This chapter is being written during a time when many people in the United States – and across the world – would normally be starting to attend and enjoy baseball games for the spring and summer season. Part of the appeal of baseball season might be its predictability: that is, fans are familiar with the process and schedule, and they have expectations about attending a game. This familiarity brings comfort to fans: knowing how the event will run, and anticipating the sights and sounds, the smells and traditions lets baseball fans relax and get the most from their experience on game days.
Today, baseball season is occurring in the middle of the COVID-19 global health crisis. As a result, audiences no longer have the certainty they once anticipated. Will the experience match with their expectations? What are the likely consequences of the unfamiliar situation?
While variety may be the spice of life, predictability is the preferred flavor for technical writing. Effective documents are defined purely by how well they accomplish their writer’s purpose. Writers must recognize the needs, limitations, and motivations of their audiences. Just as familiarity may provide a fuller experience for a baseball fan, appropriate genre choices by writers allow readers to anticipate and receive the message of a document.
Through study of examples found in many professional documents and practice of the information introduced in this chapter, students will learn to responsibly choose a genre for documents they write. By considering audience needs, limitations, and message requirements, students will select genres for their writing with the goal of improving the audience’s ability to understand and use those documents efficiently.
This chapter aims to help students develop the following skills:
- to recognize by format and purpose the genres that are common in technical writing;
- to analyze the audience in preparation for writing; and
- to identify the context for writing as part of the effort to choose a genre in which to write a required document.
What does genre mean in general?
The term genre (pronounced “ZHAHN-ruh”) comes from the root gener: think of words like general and generic. Its basic meaning is a kind or sort of something. As used in technical writing, genre refers to a typical or standardized way of using form, content, and style within an academic discipline or profession; a document format writers use to help readers recognize, understand and use the document in a defined context.
Similarly, the terms audience and context have more specific meanings when used in connection with technical writing practice. Audience refers to the users of a document, both those intended by the writer and those who otherwise encounter and read the document. Context is the situation in which a document is written or used, including the rhetorical as well as physical situation in technical writing.
Think about some form of art or expression you are familiar with: for example, most traditional-age college students enjoy music. Now, take a poll of 4 of your classmates and include your own responses:
Question: what is your favorite kind of music? List the names, including yours, of the people who responded to your poll, along with their answer in the space provided below:
|Respondent Name||Favorite Music Genre|
As you can see, genre is, put simply, the word for describing a set of characteristics that make up a type of something.
What does genre mean in technical writing?
Writing, like music, is a means of expression that also has various genres within it. We rely on our familiarity with standard forms, content, and style as writers and as readers because those standards make us confident we understand the information we present and receive.
Think about poetry, for example, as a genre of writing. While poetry can certainly be further classified by types into sub-genres, let’s stay with the general type of writing that is poetry.
- Most of us have probably experienced poetry as readers, if not as writers. Whether or not we enjoyed it or understood it, we at least came away from the experience with a familiarity that allows us to have certain expectations about poetry. Maybe we’re not sure how to do it, but we know it when we see it.
- Now, if you are someone who has written poetry, you may be familiar with the patterns and rules for writing a poem. You may have a sense of how many syllables make up a line, say, of a certain type of poem. You may know how many lines must be included in a stanza. Perhaps you know which pairs of lines should rhyme, and even how to construct levels of meaning through clever use of language and rhythm.
What does the phrase “I know it when I see it” mean to you when you think about poetry? What are the clues you think of that make poems easy to recognize? Write your response in the space below and be prepared to discuss your answer in class:
What are the common genres used in academic technical writing?
It should be apparent that “I know it when I see it” is a good place to begin learning as a new student of technical writing. Depending upon the path you have taken through this textbook to get to this chapter, your level of familiarity with technical writing as a genre is developing. This section introduces some of the most common documents assigned in college technical writing courses.
Nearly all students have been assigned to write a “paper” in high school. Before you entered college, what you completed in a high school or university prep English class was most likely one or more essays. A research paper for sociology, or a term paper for American history, or an opinion-based final paper for civics class: each of these writings is a form of an essay.
Characteristics that may make a written composition fit the genre of an essay in academic writing include the following listed traits:
- An essay is usually assigned with a short to moderate length requirement. It will often be limited to a specific double-spaced page count or a word count range.
- Essays are typically limited to a single, non-fiction subject and often present an argument.
- An essay assignment will often require you to include evidence from researched sources to support your opinions as well as the statements you present as facts.
- Essay assignments usually require you to format your paper and provide citations (both in-text and at the end) according to a known style guide. In college writing, the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide is most commonly used.
- College level essays are written in a formal tone and the use of the pronoun you is discouraged. While formal essays may assume an audience of professors and other professionals, carefully review assignment specifications and consult your instructor to confirm the intended audience for all writing assignments.
The Memo (short for Memorandum)
In an effort to introduce students to the writing genres common in the business world, this textbook provides multiple opportunities to practice a widely-used form of correspondence: the memo. In purpose, form, and content, a memo is the ancestor of the modern e-mail.
Characteristics that may make a written composition fit the genre of a memo include the following listed traits:
- A memo is used to transmit messages among members of the same organization (that is, memos are internal correspondence). Memos specify one or more individual audience members to whom the message is addressed.
- A memo is usually single-spaced with block-style paragraphs (no indented first line). Memo headers may be single- or double-spaced, and should include these entries: TO: FROM: DATE: and SUBJECT.
- In business practice, memos may vary broadly in length: however, they tend to be shorter than essays in academic practice. Carefully review assignment specifications and consult your instructor to confirm the length requirements.
- Some memo assignments may require in-text citations and reference lists: review the assignment specifications carefully and ask your instructor if you need help.
What are the common genres used in professional technical writing?
An in-depth exploration of technical writing genres and details is outside the scope of this text and your related course(s). Nevertheless, it is useful to consider the ways in which the technical writing you practice here will apply directly to your work as a professional in any field. To better understand the relationship between college- and professional-level technical writing, consider the major purposes professional writing accomplishes.
For example, as you learn to write argument essays, you will be developing your ability to clearly state claims and effectively integrate evidence from your research that supports your claims. Whether a writer’s intention is to analyze and evaluate a subject; to solve a problem and recommend a solution; or to persuade an audience to make some other kind of commitment, some kind of argument must be presented by the technical writer. When students can successfully write an argument, that mechanism can be deployed in many standard forms or genres, including but not limited to proposals; analysis reports; specifications; instructions; and recommendation reports.
It is quite likely that arguments like those discussed above may be presented in the form of memos, letters, or emails: however, the more common use of correspondence genres is simpler in a business setting. Memos (and letters and emails) present an excellent example of the typical day-to-day communication in business that requires strong technical writing ability. The exchange of technical information, whether in a three-sentence email or a three-volume formal report, must be clear, complete, concise, and correct every time.
How does audience analysis affect genre selection?
Define the Purpose of the Document
Again, depending on the path you have followed in working through this textbook, you may have seen multiple references already to the importance of defining the purpose of any document you are creating. Keeping the purpose for your writing in the front of your mind is critical not only to developing an approach to the task and selecting content, tone and wording carefully: thinking about purpose helps writers choose an appropriate genre as well.
Get to Know Your Audience
The process of analyzing an audience for your writing can vary widely depending on the purpose of the writing, along with factors such as time and other resources available to use in identifying and studying an audience. While you are a first- or second-year student, your primary audience will most often be the instructor who assigned the writing task. Secondary readers may include your peers and others outside the school organization (a review committee for an external scholarship application, for example).
As you progress through college into upper-division coursework and beyond, your opportunities to write technical documents will expand. Although the essay is a common form of written composition (genre) in academia, you are unlikely to ever be asked to write an essay for your job. In fact, most of the time you will be expected to determine on your own what genre best fits the context for which you are writing.
The people who make up your audiences will also vary more as you pursue research grants, internships, collaborations and employment. The following questions may be used in technical writing situations as a starting point for analyzing audiences to select a genre. Decisions about other characteristics (such as content, design, style, and tone) may also be informed by the process of audience analysis.
What does the reader want or need from the document?
Remember that readers don’t read your technical documents for the fun and adventure of reading. Keep in mind that the audience for any document is pursuing a purpose and has identified specific outcomes that will determine the success or failure of your document. Be as specific as possible in your effort to make your writing align with the audience’s purpose for reading it.
What preferences and limitations do audience members have?
Questions to consider in this category are those that help a writer learn just who makes up the audience for a piece of writing.
- Are they researchers who want to see every detail of your experiment discussed and illustrated in a lab report?
- Are they executives who need an easy-to-understand summary with bottom-line costs they can rely on to approve or deny a proposal?
- Are they hiring managers who need a clear one-page resume they can scan in under 5 minutes?
- Are they clients with limited English skills who must draw critical information in your recommendation report from carefully-crafted illustrations?
How familiar are audience members with the subject of your writing?
For an unfamiliar audience, you may need to provide considerable background information; while a more familiar audience may be frustrated if they must wade through details they already know.
What will be your readers’ initial attitudes toward the document?
Are they much too busy to read an in-depth report? Are they known to be highly skeptical of the information you are presenting in the document? Are they supportive of your efforts and your position on the subject?
What are the context considerations when choosing a genre?
Once you have completed a thorough analysis of the audience for whom you are writing a document, you will have at least a basic understanding of the context in which your document may be used. However, the context in which writers create documents is an even more important challenge. Read Elizabeth Wardle’s passage about context and genre in “Bad Ideas about Writing” (2017) beginning on page 30 of that document online at https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf . Make notes in the spaces provided below and be prepared to discuss the reading during class.
In her chapter “You Can Learn to Write in General,” Dr. Wardle argues that the title of her chapter is false. In your own words, write one reason the author says learning to “write in general” is not possible.
In your own words, explain what Dr. Wardle says students need to do in addition to learning grammar skills to become writers.
Writing a usable document depends greatly upon your careful analysis of the needs, desires, and limitations of the audience for whom you are writing. Always be aware of the context for which you write, as well as the context in which readers will use the documents. These efforts will help you identify the genre best suited to the writing task in front of you. Choosing the best genre for the rhetorical situation leads to confidence in writers and readers alike.
Activity: What would you do to succeed with integrity?
Read and discuss the following scenario with your classmates as directed by your instructor. Answer the questions and be prepared to discuss your answers in class.
Dorm-mates Omar and Noah are both enrolled in a second-year technical writing course. Omar, an international transfer student, took two writing courses at an English language institute before entering the mechanical engineering program. Noah, an industrial hygiene student, took a first-year writing course in his second semester and completed an internship at an oil refinery last summer.
Their technical writing assignment is to conduct an interview with a lab instructor in their respective departments and submit a memo report. Each student is directed to focus his report on outlining the information from the interview he finds most significant to second-year lab students. Assume the audience for the assigned documents is the technical writing instructor. The students are encouraged to peer-review each other’s work, but the assignment is to be completed by each student individually.
In addition to details such as the required length and due date, what questions would you ask the instructor as you prepared to write this assignment?
The assignment sheet specifies a memo report as the required genre for this work. Are you familiar with that genre? How can you find out more about the genre if you are not sure?
Originality Fatality continued:
Back at their dorm after dinner, the classmates talk about their writing assignment. Noah says he learned at his internship that memos are documents used all the time in business. They are kind of like an email, he explains to Omar, but not as formal as a letter. Noah looks for a flash drive he used at that job: he reasons he may have kept a copy of a memo or two he wrote and can use that as an example.
Noah’s plan doesn’t give Omar much confidence, particularly since Omar is sure he has never seen a memo, much less written one. Omar did write several reports while studying at the language institute, and he remembers learning those reports were called essays. Omar decides to look online and see what clues he can find. He uses Google to search for “essay mechanical engineering.” A couple of ads appear at the top of the search result, and within a few seconds of scanning Omar sees a link called Mechanical Engineering Essays: Examples, Topics, Titles…. Thinking that examples are really what he needs to get a better understanding of this assignment, Omar clicks that link.
Consider and discuss with your classmates the next steps in the case of Originality Fatality:
Originality Fatality continued: Noah’s outcome
Noah does not have copies on his flash drive of any memos he wrote last summer at his internship. He decides to see if his work email address is still active, and he is able to get signed on to the company’s intranet. There he knows he can do one of two things:
- Go to his email and download a memo that was sent to him during his employment; or
- Sign on to the company’s internal network and download the standard form of memo stationery from the company’s repository.
Either way, Noah figures he will get a formatted document that is acceptable as a memo. He will use the company’s logo and color scheme as presented: that should impress the instructor since it looks very professional. Noah replaces the names, dates, and body text of the company memo and emails his lab instructor to set up the interview.
Which, if either, of Noah’s options would you and your classmates recommend? Is there another option you discussed that would be better? Explain your answer: review the Choosing Integrity chapter in this textbook if you need further help.
Originality Fatality continued: Omar’s outcome
Omar’s Google search results made him feel much better about this assignment. The website he went to had several good examples available, and he was able to find an essay there that looked exactly like he remembered reports on which he earned high marks back in English class. He decides to pay the per-page fee charged by the website to customize and download his example so he has something to follow when he drafts his assignment after the interview. Omar emails the instructions for his assignment to the website address. He then emails his lab instructor to set up the interview.
Now consider the decisions Omar made about the writing assignment.
At this point, it appears that Omar has decided to write his assignment as an essay rather than in the genre assigned by his instructor. Why do you think Omar has abandoned the specifics prescribed by the assignment? What action would you recommend to him instead?
Originality Fatality conclusion:
Omar and Noah each conduct their interviews and discuss their different experiences. They decide to exchange documents for a peer review before either submits his work for grading. Although the documents do not appear alike at all, each says the other’s work looks great. Neither student suggests any changes beyond correcting a few grammar errors during the peer review. Omar decides to add a memo heading to the top of the first page of his essay after reviewing Noah’s memo. Noah likes the formality of Omar’s essay title page and adds one of those to his memo.
Developmental writing assignment
Each of the documents submitted in the case above received a failing grade from the instructor. You do not need to read the documents to understand why they were unacceptable. You should, however, review the academic integrity policy of your university: for Noah’s case in particular, read the details about what constitutes plagiarism.
Write a memo from the instructor, Professor Jones, to Noah that explains why he received a failing grade on the memo report assignment. A general format for the header and summary introduction of a memo is provided in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Header and summary introduction of a memo (example)
TO: Noah Smith, Student
FROM: M. Jones, Instructor
DATE: September 30, 2021
SUBJECT: Academic Integrity Violations – Memo Report
This memo contains a discussion of my serious concerns about the Interview Memo Report you submitted for writing class yesterday. Below you will find one or more provisions of our university’s academic integrity policy, together with an explanation of how your document violated the policy. Finally, the consequences of your violations of the policy will be outlined.
Keep in mind you are writing to Noah (your audience) as a professional (his instructor). The memo’s purpose is to educate Noah and require him to respond. Write your memo using tone and language that is appropriate for the context, which is a case of school policy violation. In this instance, what message do you want Noah to understand? In order to avoid undue panic or irresponsible behavior from Noah, what tone or language should you avoid?
Technical writing document creation assignment
- During or following in-class discussion, make a list of the mistakes Omar made in this situation, including in your own words why each choice was a mistake. Focus on the topics of genre, academic integrity, and contract cheating.
- Obtain a copy or a link to your university’s policies regarding academic integrity (sometimes these are called academic dishonesty or student code of honor policies). Read the information carefully and ask questions of your instructor or administrators about anything in the policies that you do not understand.
- Write a letter as the Academic Integrity Officer of your university to Omar Khaled with a cc. to Dr. David Kumar, the department head for mechanical engineering. In your letter, address the following issues, explaining why they are important:
- Genre: Omar submitted his document in the form of an essay, instead of a memo as required by the assignment.
- Academic integrity: The university’s policy covers violations beyond presenting work as one’s own that was actually written by someone else (plagiarism).
- Contract cheating: Omar paid a fee to an online purveyor to provide him with an essay. Omar used the purchased essay and changed the content to reflect the information found in his own research.
- Consequences: The university’s policies provide for sanctions that can impact Omar academically and financially as a result of the violations.
- Finally, your letter should make a recommendation to Omar regarding the next steps he should take to resolve the matter of his academic integrity violation(s).
Faculty, University of Toronto Engineering Communication Program (2020). Online Handbook. Retrieved from University of Toronto Engineering Communication Program Web site: https://ecp.engineering.utoronto.ca/resources/online-handbook/
“Memos: Writing Commons” by Lee Ann Hodges. Provided by: Tri-County Community College. License: CC BY-NC-ND. Located at: http://writingcommons.org/open-text/genres/professional-business-and-technical-writing/memos.