Genre refers to
- a classification scheme for texts.
- a method of invention.
- a method communities use (even if unconsciously) to sustain values, inculcate users, and communicate.
- a rhetorical tool people use to apply typified actions to recurring situations.
Genre as a Classification Scheme
The most common way to think about genre is to consider genre to be a way of naming and classifying texts (and experiences).
A simple example of this definition of genre is fiction vs. nonfiction vs. poetry. Another example would be the way Netflix classifies movies by genres: Action & Adventure, Children & Family Movies, Comedies, Documentaries, Dramas. Or, consider how Spotify sorts audio feeds: Artist, Album, Country, New Age, Jazz, and so on.
Our tendency to sort texts by genre reflects our capabilities as humans to name and categorize experiences and texts by type. We sort information in order to enhance memory and recall.
Genres can be categorized based on any number of attributes, such as
- Is the purpose to inform? Is it a bibliography? A review of a book, restaurant, website?
- Is the purpose to persuade? Is it advertising? Spoofing?
- Is the purpose to entertain?
- Does/how does the author cite sources? MLA? APA? Direct links?
- What types of sources does the author cite? Scholarly? Popular press?
- Does the author use multiple sources to support one claim?
- Are there common linguistic or formatting elements?
- Is there a Table of Contents? a Works Cited? What sort of sections/headings are in the report?
- Does the document incorporate elements of visual rhetoric? Is it straight text or a mixture of text, visuals, white space, bullets, videos?
- Does the document begin with a thesis (deductive reasoning) or does it lead up to the thesis in the conclusion (inductive reasoning)?
- Research Methods
- Does the writer rely on personal anecdote, textual research, or empirical research?
- What 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 is the message?
Genre as a Method for Creating and Sustaining Communities
Genres are more than ways to sort texts: Genres reflect shared textual expectations between readers and writers. Genre reflects the histories, activities, and values of communities of practitioners.
Other aliases for communities of practitioners are discourse communities, disciplinary experts, knowledge communities, and networks of expertise.
Academic documents, business documents, legal briefs, medical records–these texts are associated with communities of practitioners (experts, users, critics, and so on). Practitioners—e.g., scientists in a research lab, accountants in an accountancy firm, or engineers in an engineering firm—hold assumptions about how documents should be researched, written, and shared. While disciplinary experts within a community may disagree somewhat about certain aspects of genres (e.g., research methods, stylistic conventions, formatting practices, media, citation styles, or the appropriate use of the first person), they are still familiar with the conventions.
The textual practices of discourse communities reflect epistemological assumptions of practitioners regarding what constitutes a knowledge claim and how knowledge claims can be tested. For instance, a scientist doesn’t insert his or her subjective opinions into the Methods section of a lab report because the assumption is the study should be replicable and objective. Part of academic and professional training is becoming inculcated in these textual practices–that is, in learning these genre conventions to the point that they feel natural and inevitable.
Thus, genres reflect the values of communities; they provide a roadmap to rhetors for how to engage with community members in socially acceptable ways. (For more on this, see Research).
Genre as a Rhetorical, Conceptual Tool
Rather than thinking of genre as a categorization scheme or as way of inscribing the shared values of a particular discourse community, Susan Miller introduces a third way to think about genre in her foundational essay, Genre as Social Action.
Drawing on the scholarship of Lloyd Bitzer and Kenneth Burke, Miller argues genres are invariably rhetorical: “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” (151). Furthermore, Miller hypothesizes the action is expressed in relation to the “situation and motive” (151). So, for Miller, genres function as situated actions in response to recurring situations.
In other words, Miller theorizes rhetors enter a rhetorical situation guided by aims (e.g., to persuade users to support a proposal). The rhetor assesses the rhetorical situation (e.g., considers audience, purpose, voice, style) to more fully understand the situation and the motives of stakeholders. In turn, the audience, whether reading, watching, or listening, is also guided by aims. For instance, a researcher could dip into a research study seeking empirical support for a claim, or a graphic designer could open a magazine looking for layout ideas.
That said, for Miller and her colleagues in the field of Rhetorical Genre Studies, genre is not understood from the perspective of either the rhetor or the audience. Rather, genre is a shared social space–a library of sorts, albeit a conceptual library–that rhetors and their audience(s) share as members of a discourse community. In other words, the act of writing assumes a social situation, a discourse community, and actors within that community who are guided by aims and who are responding to situation and motive.
Thus, to understand the function of genre in communication, you need to understand the intersubjective space between rhetors and readers/listeners. Here, the term intersubjective refers to what the rhetors and readers/listeners share in common. For instance, writers and readers may share an emotional response to a topic. They may share a common sense of how formal the language should be, whether citations should be used, or whether anecdote is valued. Language, jargon, rituals, histories, instincts, desires, personalities, attitudes, knowledge of foundational texts–these are just a handful of constructs rhetors share with their audience in this intersubjective space.
For a more detailed analysis of how language use (writing, speaking, reading) is inherently a psychosocial processes, see What is Communication?)
Much of what happens in this intersubjective space between rhetors and their audiences is something of a black box– a place that is closed to observation, a site we can only speculate about. Frankly, even though our aims are so important when we enter a rhetorical situation, we nonetheless may not have taken a moment to really refine our aims. In real life, our sense of aims when communicating can be a bit murky. From interviews with writers, we know sometimes writers discover their aim by writing. It’s common as well for writers to change their aims during the processes of reading and writing. Perceptions regarding the exigency of the situation, the urgency of the situation, are deeply subjective.
It’s also true that because the intersubjective space between writers and readers is so incredibly subjective, readers and writers may assume different ideas about genres. For instance, even within an English department, different professors may have contrasting expectations when they assign a research paper. Or, in situations where a dozen TAs (Teaching Assistants) are grading lab reports for a chemistry course, those TAs may have different ideas about the best ways to write the reports.
Thus, how rhetors take up a genre is subject to great complexities. The benefit of complexity, here, at least theoretically, is how we can speculate genre plays out in practice.
When we enter a rhetorical situation, guided by our sense of aim like an explorer clutching a compass, we compare the situation to past situations. We question whether we have come across this situation before and how we have responded to it in the past. We question if we have read the work of other writers who have also addressed a similar rhetorical situation. For genre theorists, this is an act 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” (157).
In other words, genres are conceptual tools, ways we archive situated actions to recurring rhetorical situations. In other words, when first entering a situation, writers assess whether this is a recurring rhetorical situation and whether past responses will work equally well for this situation–or if they need to tweak their response, their text, a bit. For instance, if applying for a job, they may look at previous drafts of job application letters or consider what folks have told them they should do to write a good cover letter.
For writers, genre is a tool that people use to make sense of their worlds. Like Vygotsky’s theory of inner speech, genres go underground; they become the fabric of thought, a place that is both linguistic and a place that is pre-linguistic, a feeling we have deep in our bodies regarding what something should look like, what the ideal way is to respond to the situation. Unlike inner speech though, genres are chunks of thoughts, sort of prefabricated Lego pieces we can plug in to jumpstart a new Lego masterpiece. The idea is that we abbreviate the experiences of our lives by creating idealized versions, metatexts that capture the gist of those experiences.
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, she might reflect on the ritual ball drop in Times Square in New York City. She 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). She 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 she anecdotally experiences or learns from others.
In contrast, 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 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 humans, we experience texts and rituals subjectively and quite uniquely. Thus, we don’t all have the same ideas about what should happen at a New Year’s party or what a resolution list should like. Still, when we sit down to write a party invitation for a New Year’s Eve party, this is a recurrent situation for us. Thus, we may very well also consider past invitations we’ve received, experiences at parties, and maybe movies and books about events at such parties.
In summary, Miller and her colleagues who research Rhetorical Genre Studies believe that genres play a foundational role in meaning-making activities, including interpretation, reading, writing, and speaking. Genres presume an action and they reflect the rhetorical situation and motives of stakeholders. Thus, genres are much more than classification schemes or ways communities distinguish themselves from other communities: genres are ways to efficiently respond to recurring situations. Rather than reinvent the wheel every time, we want to save time and respond effectively by first seeing if past responses can work again or be slightly altered. Thus, genres are like big Lego chunks that can we can re-use when starting a new Lego creation that is similar to past Lego creations.
Genres Are Dynamic; They Evolve
At the highest level of abstraction, genres are relatively fixed and stable. For example, consider the hero in the adventure movie. From countless books and movies, we know the drill: the hero loses her sidekick, faces adversity, but invariably triumphs in the end. The annoying kid in the horror movie faces a horrible death. These enduring patterns for organizing stories haven’t changed much since the first novels, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Genres evolve as technologies and cultures evolve. Presently, thanks to technological innovations, writing is becoming less alphabetical, more visual, and more multimodal.
Genres change over time, thanks to the evolution of technologies, knowledge, values, and social practices. For example, when people first used résumés, they were simply letters of introduction. Yet over time, résumés became more formal. Back in the 1950s, people listed their age, religion, and even identified the number of children they had, yet nowadays that sort of information is taboo. Today, some résumés need to be machine readable or composed as videos or podcasts.
For a fun article on how résumés have changed, check out “The 500-Year Evolution Of The Resume” in The Business Insider.
The scholarship of Miller and her colleagues regarding Rhetorical Genre Studies, although abstract, has important implications for writers.
Genre & the Writing Process
First, it’s helpful to recognize the rhetoricity of genres. Given genres play such an important role in meaning making practices, it’s helpful to pay some conscious attention to them when reading and writing.
If you are beginning to work with a new genre, you may find it useful to look at how other writers have addressed this genre in the past. 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.
While conducting a rhetorical analysis of a new genre is helpful for many writers to consider before they get started on a new problem, some people find it paralyzing to think too much about genre. Sometimes you may even want to ignore thoughts about the genre and just begin drafting and trying to sort through what you want to say. This is especially true when
- You have internalized a strong inner voice, and when you write you dialogue with that inner voice or felt sense–that feeling. You only really know what you want to say once you’ve said it.
- 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 so for you it’s not a recurrent situation.
- You find it counterproductive to separate form from content. The notion that writing is a process of pouring content into a pre-existing format
- belies the complexity of some writing situations.
- may cause writer’s block. Focusing on the product rather than the process to follow to create the product may short circuit writing and reasoning processes. This is why it’s commonly said a writer’s first reader is him/herself. As discussed in Invention and Revison, writers need to listen to their inner voices. Writers need to dialogue with themselves about their unique rhetorical situation.
Hence, while thinking about genre and reading the works of other writers addressing similar rhetorical situations will help you jumpstart a writing project, at the end of the day you are the only one who can decide how to write your text. Thus, what you learn by analyzing genre needs to be mixed with what you’ve learned about rhetoric, particularly rhetorical situations, rhetorical appeals, and thesis.
In summary, it makes a great deal of sense for you to look at how other writers have addressed tasks like yours. Studying genre and derivations of a genre is invaluable. But it is also important to recognize you are a unique person composing in a unique time. At the end of the day, it’s you who speaks. And for this to happen, you need to listen to yourself and start writing.