Genre and the Forms of Writing

Writing is a skill.  It is, in a way, it's own language.  And yes, I have heard those who insist that it requires "talent," or that it "can't be learned" or "can't be taught."  To this, I point out that writing is language.  We teach foreign languages all the time — we expect students to learn foreign Spanish and French and similar.  It just so happens that the foreign language I teach is an archaic paper version of the conversational English that most of my students speak at home.  And depending on what genre of writing you're engaged in, that language will change.

When we discuss writing in our everyday lives, we often only mean the specific act of placing words on a page or a screen.  You might write a diary entry by placing pen to notebook, or you might write a Facebook post by sharing a photo from your phone and then tapping out a quick description with your thumb.

Clearly, writing a diary entry isn't at the same as writing a text message.  One involves a pen and paper and the audience of your future self, while the other involves an internet connection and a number of your friends and family.  These differences in types of writing are called Genres.  You're likely familiar with genres of movies or books or music.  We all know that horror movies are very different from romantic comedies, and we know there are certain "rules" that define these genres.  For example, you likely won't call something a romantic comedy if it features a vengeful ghost who splatters blood across every scene.

When we discuss genre, these "rules" and expectations are known as the Genre Conventions.  We expect horror movies to be scary just as we expect heavy metal music to be loud and as we expect the Russian novel to be long and intricate.  These Audience Expectations influence and sometimes even define the genre conventions.

Bear in mind, however, that genres are flexible.  You can have a horror movie with a love story.  A metal band might pause the overpowering and ground-shattering squeal of the beat to pluck out a guitar solo.  Not all Russian novels are War and Peace.

Video: "What is a Genre?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

In this video, Professor Ehren Pflugfelder explains how genres consist of common and recurring features that help audiences know what to expect.

Still trying to make sense of genre?  Dapper Mr. Tom on YouTube explains how movie genres differ.  Note that movies are themselves a genre, but the genre of movies has additional subgenres, as explained here.  Normally, we just use "genre" to describe each subgenre.

Genres Apply to All Forms of Communication

When I teach, I often see confusion about what genre actually means.  In English Composition courses, we rely upon one fundamental definition: genre is about categories of communication.

Hence, text messages are a genre.  Tweets are a genre.  Resumes are a genre.  We call them genres because they have different conventions to fit their different purposes, and they aren't interchangeable.  If you submit a text message to human resources instead of a resume, the hiring manager won't call you back.  If you text your best friend with a copy of your resume, they'll simply assume you're asking for help with revisions.  Either way, you won't get a new job.

Composition as Choice

When we write, we make very different choices about what to share depending upon our chosen audience.  When we discuss Composition, what we mean is the entire process of composing our thoughts and words into coherent forms of communication.  Whether taking a moment to think about the day or spending a few minutes snapping pics to get the perfect selfie, sharing our words will always involve many steps beyond simply placing words on a blank slate.


Genres are the categories of communication.

Genre Conventions are the "rules" and expectations of a genre.

Audience Expectations often depend upon the genre conventions.  We expect writers and speakers to follow the "rules" of their chosen medium.

Composition describes the entire process of composing our thoughts into coherent words, images, or other forms of communication.

Authors are the individuals who are producing a specific instance of communicate.

Purpose is the reason we communicate a specific piece of information.

Audience includes all the people who read, hear, or see our communication.  We can have intended and unintended audiences.

Genre Example: Text Messages

When we compose words, we change our habits depending upon the genre we're writing.  For example, a text message will usually be very quick, very direct, and forwarded instantly.  Typos may slip in, and we'll use abbreviations and lower-case letters because this form of communication often requires a fast reply time.  On the other hand, a resume requires a very "professional" appearance.  We almost never send them right away, since it might take days or sometimes weeks to gather all the required information.  Then you have to sit down and type it all out, making sure everything is formatted correctly.  Texts may be short, but they can also be long, whereas a resume must often be exactly a single page long.  Description and bullet points must be adjusted, years of work must be double-checked, and not a single typo may be allowed to remain.  Sure, you might get a little nervous about sending a text to you crush, but for a resume?  You might just rip your hair out.  And then pull it together for the interview.  Because those hiring managers will use multiple genres of communication to make sure you don't just sound good on paper, but that you actually sound professional in person.  And don't get me started on business attire.  Yes, our expectations of "professional" fashion can also be understood as genres of communication.

How We Study Genres in the Classroom

Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS)

Genre and Rhetoric are closely related: the ways we communicate fit withing specific sets of expectations depending upon how, when, and why we communicate.  Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) is the exploration of these relationships.

Academic Readings on Rhetorical Genre Studies

Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy by Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff.  I particularly recommend the following chapters for composition instructors:

"Key Concepts in Rhetorical Genre Studies: An Overview" by Natasha Artemeva

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)

Every time we communicate, we are taking part in a social and physical world of communication practices.  Cultural-Historical Activity Theory provides a framework for examining the relative effects of these influences.

Social Expectations and Resources that Affect Texts:

An overview of how activity theory is applied to collective groups.  This helps illustrate why an understanding of social activity is important for understanding the function of genre within a given social system.

Academic Readings on CHAT

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Exploring a Theory to Inform Practice and Research, by Kirsten Foot.  As Foot explains, humans work and communicate collectively — and CHAT offers a framework for relating social activity to communication.

Let's CHAT: Cultural Historical Activity Theory in the Creative Writing Classroom, by David Disarro.

Researching Contradictions: Cultural Historical Activity Theory Research (CHAT) in the English Classroom by Ian Thompson.

"Vygotsky's Neglected Legacy": Cultural-Historical Activity Theory by Wolff-Michael Roth and Yew-Jin Lee Source.  This explains how we can use CHAT to understand how students learn within the social spaces of our classroom.