Genres are a classification scheme for sorting texts and commonplace responses to recurring situations 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

Genres are like old parts or legos that can be reconfigured, reused, to expedite clear communications. Genres are fairly standardized in professional and workplace writing. In contrast, in creative writing, creatives play with genre conventions, knowing readers delight in remixed genres. Photo: Joe Moxley

tiny tin men made from old parts

Genre Definition

Most simply, Genre refers to

  • a classification scheme for sorting texts
    • according to different discourse aims
      • Examples: Drama, Fable, Fairy Tale, etc.
    • according to the absence or presence of commonplacerhetorical moves associated with recurring situated practices.
    • according to formatting or linguistic patterns
      • Examples:
        • A scientific article typically has an Introduction, Results, Methods, and Conclusion Section.
        • Use of a particular style guide, such as APA or MLA
  • a form of literacy, a rhetorical tool of communication that informs composing and interpretation.

Beyond ways to sort texts, genres are a form of signification, an alphabet of sorts. But unlike words, which convey a defined denotation a range of connotative meanings, genres carry a boatload of potential meanings.

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 is called for. Thus genre are

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

Genres: Why Do They Matter?

Genres facilitate communication between writers, speakers, knowledge workers and readers, listeners, users by employed shared conventions and expectations about what to say and how to say it in recurring rhetorical situations.

Writers and readers use genres and genre knowledge to increase the likelihood of clarity in communications.

“… [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 1998:137)

What are Genres?

Genres are a Way of Sorting Information

Most simply, genre is a way of naming and classifying texts (and other communications). Categorization schemes for sorting genres at the global level vary across media.

For instance

To sort texts into genres, critics engage in rhetorical analysis.

Aim/PurposeIs the purpose to inform? Is it a bibliography? A review of a book, restaurant, website?
Is the purpose to persuade? entertain?
CitationsDoes/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?
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)?
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
Sample Genre: Books on Wisdom

Genre are a Method for Creating and Sustaining Communities

Genres are more than a way to sort texts by aim or exigency or context: Genres reflect shared textual expectations and epistemologies (e.g., respect for intellectual property) among people, whether they are the sender or receiver of the message. Genres reflects the histories, activities, and values of discourse communities (aka communities of practitioners).

Academic documents, business documents, legal briefs, medical records—texts are always associated with discourse communities and situated practices. 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.

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).

The textual practices of discourse communities reflect the epistemological assumptions of practitioners regarding what constitutes a knowledge claim and how knowledge claims can be tested. For instance, a scientist doesn’t insert their 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.

Genres are Social Constructs

Rather than thinking of genre as (1) a categorization scheme or (2) as way of inscribing the shared values of a particular discourse community, Carolyn Miller, a rhetorician extraordinaire, 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.

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. A graphic designer could open a magazine looking for layout ideas.

That said, for Carolyn 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.

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 their 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 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 an interesting article on how résumés have changed, check out “The 500-Year Evolution Of The Resume” in The Business Insider. ]

Caution: Genres May Have Nonverbal Elements

While genres are mostly commonly thought of as a commonplace rhetorical move or pattern of linguistic attributes, genres may also be defined by absence:

Genres may also be defined by the absence of commonplace rhetorical moves, such as the assumption that claims should be supported by evidence. Genres may be a form of nonverbal conversation, a way of signifying feelings, cultural values, a way of appealing to pathos and ethos.

Genres signify much more than shared formatting conventions. Genres are also a way of composing with cultural archetypes, values, fairy tales. At a very deep level, genre conventions are a tool for appealing to pathos and ethos. Just as comets carry a vapor trail, genres shimmer: they reach readers, listeners, users at a deep level–at the level of felt sense. IOWs, genres are deeply rhetorical, subjective, and grounded in the bedrock of personal experience, ongoing scholarly conversations, and cultural archives.

To illustrate the role of nonverbal elements of genre, let’s consider the recurring situation of a supreme court nominee.

Quotations from Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barret during their nominations clearly indicated they were endeavoring to present an objective persona. In various ways, when grilled by democrats on the Judiciary Committee, each of them said they respected the rule of law. In other words, they claimed to respect the canon, the archive, the legal precedent. In layman’s terms, they affirmed they could not make decisions willy nilly based on their personal feelings at the moment. Rather, they affirmed their decisions needed to be based on the law: legal precedent.

Stare decisis, this Court has often said, contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process by ensuring that decisions are founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals. ”( 6).

Source: Rex Chapman on Twitter

And yet, as soon as possible they overturned Roe V. Wade, which had been federal U.S. law for over fifty years.

So, were they lying? Is this an act of rhetrickery, sophistry?

Well, yeah, clearly.

Thus, broadly speaking this rhetorical analysis of the genre of the supreme court nomination process exemplifies that the genre of a supreme court nomination

  • permits rhetrickery. It is a performance. And the dance is structured by the expectations of the audience
  • embraces concision and vagueness
    • uses silence regarding Roe v . Wade to hide their true thoughts about abortion and what they would do if nominated
      • In the case of these past four supreme court nominees, much of the dance was nonverbal. Silence regarding Roe was used to signify to their audience, other conservatives, that they could be trusted. They were careful to be concise to conceal their true intentions. And to win the nomination, they presented a professional persona, one that valued the rule of law.

Genre & The Writing Process

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 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 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.

Genres are chunks of thoughts, sort of prefabricated Lego pieces we can plug in 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–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 they anecdotally experience or learn 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.

How Can Genre Knowledge Help Me Compose?

Because genres play such an important role in meaning making practices, it’s helpful to pay some conscious attention to them when reading and writing.

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.

Works Cited

Coe, Richard M. and Aviva Freedman. 1998. “Genre Theory: Australian and North American Approaches.” In Mary Lynch Kennedy (ed), Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory and Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies. Pp. 136-147. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action” Quarterly Journal of Speech  (70) 1984, 151-167

Swales, J. & C. Feak (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Pres