cultures including China, Latin America or the Caribbean.

Course Format

College writing courses are almost universally offered in a small class format with active student participation, which includes peer editing, group projects and reading assignments that support various writing skills, such as narrative development. Literature courses may also be offered as a small class or seminar format, particularly in upper division or graduate programs, but they are also offered as large lecture classes. All literature classes feature extensive readings and research in critical writings about literature, whereas writing classes focus on writing skills and fluency.


Reading for literature courses is always more extensive than the reading typically required in a college writing course. For example, an introductory course in Literary Perspectives on the Modern World at Southern Illinois University featured more than 100 pages of weekly reading as well as writing assignments. A Goucher College essay writing course averaged 10 to 20 pages of weekly reading, as well as a weekly writing assignment and four formal papers.


College rhetoric and composition writing courses focus on teaching students how to do research, but may allow students to choose the subjects they want to research and write about within broad scholarly parameters. Literature courses require research in specific periods of literary history, types of authors, or culture or ethnic studies. For example, Penn State's Project Muse publishes a journal of interdisciplinary literary studies, which combines such fields as music and psychology with literary criticism.

Emerging Disciplines

College writing courses are often called composition and rhetoric courses. These courses emerged as a separate area of study in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to that time it was assumed that students knew how to write academically. The study of literature has a much longer history and was included by the first colleges and universities in the medieval era. Doctoral programs in composition and rhetoric frequently accept students with undergraduate or master's degrees in a variety of fields because higher-level study in writing as a discipline is still emerging.

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