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Navigating Genres
Kerry Dirk
There s a joke that s been floating around some time now that you ve
likely already heard.*
It goes something like the following:
Q: What do you get when you rewind a country song
A: You get your wife back, your job back, your dog back . . .
Maybe this joke makes you laugh. Or groan. Or tilt your head
to the side in confusion. Because it just so happens that in order to
get this joke, you must know a little something about country music
in general and in particular country music lyrics. You must, in other
words, be familiar with the country music genre.
Let s look into country music lyrics a bit more. Bear with me on
this is if you re not a fan. Assuming I want to write lyrics to a country
song, how would I figure out what lyrics are acceptable in terms
of country songs Listening to any country station for a short period
of time might leave one with the following conclusions about country
Country songs tend to tell stories. They often have characters
who are developed throughout the song.
Country songs often have choruses that are broad enough to
apply to a variety of verses.
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250 Kerry Dirk
Country songs are often depressing; people lose jobs, lovers,
and friends.
Country songs express pride for the country style and way of
Country songs are often political, responding to wars and economic
crises, for example.
Given these characteristics, I would feel prepared to write some new
country lyrics. But what would happen if I wanted to write a country
song that didn t do any of the above things Would it still be a country
You are probably already familiar with many genres, although you
may not know them as such; perhaps your knowledge of genres is limited
to types of books, whether mystery, horror, action, etc. Now I m
going to ask you to stick with me while I show you how knowledge of
genres goes far beyond a simple discussion of types. My purposes are
to expand your definition of genre (or to introduce you to a definition
for the first time) and to help you start thinking about how genres
might apply to your own writing endeavors. But above all, I hope to
give you an awareness of how genres function by taking what is often
quite theoretical in the field of rhetoric and composition and making it
a bit more tangible. So why was I talking about country songs I think
that using such references can help you to see, in a quite concrete way,
how genres function.
When I started writing this essay, I had some ideas of what I wanted
to say. But first, I had to determine what this essay might look like. I ve
written a lot letters, nonfiction pieces, scholarly articles, rants but
this was my first time writing an essay to you, a composition student.
What features, I asked myself, should go into this essay How personal
could I get What rhetorical moves might I use, effectively or ineffectively
I hoped that a similar type of essay already existed so that I
would have something to guide my own writing. I knew I was looking
for other essays written directly to students, and after finding many
examples, I looked for common features. In particular, I noted the
warm, personal style that was prevalent through every essay; the tone
was primarily conversational. And more importantly, I noticed that
the writer did not talk as an authoritative figure but as a coach. Some
writers admitted that they did not know everything (we don t), and
others even went so far as to admit ignorance. I found myself doing
Navigating Genres 251
what Mary Jo Reiff, a professor who studies rhetoric and composition,
did when she was asked to write about her experience of writing an
essay about teaching for those new to the field of composition. She
writes, I immediately called on my genre knowledge my past experience
with reading and writing similar texts in similar situations to
orient me to the expectations of this genre (157).
I further acknowledged that it is quite rare that teachers of writing
get to write so directly to students in such an informal manner. Although
textbooks are directed at students, they are often more formal
affairs meant to serve a different purpose than this essay. And because
the genre of this essay is still developing, there are no formal expectations
for what this paper might look like. In my excitement, I realized
that perhaps I had been granted more freedom in writing this essay
than is typical of an already established, although never static, genre.
As a result, I decided to make this essay a mix of personal anecdotes,
examples, and voices from teachers of writing. Such an essay seems to
be the most fitting response to this situation, as I hope to come across
as someone both informative and friendly. Why am I telling you this
Because it seems only appropriate that given the fact that I am talking
about genre awareness, I should make you aware of my own struggles
with writing in a new genre.
I will admit that the word genre used to have a bad reputation
and may still make some people cringe. Genre used to refer primarily
to form, which meant that writing in a particular genre was seen as
simply a matter of filling in the blanks. Anne Freadman, a specialist
in genre theory, points out that it is this kind of genre theory with
its failures that has caused the discredit of the very notion of genre,
bringing about in turn its disuse and the disrepair many of us found
it in (46). But genre theory has come a long way since then. Perhaps
the shift started when the rhetorician Lloyd Bitzer wrote the following:
Due to either the nature of things or convention, or
both, some situations recur. The courtroom is the
locus for several kinds of situations generating the
speech of accusation, the speech of defense, the charge
to the jury. From day to day, year to year, comparable
situations occur, prompting comparable responses;
hence rhetorical forms are born and a special vocabulary,
grammar, and style are established. (13)
252 Kerry Dirk
In other words, Bitzer is saying that when something new happens
that requires a response, someone must create that first response.
Then when that situation happens again, another person uses the first
response as a basis for the second, and eventually everyone who encounters
this situation is basing his/her response on the previous ones,
resulting in the creation of a new genre. Think about George Washington
giving the first State of the Union Address. Because this genre
was completely new, he had complete freedom to pick its form and
content. All presidents following him now have these former addresses
to help guide their response because the situation is now a reoccurring
one. Amy Devitt, a professor who specializes in the study of genre
theory, points out that genres develop, then, because they respond
appropriately to situations that writers encounter repeatedly ( Generalizing
576) and because if each writing problem were to require
a completely new assessment of how to respond, writing would be
slowed considerably. But once we recognize a recurring situation, a situation
that we or others have responded to in the past, our response to
that situation can be guided by past responses ( Generalizing 576).
As such, we can see how a genre like the State of the Union Address
helps for more effective communication between the president and
citizens because the president already has a genre with which to work;
he/she doesn t have to create a new one, and citizens know what to expect
from such an address.
The definition of genre has changed even more since Bitzer s article
was written; genres are now viewed as even more than repeating
rhetorical situations. Carolyn Miller, a leading professor in the field of
technical communication, argues that a rhetorically sound definition
of genre must be centered . . . on the action it is used to accomplish
(151). How might this look These actions don t have to be complex;
many genres are a part of our daily lives. Think about genres as tools
to help people to get things done. Devitt writes that:
genres have the power to help or hurt human interaction,
to ease communication or to deceive, to enable
someone to speak or to discourage someone from saying
something different. People learn how to do small
talk to ease the social discomfort of large group gatherings
and meeting new people, but advertisers learn
Navigating Genres 253
how to disguise sales letters as winning sweepstakes entries.
(Writing 1)
In other words, knowing what a genre is used for can help people to
accomplish goals, whether that goal be getting a job by knowing how
to write a stellar resume, winning a person s heart by writing a romantic
love letter, or getting into college by writing an effective personal
By this point you might realize that you have been participating
in many different genres whether you are telling a joke, writing an
email, or uploading a witty status on Facebook. Because you know
how these genres function as social actions, you can quite accurately
predict how they function rhetorically; your joke should generate a
laugh, your email should elicit a response, and your updated Facebook
status should generate comments from your online friends. But
you have done more than simply filled in the blanks. Possibly without
even thinking about it, you were recognizing the rhetorical situation
of your action and choosing to act in a manner that would result in
the outcome you desired. I imagine that you would probably not share
a risqu joke with your mom, send a Hey Buddy email to your professor,
or update your Facebook status as X has a huge wart on his
foot. We can see that more than form matters here, as knowing what
is appropriate in these situations obviously requires more rhetorical
knowledge than does filling out a credit card form. Devitt argues that
people do not label a particular story as a joke solely because of formal
features but rather because of their perception of the rhetorical action
that is occurring (Writing 11). True, genres often have formulaic features,
but these features can change even as the nature of the genre
remains (Devitt, Writing, 48). What is important to consider here is
that if mastering a form were simply a matter of plugging in content,
we would all be capable of successfully writing anything when we are
given a formula. By now you likely know that writing is not that easy.
Fortunately, even if you have been taught to write in a formulaic
way, you probably don t treat texts in such a manner. When approaching
a genre for a the first time, you likely view it as more than a simple
form: Picking up a text, readers not only classify it and expect a certain
form, but also make assumptions about the text s purposes, its
subject matter, its writer, and its expected reader (Devitt, Writing 12).
We treat texts that we encounter as rhetorical objects; we choose be-
254 Kerry Dirk
tween horror movies and chick flicks not only because we are familiar
with their forms but because we know what response they will elicit
from us (nail-biting fear and dreamy sighs, respectively). Why am I
picking popular genres to discuss I think I agree with Miller when
she argues the following:
To consider as potential genres such homely discourse
as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the
progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the
white paper, as well as the eulogy, the apologia, the
inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon, is
not to trivialize the study of genres; it is to take seriously
the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the
situations in which we find ourselves. (155)
In other words, Miller is saying that all genres matter because they
shape our everyday lives. And by studying the genres that we find familiar,
we can start to see how specific choices that writers make result
in specific actions on the part of readers; it only follows that our own
writing must too be purposefully written.
I like examples, so here is one more. Many of you may be familiar
with The Onion, a fictitious newspaper that uses real world examples
to create humorous situations. Perhaps the most notable genre of The
Onion is its headlines. The purpose of these headlines is simple: to
make the reader respond by laughing. While many of the articles are
also entertaining, the majority of the humor is produced through the
headlines. In fact, the headlines are so important to the success of the
newspaper that they are tested on volunteers to see the readers immediate
responses. There are no formal features of these headlines besides
the fact that they are all quite brief; they share no specific style. But
they are a rhetorical action meant to bring about a specific response,
which is why I see them as being their own genre. A few examples for
those of you unfamiliar with this newspaper would help to explain
what I m saying. Here are a few of my personal favorites (politically
charged or other possibly offensive headlines purposefully avoided):
Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race of Skeleton
Don t Run Away, I m Not the Flesh-Eating Kind of Zombie
Time Traveler: Everyone In The Future Eats Dippin Dots
Navigating Genres 255
I Am Under 18 Button Clicked For First Time In History
Of Internet
Commas, Turning Up, Everywhere
Myspace Outage Leaves Millions Friendless. Recommendations Understand Area Woman
Better Than Husband
Study: Dolphins Not So Intelligent On Land
Beaver Overthinking Dam
Study: Alligators Dangerous No Matter How Drunk You
Child In Corner To Exact Revenge As Soon As He Gets Out
(The Onion)
I would surmise with near certainty that at least one of these headlines
made you laugh. Why I think the success lies in the fact that the
writers of these headlines are rhetorically aware of whom these headlines
are directed toward college students like you, and more specifically,
educated college students who know enough about politics,
culture, and U.S. and world events to get these headlines.
And now for some bad news: figuring out a genre is tricky already,
but this process is further complicated by the fact that two texts that
might fit into the same genre might also look extremely different. But
let s think about why this might be the case. Devitt points out, different
grocery stores make for different grocery lists. Different law courts
make for different legal briefs. And different college classes make for
different research papers. Location may not be the first, second, and
third most important qualities of writing, as it is for real estate, but
location is surely among the situational elements that lead to expected
genres and to adaptations of those genres in particular situations
( Transferability 218). Think about a time when you were asked to
write a research paper. You probably had an idea of what that paper
should look like, but you also needed to consider the location of the
assignment. In other words, you needed to consider how your particular
teacher s expectations would help to shape your assignment. This
makes knowing a genre about much more than simply knowing its
form. You also need to consider the context in which it is being used.
As such, it s important to be aware that the research paper you might
be required to write in freshman composition might be completely
different than the research paper you might be asked to write for an
256 Kerry Dirk
introductory psychology class. Your goal is to recognize these shifts in
location and to be aware of how such shifts might affect your writing.
Let s consider a genre with which you are surely familiar: the thesis
statement. Stop for a moment and consider what this term means
to you. Ask your classmates. It s likely that you each have your own
definition of what a thesis statement should and should not look like.
You may have heard never to start a thesis statement with a phrase like
In this essay. Or you might have been taught that a thesis statement
should have three parts, each of which will be discussed in one paragraph
of the essay. I learned that many good thesis statements follow
the formula X because Y, where X refers to a specific stance, and
Y refers to a specific reason for taking that stance. For example, I
could argue School uniforms should be required because they will
help students to focus more on academics and less on fashion. Now,
whether or not this is a good thesis statement is irrelevant, but you
can see how following the X because Y formula would produce a
nicely structured statement. Take this a step further and research thesis
statements on the Internet, and you ll find that there are endless
suggestions. And despite their vast differences, they all fit under the
genre of thesis statement. How is this possible Because it comes back
to the particular situation in which that thesis statement is being used.
Again, location is everything.
I think it s time to try our hand at approaching a genre with which
I hope all of you are only vaguely familiar and completely unpracticed:
the ransom note.
A Scenario
I ve decided to kidnap Bob s daughter Susie for ransom. I m behind
on the mortgage payments, my yacht payments are also overdue,
and I desperately need money. It is well known that Bob is one of
the wealthiest people in Cash City, so I ve targeted him as my future
source of money. I ve never met Bob, although one time his Mercedes
cut me off in traffic, causing me to hit the brakes and spill my drink;
the stain still glares at me from the floor of the car. The kidnapping
part has been completed; now I need to leave Bob a ransom note. Let s
look at a few drafts I ve completed to decide which one would be most
Navigating Genres 257
Ransom Letter 1:
If you ever want to see your daughter alive again,
leave 1 million dollars by the blue garbage can at 123
Ransom Rd. at Midnight. Come alone and do not
call the police.
Ransom Letter 2:
Hav daughter. Million $. Blu grbg can 123 Ransom
Rd. 12AM. No poliz.
Ransom Letter 3:
Dear Bob,
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
You have a lovely house, and I very much enjoyed
my recent visit while you were out of town. Unfortunately,
I have kidnapped your daughter. As I am
currently unable to meet several financial demands, I
am graciously turning to you for help in this matter.
I am sure that we will be able to come to some mutually
beneficial agreement that results in the return of
your daughter and the padding of my wallet. Please
meet with me at the Grounds Coffee House on First
Street so that we may discuss what price is most fitting.
Your daughter, meanwhile, remains in safe and
competent hands. She is presently playing pool with
my son Matt (a possible love connection ), and she
says to tell you Hi.
Yours truly,
P.S. Please order me a skim vanilla latte, should you
arrive before I do.
Immediately, you can probably determine that ransom letter one
is the best choice. But have you considered why What does the first
258 Kerry Dirk
letter have that the other two are lacking Let s first eliminate the most
obvious dud letter number three. Not only does it mimic the friendly,
familiar manner of two friends rather than the threatening note of
a deranged kidnapper, but it also suggests both that there is no rush
in the matter and that the price is negotiable. Letters one and two are
closer; they both contain the same information, but letter two fails
to be as rhetorically strong as number one. The spelling errors and
choppy feel might suggest that the writer of the note is not intelligent
enough to get away with the kidnapping. The first letter is the most
rhetorically strong because it is well written and direct. All of these
letters would qualify as fitting the genre of ransom letter, but the first
one most obviously fits the rhetorical situation.
It may be worthwhile to note some particular challenges you might
have to approaching your writing genres as rhetorical situations. Perhaps
you have come from a writing background where you learned
that certain rules apply to all writing. Just nod if these sound familiar:
You must have a thesis statement at the end of the introduction.

Every thesis statement should introduce three points of discussion.

You cannot use I in writing.
You cannot begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
Every paragraph should start with a topic sentence.
You get the point. These rules are appealing; they tell us exactly what
to do and not to do with regard to writing. I remember happily creating
introductions that moved from broad to specific (often starting
with In our world ), constructing three point thesis statements, and
beginning paragraphs with first, second, and third. I didn t have
to think about audience, or purpose, or even much about content for
that matter. All that really mattered was that essay followed a certain
formula that was called good writing. But looking back, what resulted
from such formulas was not very good; actually, it was quite bad.
That is, of course, not to say that there aren t rules that come with
genres; the difference is that the rules change as the genre changes,
that no rules apply to all genres, and that genres require more effort
than simply following the rules. Because genres usually come with
established conventions, it is risky to choose not to follow such con-
Navigating Genres 259
ventions. These similarities within genres help us to communicate successfully;
imagine the chaos that would ensue if news broadcasts were
done in raps, if all legal briefs were written in couplets, or if your teacher
handed you a syllabus and told you that it must first be decoded.
In sum, too much choice is as debilitating of meaning as is too little
choice. In language, too much variation results eventually in lack of
meaning: mutual unintelligibility (Devitt, Genre 53).
But on a brighter note, genres also help us to make more efficient
decisions when writing, as we can see how people have approached
similar situations. Creating a new genre each time that writing was
required would make the writing process much longer, as we would
not have past responses to help us with present ones (Devitt, Generalizing
576). As a result, the more you are able to master particular
genres, the better equipped you may be to master genres that you later
When people write, they draw on the genres they
know, their own context of genres, to help construct
their rhetorical action. If they encounter a situation
new to them, it is the genres they have acquired in
the past that they can use to shape their new action.
Every genre they acquire, then, expands their genre
repertoire and simultaneously shapes how they might
view new situations. (Devitt, Writing 203)
Taking what Devitt says into account, think back to the previous discussion
of the research paper. If you already have some idea of what
a research paper looks like, you do not have to learn an entirely new
genre. Instead, you just have to figure out how to change that particular
genre to fit with the situation, even if that change just comes from
having a different teacher.
Learning about genres and how they function is more important
than mastering one particular genre; it is this knowledge that helps
us to recognize and to determine appropriate responses to different
situations that is, knowing what particular genre is called for in a
particular situation. And learning every genre would be impossible
anyway, as Devitt notes that no writing class could possibly teach
students all the genres they will need to succeed even in school, much
less in the workplace or in their civic lives. Hence the value of teaching
genre awareness rather than acquisition of particular genres (Writing
260 Kerry Dirk
205). This approach helps to make you a more effective writer as well,
as knowing about genres will make you more prepared to use genres
that you won t learn in college. For example, I recently needed to write
a letter about removing a late fee on a credit card. I had never written
this particular type of letter before, but I knew what action I was trying
to accomplish. As a result, I did some research on writing letters
and determined that I should make it as formal and polite as possible.
The body of the letter ended up as follows:
I have very much enjoyed being a card carrier with
this bank for many years. However, I recently had
a late fee charged to my account. As you will note
from my previous statements, this is the first late fee I
have ever acquired. I do remember making this payment
on time, as I have all of my previous payments.
I hope to remain a loyal customer of this bank for
many years to come, so I would very much appreciate
it if you would remove this charge from my account.
You can see that this letter does several things. First, I build credibility
for myself by reminding them that I have used their card for many
years. Second, I ask them to check my records to show further that I
am typically a responsible card carrier. And third, I hint that if they do
not remove the late fee, I might decide to change to a different bank.
This letter is effective because it considers how the situation affects the
genre. And yes, the late fee was removed.
Chances are that I have left you more confused than you were before
you began this essay. Actually, I hope that I have left you frustrated;
this means that the next time you write, you will have to consider
not only form but also audience, purpose, and genre; you will, in other
words, have to consider the rhetorical effectiveness of your writing.
Luckily, I can leave you with a few suggestions:
First, determine what action you are trying to accomplish. Are
you trying to receive an A on a paper Convince a credit card
company to remove a late fee Get into graduate school If you
don t know what your goal is for a particular writing situation,
you ll have a difficult time figuring out what genre to use.
Second, learn as much as you can about the situation for which
you are writing. What is the purpose Who is the audience
Navigating Genres 261
How much freedom do you have How does the location affect
the genre
Third, research how others have responded to similar situations.
Talk to people who have written what you are trying to
write. If you are asked to write a biology research paper, ask
your instructor for examples. If you need to write a cover letter
for a summer internship, take the time to find out about the
location of that internship.
And finally, ask questions.
1. What are some genres that you feel you know well How did
you learn them What are their common rhetorical features
2. What rules have you been told to follow in the past How did
they shape what you were writing
3. How much freedom do you enjoy when writing Does it help
to have a form to follow, or do you find it to be limiting
Works Cited
Bitzer, Lloyd F. The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1
(1968): 1 14. Print.
Devitt, Amy J. Generalizing About Genre: New Conceptions of an Old
Concept. College Composition and Communication 44.4 (1993): 573 86.
. Genre as Language Standard. Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments,
Alternatives. Ed. Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom. Portsmouth, NH:
Boynton/Cook, 1997. 45 55. Print.
. Transferability and Genres. The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher
J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2007.
215 27. Print.
. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.
Freadman, Anne. Anyone for Tennis. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva
Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol: Taylor & Francis, 1994. 43 66.
Miller, Carolyn R. Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70.2
(1984): 151 67. Print.
The Onion: America s Finest News Source. 20 July 2009. Web. 20 July 2009.
262 Kerry Dirk
Reiff, Mary Jo. Moving Writers, Shaping Motives, Motivating Critique and
Change: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing. Relations, Locations,
Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg,
Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Urbana, IL: National Council of
Teachers of English, 2006. 157 64. Print


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