2.4 How to Use Genre to Help You Write

Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly

As Dr. Kerry Dirk notes, genre is less a matter of “filling in the blanks” and more a matter of responding to a particular context or rhetorical situation.[1] For example, if I were to attend a basketball game in a ball gown or a three-piece suit, it’s likely that my wardrobe choices would confuse the other people there. People might whisper or point; they may even ask me why I dressed in formal attire to attend a sports event. Probably, I would spend most of the game feeling uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, I walked into the stadium wearing my team’s colours and a foam finger, no one would think me strange or out-of-place. In fact, I may even receive high fives from fans who are at the game supporting the same team. In the former scenario, I responded inappropriately to the situation (a basketball game). In the latter scenario, I responded appropriately—and likely enjoyed the game (my purpose) quite a lot more.

The same, or something similar, is true of writing. When your instructors are asking you to write a lab report, a research paper, an annotated bibliography, or some other assignment in their class, they are expecting you to submit an assignment that follows a pre-existing set of conventions. Your awareness of those conventions will help you fulfill the purpose of your writing assignment. It will also make the assignment easier for you to complete since, as Dr. Dirk notes, you’re not starting from scratch.[2]

Now the big question is how do we approach a new writing situation? How can you successfully navigate writing a formal research essay (which is like wearing a tuxedo) or a forum post (which is more business casual)? The answer is to call upon your genre knowledge or mine past writing situations and experiences for information on how to proceed.[3] For example, you likely wrote a five paragraph essay in high school (and we talk about that form of essay in Section 2.7 The Essay). Guess what? That means you have genre knowledge! You know that an essay needs a thesis and supporting argument. See? You already know what to put in a basic essay. You can now add to that knowledge.

If you are still a little confused, that’s just fine. If you just want some simple directions that you can use when faced with a new writing task, assignment, or project, then you may find the following quite helpful.

Try to figure out what the genre is used for. An example Dr. Dirk gives is the genre of the Facebook status update – the outcome the author wants is for “friends” to like the status.[4] But what action does an essay perform besides possibly giving you anxiety? Its purpose at the undergraduate level is to show your instructor that you have the skills to pay the bills. The essay is a genre where readers expect authors to disseminate or share complex information effectively, argue a point, and support that point with relevant and high quality arguments and evidence. This is why essays are valued as assignments. If you have a writing assignment that you are unfamiliar with, do some sleuthing by asking your instructor, looking up examples of that type of writing, or chat with a librarian, or your friendly, neighbourhood Writing Centre tutors. What are the readerly expectations for that writing assignment or genre? That’s a question we suggest you try to answer (check your assignment, the answer is usually there for post-secondary writing assignments).

Your writing assignments might have the same name in different classes (essay, response paper, position paper, forum post) but have different descriptions. As Dr. Dirk explains, genre is tricky, because “two texts … might fit into the same genre” but look quite different.[5] Your instructor’s expectations will change how a particular academic genre works. The discipline will also change the conventions of an essay (we discussed this issue above). An essay on a close reading of a literary work will have many direct quotations and likely no discussion section while an essay about pollution affecting mollusk populations will likely have charts, statistics and a discussion section. However, both have an introduction, a thesis, evidence, and a conclusion. Therefore, you know the basics, but the context or location of the essay makes a difference.[6]

What you’ll discover is that the more investigative work you do about any new type of writing, the better off you will be. If you have to write a resume, you look up samples to see what others included. If you are writing a cover letter, you investigate the company. If you are writing a forum post, maybe you’ll consult this book or ask your instructor for a sample.

That’s enough about writing for the moment, let’s turn to academic reading.

  1. Kerry Dirk, “Navigating Genre,” in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, eds. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, vol. 1 (Parlor Press, 2010), 249-62, https://writingspaces.org/past-volumes/navigating-genres.
  2. Dirk, 252.
  3. Dirk, 251.
  4. Dirk, 253.
  5. Dirk, 255.
  6. Dirk, 255.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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