Put simply, writing researchers study genres–what they are, and how they are used by people acting in, and interacting with, the world around them. In other words, genres are their main object of study. So what are they? In the following sections I provide some explanation of genres and the different ways that you might encounter them. In a subsequent section, I describe the tools and strategies that researchers use to analyze and understand genres.
Genres: Texts or Actions?
When you hear or read the word “genre,” what comes to mind? For most of us, the word makes us think of kinds–or types–of music, books, or films. Typically we use this word to differentiate between country, rock, classical, or hip hop music; between science fiction, romance, biography, or self-help books; between comedies, dramas, action/adventure films, or documentaries. But when writing researchers use the term “genre,” they mean something a little different.
For researchers, “genre” refers to a typical way of organizing, presenting, and using language in situations that recur–or repeat–over time. Still confused? Don’t despair. Genre is a theoretical term for something that is actually pretty concrete, so let’s consider some examples before returning to a working definition:
- A complaint letter
- An insurance claim
- A job description
- An annual review
- A legal brief
- A proposal
- A syllabus
- A receipt or a bill-of-sale
- A resume
- A lab report
- A medical record
- A letter of acceptance
- A personal statement
- A scholarship application
- A restaurant menu
- A to-do list
In every one of the examples above, you can pretty easily imagine who uses the text, where, when, and for what purposes. A job description is created by a company to advertise a particular position and/or to outline the responsibilities for the person applying/hired. It is either an official document (when used for an employee) or it is a tool used to hire somebody (both company/organization and potential candidates use the description to decide if a person is qualified).
In other words, genres are really texts-in-use, or texts that facilitate achieving some kind of purpose or goal for people. They are not just descriptions–they are actions. So while it is tempting to think of the forms you fill out at the doctor’s office describing recent symptoms as just a simple text or a piece of writing, when we really study writing, we have to think about how that piece of writing facilitates the doctor-patient relationship.
Or, take your course syllabus as an example. This genre is used by teachers and students to facilitate communication about course expectations. Students are, then, the primary audience for the course syllabus. The syllabus is a way of bringing the course “to life,” so to speak. But there are other audiences for the syllabus: other teachers of the course, the instructor’s supervisor, administrators . . . the list goes on. This one document is actually responsible for a tremendous amount of work–and it is that work that writing researchers are interested in. The study of genres is at the core of the study of writing. Only by thinking about examples of writing as genres–as actions–rather than as simply documents or forms, can we develop an appropriate stance from which to learn how to write them.
Knowing who uses a text and why they use it helps us to figure out what the content of a piece of writing needs to be as well as how to present that content. Consider the job description again: It typically begins with an overview of the job as well as minimum qualifications. Why does it begin there? Why isn’t this information at the end, or in the middle somewhere? The overview acts as a kind of advertisement; it is there to attract candidates to the position. But the minimum qualifications quickly help candidates to consider whether or not they should apply–which in turn saves the company extra work identifying people who do not qualify. In that sense, the minimum qualifications help both the job searcher and the company work more efficiently.
But, some of you might be thinking, sometimes the minimum qualifications are found later in the job description. That is true. Can you imagine a reason for that? . . . If so, then you are doing the work of a writing researcher. And, you have identified another important principle that applies to genres: they aren’t formulas. In other words, there is not one exact way to write them. Instead, genres are governed by what are called “conventions” or guiding principles. We can speak generally about how to write any given genre, but there are always likely to be exceptions, which is why adopting a curious attitude about writing, instead of simply looking for the “right way” to write something, will serve you better as a writer (and a professional). It will also help alleviate frustration when what you thought was the “right way” to write something ends up requiring editing or modification.
Here is a relatively effective test for identifying a genre: ask yourself, Who uses this text? If you can answer with a particular profession, it is probably a genre. An easy, and maybe familiar, example is “the 5-paragraph essay,” which many students learn at some point in their educational careers. If we ask who uses that text, we would have to answer students and teachers–but those are very broad categories, and what the text does is lead to a particular grade. It is not, however, an example of any kind of writing done outside the classroom setting. The text that most closely resembles the 5-paragraph essay but that has real rhetorical purpose is the scholarly research article. Who uses this text? Well, professors, scholars, or researchers write them in order to communicate the results of their research to other professors, scholars, and researchers, and there are all kinds of real-world consequences tied to the publication of those articles: tenure, funding, and professional status, to name a few.
Make a list of all the different kinds of writing that you do in a day. Then, for each, jot down a note or two about who uses that writing and why. Does every text on your list make the cut for defining a genre?
What about an email: is an email a genre? A text message? A tweet? Well . . . maybe. Here is where things can get tricky in the study of writing. An email might contain a job announcement, after all. Or you might use an email to communicate with your doctor about your ongoing symptoms. So while there are “rules” or conventions that apply to an email or a tweet (or a blog or a text message), it is important to realize that often these are simply platforms–or mediums–for communicating a particular genre.
Still, it is worth noting that some of these other platforms or mediums form a large portion of the kind of writing that happens for people in a wide variety of settings. Work simply would not get done without them. So it is helpful sometimes to recognize and differentiate between technical or professional writing (writing that is specific to an industry or job), on one hand, and “workplace writing,” on the other hand. Generally speaking, we can refer to emails, notes, and some memos and informal reports as the kind of writing that facilitates the production of other more public or “polished” texts (for external audiences) than we have in mind when we write or say “technical writing.”
Comparing Workplace Writing and Technical Writing
Genres are at the heart of the study of writing, and another useful way for thinking about them and developing your ability as a writer is to identify which genres “go together.” To put it another way, every profession or occupation requires someone to communicate in a number of different genres. The collection of those genres is referred to as a “genre set.”
Why might knowing the genre set for a particular job or position be useful? Practically speaking, it is helpful when considering a job to know just what the writing requirements are. Once working in a certain position, taking time to understand the relationship between the different genres can help you to identify areas of overlap and thereby help you to be a more effective and efficient communicator. Furthermore, studying the genre set can help us to understand how the writing in that position upholds the goals of the company or organization—or undermines them.
Below are some examples of some different genre sets to get you thinking creatively about the amount and diversity of writing/communication work that is involved in any profession (even ones we do not typically think of as writing-intensive!).
- Course Calendar
- Lesson Plans
- Assignment Sheets
- Student Assessments/Progress Reports
- Lecture Notes
- Discussion Notes
- Recommendation Letters
- Shift Report
- Patient Notes
- Charting & Documentation
- Incident Reports
- Peer Review
- Training/Continuing Education Exams
- Discharge Instructions
- Project Descriptions
- Action Reviews
- Progress Reports
- Incident Reports
- Inspections Reports
- Meeting Notes
Find a friend or family member who works in a profession you are not that familiar with. Ask them to try and list all the different kinds of writing they do as part of their job. If they are stumped, you can prompt them with a couple examples, and remind them that any use of language–even if it is filling out a form–“counts” as writing.
Students are often surprised to find out that an occupation they thought did not require much writing is actually quite writing intensive. Is there an industry or job that you are interested in pursuing as a career? Spend 10-15 minutes on the internet searching for what kind of writing is involved for a professional in that field.
As Chapter 2, “Audience Analysis,” makes clear, the more you can think about writing-in-use (how your writing will be read), the better your writing will be. Imagining your audience is an important part of that process, and so is thinking about the other genres with which your writing will “work” or interact. For example, a job description (genre 1) often prompts a job applicant to put together a resume (genre 2) and cover letter (genre 3). The candidate will be contacted that they have been selected in some fashion—typically a letter (genre 4) and perhaps asked to provide further application materials, such as letters of recommendation or documentation of training/experience (genres 5, 6 . . .).
The term given to the intersecting genres that facilitate a particular kind of work is “genre system.” Often this term is used to refer to the genres that work together to form the work of a particular organization–which often involves the intersection of genre sets. While you may never actually use the term “genre system,” the idea of a genre system is something that all writers in workplace settings are aware of to some degree. For example, knowing that a report you create may prompt follow-up documentation can help you craft your writing in a way that helps the company or organization complete its work successfully.
The more you can anticipate all the different contexts and situations that might be impacted by the writing you do, the more quickly you will advance as a writing professional, because you will be able to think critically about the audience for your writing and connect your writing choices to your writing goals.
CHAPTER ATTRIBUTION INFORMATION
This chapter was written by Allison Gross, Portland Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0.