Genre

Genre may reference a type of writing, art, or musical composition; socially-agreed upon expectations about how writers and speakers should respond to particular rhetorical situations; the cultural values; the epistemological assumptions about what constitutes a knowledge claim or authoritative research method; the discourse conventions of a particular discourse community. This article reviews research and theory on 6 different definitions of genre, explains how to engage in genre analysis, and explores when during the writing process authors should consider genre conventions. Develop your genre knowledge so you can discern which genres are appropriate to use—and when you need to remix genres to ensure your communications are both clear and persuasive.

tiny tin men made from old parts

Genre Definition

Genre may refer to

  1. a naming and classification scheme for sorting types of writing
    • by the aim of discourse
    • by discourse conventions
  2. a social construct
  3. the situated actions of writers and readers
  4. the situated practices and epistemological assumptions of discourse communities
  5. a form of literacy.

Related Concepts: Deductive Order, Deductive Reasoning, Deductive Writing; Interpretation; Literacy; Mode of Discourse; Organizational Schema; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Reasoning; Voice; Tone; Persona


Genre Knowledge – What You Need to Know about Genre

Genre plays a foundational role in meaning-making activities, including interpretation, reading, writing, and speaking.

In order to communicate with clarity, writers and speakers need to understand the expectations of their audiences regarding the appropriate content, style, design, citation style, and medium. Genres facilitate communication between writers and readers, authors and audiences, and writers/speakers and readers/listeners. Genre and genre knowledge increase the likelihood of clarity in communications.

Writers use their knowledge of genre to jumpstart composing: a genre presumes a formula for how to organize a document, how to develop and present a research question, how to substantiate claims–and more. For writers, genres are an efficient way to respond to recurring situations. Rather than reinvent the wheel every time, writers save time by considering how others have responded in the same or a similar situation. Genres are like big Lego chunks that can be re-used to start a new Lego creation that is similar to past Lego creations you’ve created.

In turn, readers use genres to more quickly scan information. Because they know the formula, because they share with the author as members of a discourse community a common language, common topoi, archive, canonical texts, and expectations about what to say and how to say it in, they can skip through a document and grab the highlights.

Six Definitions of Genre

1. Genre Refers to a Naming and Categorization Scheme for Sorting Types of Writing

“… [L]et me define “genres” as types of writing produced every day in our culture, types of writing that make possible certain kinds of learning and social interaction.”

(Cooper 1999, p. 25)

Genre refers to types of writing, art, and musical compositions. For instance

There are many different ways to define and sort genres. For instance, genres may defined based on their content, organization, and style. Or, genres may be defined and categorized based on

  1. the aim of discourse
    • Examples: Drama, Fable, Fairy Tale, etc.
  2. the presence (or absence) of rhetorical moves associated with recurring situated practices.
  3. the situated practices, research methods, and discourse conventions of a discourse community
  4. by the type of technology used by the sender and the receiver of the information.
Sample Genre: Books on Wisdom

2. Genre is a Social Construct

“Genres are conventions, and that means they are social – socially defined and socially learned.” (Bomer 1995:112)

“… [A] genre is a socially standard strategy, embodied in a typical form of discourse, that has evolved for responding to a recurring type of rhetorical situation.” (Coe and Freedman 1998, p. 137)

Genre is more than a way to sort types of texts by discourse aim or some other classification scheme: Genres are social, cultural, rhetorical constructs. For example,

  1. writers draw on their expectations about what they believe their readers will know about a genre–how it’s structured (what it’s formula is!) and when it’s socially useful.
  2. readers draw on their past experiences as readers and as members of particular discourse communities. They hold expectations about the appropriate use of particular textual patterns in specific situations.

Or, consider this example: in the social situation of seeking a job, an applicant knows from the archive, the culture, the conversations about job seeking, that they are expected to create a letter of application and a résumé. More than that, they know the point of view they are to take as well as the tone–and more.

Writers and readers develop textual expectations tacitly — by reading and speaking with others — and formally: by studying genres in school. Students are inculcated in textual practices of particular disciplines (e.g., engineering or biology) as part of their academic and professional training.

3. Genres Reflect the Situated Actions of Writers and Readers

“a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (Miller 1984, p. 151)

Carolyn Miller (1984) extends this social view of genre in her article Genre as Social Action by operationalizing genre from a rhetorical perspective. Miller asserts genres are the embodiment of situated actions. In her rhetorical model of genre, Miller theorizes

  1. writers enter a rhetorical situation guided by aims (e.g., to persuade users to support a proposal). The writer assesses the rhetorical situation (e.g., considers audience, purpose, voice, style) to more fully understand the situation and the motives of stakeholders.
  2. audiences — whether reading, watching, or listening — are also guided by rhetorical aims.
    • For instance, a researcher could dip into a research study seeking empirical support for a claim. A graphic designer could open a magazine looking for layout ideas.

4. Genres Embody the Situated Practices and Values of Discourse Communities

“Genre not only allows the scholar to report her research, but its conventions and constraints also give structure to the actual investigations she is reporting” (Joliffe 1996, p. 283).

The textual practices of discourse communities reflect the epistemological assumptions of practitioners regarding what constitutes an appropriate rhetorical stance, research method, or knowledge claim. For instance, a scientist doesn’t insert their subjective opinions into the methods section of a lab report because they understand their audience expect them to follow empirical methods and an academic writing prose style

Academic documents, business documents, legal briefs, medical records—these sorts of texts are grounded in the situated practices of members of particular discourse communities. Practitioners — e.g., scientists in a research lab, accountants in an accountancy firm, or engineers in an engineering firm— share assumptions, conventions, and values about how documents should be researched, written, and shared. Discourse communities develop unique ways of communicating with one another. Their daily work, their situated practices, reflect their assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, appropriate research methods, or authoritative sources.

Genres reflect the values of communities. They provide a roadmap to rhetors for how to engage with community members in expected ways. (For more on this, see Research).

5. Genre Knowledge Constitutes a Form of Literacy

Genres are created in the forge of recurring rhetorical situations. Particular exigencies call for particular genres. Applying for a job? Well, then, a résumé and cover letter are called for. Trying to report on an experiment in organic chemistry? Well, then a lab report is due. Thus, being able to recognize which genre is called for by a particular exigency, a particular call to write, is a form of literacy: If you’re unfamiliar with a genre and your reader’s expectations for that genre, then you may as well be from mars.

Genre Analysis – How to Engage in Genre Analysis

When we enter a rhetorical situation, guided by a sense of purpose like an explorer clutching a compass, we invariably compare the present situation to past situations. We reflect on whether we have read the work of other writers who have also addressed the same or somewhat equivalent rhetorical situation, the topic, we’re facing. If you have a proposal due, for instance, it helps to look at some samples of past proposals–particularly if you can access proposals funded by the organization from whom you are seeking support. 

For genre theorists, these are acts of typification–a moment where we typify a situation: “What recurs is not a material situation (a real, objective, factual event) but our construal of a type” (Miller 157).

In other words, genres are conceptual tools, ways we relate situated actions to recurring rhetorical situations. When first entering a situation, we assess whether this is a recurring rhetorical situation and whether past responses will work equally well for this new situation—or if we’ll need to tweak our response, our text, a bit. For instance, if applying for a job, you might look at previous drafts of job application letters

Genres are like prefabricated Lego pieces that we can use to jumpstart a new Lego masterpiece.

We abbreviate the experiences of our lives by creating idealized versions–i.e., metatexts that capture the gist of those experiences. Or, we access the archive, or our memory of the archive, and seek exemplars — canonical texts, the works of others who addressed similar exigencies, similar rhetorical situations.

To make this less abstract, let’s consider what might go through the mind of a writer who wants to write a New Year’s party invitation. If the writer were an American, they might reflect on the ritual ball drop in Times Square in New York City. They might recall past texts associated with New Year’s celebrations (party invitations, menus, greeting cards, party hats, songs, and resolutions) as well as rituals (fireworks, champagne, or a New Year’s kiss). They might even conduct an internet search for New Year’s Eve party invitations or download a party template from Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Over time, that writer’s sense of the ideal New Year’s party invitation becomes typified—a condensation of the texts and rituals and stories.

Because we tend to have unique experiences and because we have different personalities, motives, and aims, our sense of an ideal New Year’s Eve invitation might be somewhat different from those of our friends and family—or even the broader society. Rather than assuming it’s a good time to go out and party and dance, you may think it’s a good time to stay home and meditate. After all, as writers, we experience events, texts and rituals subjectively and uniquely. Thus, we don’t all have the same ideas about what should happen at a New Year’s party or even what the best party invite should look like. Still, when we sit down to write a party invitation for New Year’s Eve, this is a reoccurring situation for us, and we cannot help but be influenced by all of the past invitations we’ve received, what our friends and loved ones have recommended, and what we see online for party invite templates (if we engage in strategic searching).

Sample Genre Analysis

Below are some sample questions and perspectives you may consider when engaging in Genre Analysis.

Aim/Purpose
Is the purpose to inform? persuade? entertain?
CitationsHow do authors of this genre substantiate claims? For evidence do they rely on anecdote? theory? textual research? empirical research?

Which citation styles do members of the discourse community use?

Does the author use multiple sources to support one claim?
FormatIs there a Table of Contents? a Works Cited?

What sort of sections/headings are in the text?

Does the document incorporate elements of visual rhetoric?

Is it straight text or a mixture of text, visuals, white space, bullets, videos?
Organization SchemaDoes the document begin with a thesis (deductive reasoning) or does it lead up to the thesis in the conclusion (inductive reasoning)?
Research
Methodology
Does the writer rely on personal anecdote, informal research, textual research, or empirical research?
StyleWhat type of vocabulary and word choice is used? Are sentence long or short?

Does the author use contractions?

Are sentences written in passive or active voice?
Point of View

Does the author use first or third person?

What sort of persona, voice, tone does the writer adopt?
TopicWhat is the message?
Sample Considerations for Conducting a Rhetorical Analysis of Genre

FAQs

1. When During Composing Should I Engage in Genre Analysis?

Early in the writing process — during prewriting — you are wise to identify the genre your audience expects you to follow. Then, engage in strategic searching to identify exemplars and canonical texts that typify the genre.

Next, you might begin your first draft by outlining the sections of discourse associated with the genre you’re writing in. For example, if you are writing an Aristotelian argument for a school paper, you might jumpstart your first draft by listing the rhetorical moves associated with Aristotelian argument as your subject headings:

  1. Introduce the Topic
  2. Introduce Claims
  3. Appeal to Ethos & Persona to Establish an Appropriate Tone
  4. Appeal to Emotions
  5. Appeal to Logic
  6. Present Counterarguments
  7. Search for a Compromise and Call for a Higher Interest
  8. Speculate About Implications in Conclusions

That said, it’s important to note that some people prefer not to think about genre at all during drafting. Research in writing studies has found that there is no single, ideal writing process. Instead, our personalities, rhetorical stance, openness to information, rhetorical situation (e.g., contextual factors such as time available and access to information)–and more — influence how we compose.

You may not want to think much about genre when

  • you only really know what you want to say once you’ve said it
    • You’re the type of writer who needs to write your way to meaning. For you, writing is rewriting
  • your rhetorical situation is unique
    • Your audience may have specific expectations in mind that you haven’t addressed. You may be unfamiliar with how other writers have addressed that situation in the past. You may lack access to the information you need to research how others typically respond to the rhetorical situation you are facing
  • you find it counterproductive to separate form from content.
    • You reject the notion that writing is a process of pouring content into a pre-existing format. In order to draft anything, you need to focus on the process rather than the final product. For you a focus on genre short circuits your composing and reasoning processes. Instead of focusing on what the reader needs you to do, you need to first focus on listening to your inner voice and felt sense.

In summary, thinking about genre and reading the works of other writers addressing similar rhetorical situations will probably help you jumpstart a writing project. However, at the end of the day, only you can decide how to work with genres of discourse.

References

Coe, R., & Freedman, A. (1998). Genre theory: Australian and North American approaches. In M. L. Kennedy (ed), Theorizing composition: A critical sourcebook of theory and scholarship in contemporary composition studies (pp. 136-147). Greenwood Press.

Joliffe, D. A. (1996). Genre. In T. Enos (ed), Encyclopedia of rhetoric and composition: Communication from ancient times to the information age (pp. 279-284). Garland Publishing.

Miller, R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70, 151-167.

Swales, J., & C. Feak (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. University of Michigan Press

Related Articles: