2 – Rhetorical Situation


Allison Gross; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

When you hear or read the word genre, what comes to mind? For most of us, the word makes us think of types of music, books, or films. Typically, we use this word to differentiate between country, rock, classical, or hip-hop music; between science fiction, romance, biography, or self-help books; between comedies, dramas, action/adventure films, or documentaries. However, when researchers and scholars of writing use the term “genre,” they mean something a little different.

For researchers, “genre” refers to a typical way of organizing, presenting, and using language in situations that repeat over time. In order for a document to be part of a particular genre, it usually follows a set of often unspoken rules or expectations. For example, we often think of résumés as being documents that have bullet points and multiple headings for education, work experience, or special skills. Of course, anyone who has created a résumé knows that these rules have some flexibility. Some résumés may start with an Objective or Summary statement; others may choose to put Education at the end of the document rather than near the top. Still others may opt for the use of color or customized layouts, especially in design fields. Consider the examples below in Table 2.1. Can you visualize what each genre looks like? Where are you likely to see the genre? What is the typical purpose of the genre? Who is the writer or deliverer of the genre? Who is the audience?

Table 2.1. Genre examples.

Genre Examples
A complaint letter A syllabus
An insurance claim A scholarship application
A job description A résumé
An annual review A lab report
A legal brief A to-do list
A proposal A letter of acceptance
A personal statement A restaurant menu

In every one of the examples above, you can easily imagine who uses the text, where, when, and for what purposes. A job description is created by a company to advertise a particular position and/or to outline the responsibilities for the person applying/hired. It is either an official document (when used for an employee), or it is a tool used to hire somebody (both company/organization and potential candidates use the description to decide if a person is qualified). See Chapter 16: Applications for more information.

Alternatively, take your course syllabus as an example. This genre is used by teachers and students to facilitate communication about course expectations. Students are the primary audience for the course syllabus, but there are also additional audiences for the syllabus: other teachers of the course, the instructor’s supervisor, administrators, etc. This one document is actually responsible for a tremendous amount of work.

Knowing who uses a text and why they use it can help you figure out what the content of a piece of writing needs to be, as well as how to present that content. Consider a job description: it typically begins with an overview of the job as well as minimum qualifications. Why does it begin there? Why isn’t this information at the end or in the middle somewhere? The overview acts as a kind of advertisement; it is there to attract candidates to the position. However, the minimum qualifications quickly help candidates to consider whether or not they should apply, which in turn saves the company extra work identifying people who do not qualify. In that sense, the minimum qualifications help both the job searcher and the company work more efficiently.

Sometimes, however, the minimum qualifications are found later in the job description. Can you imagine a reason for that? If so, then you are conducting genre analysis. Moreover, you identified another important principle that applies to genres: they are not formulas. In other words, there is no one exact way to write them. Instead, genres are governed by what are called “conventions” or guiding principles. Regardless of genre, there are always likely to be exceptions, which is why adopting a curious attitude about writing, instead of looking for the “right way” to write something, will serve you better as a writer and a professional. It will also help alleviate frustration when what you thought was the “right way” to write something ends up requiring editing or modification.

Genre Systems

The more you can think about how your writing will be read, the better your writing will be. Imagining your audience is an important part of that process, and so is thinking about the other genres your writing will interact with. For example, a job description often prompts a job applicant to put together a cover letter and résumé. The candidate will be informed—typically through a phone call or email—that they have been selected in some fashion and will perhaps be asked to provide further application materials, such as letters of recommendation or documentation of training/experience.

The term given to the intersecting genres that facilitate a particular kind of work is genre system or genre set. Often this term is used to refer to the genres that work together as part of a larger organization. While you may never actually use the term “genre system,” the idea of a genre system is something that all writers in workplace settings are aware of to some degree. For example, an organization might use content from a report you have written to create new policies, procedures, or bylaws, or perhaps as evidence supporting a new initiative or grant. If you know what genres your writing might become part of later, you can design documents anticipating those needs. The more you can anticipate the different situations that might be impacted by the writing you do, the more quickly you will advance as a writing professional.

Table 2.2 below presents examples of some different genre sets to help you think about the amount and diversity of writing/communication work that is involved in any profession, even ones that are not normally thought of as writing intensive.

Table 2.2. Examples of genre sets.

Teacher Nurse Engineer
Syllabi Shift Reports Analyses
Course Schedules and Calendars Patient Notes Project Descriptions
Learning Outcomes Patient Charts Action Reviews
Lesson Plans Patient Narratives Progress Reports
Assignment Sheets Careplans Incident Reports
Handouts Discharge Instructions Inspections Reports
Presentations Orders Presentations
Student Assessments/Progress Reports/Grading Comments Incident Reports Proposals/Plans
Lecture Notes Policies and Procedures Recommendations
Discussion Notes Training/Continuing Education Exams Patents
Recommendation Letters Grants Meeting Notes
Reports Staff Performance Appraisals Memos
Emails Emails Emails

In short, writing is everywhere in professional life. The genres that you use will vary, but they are often interconnected within a broader system based on the priorities of the job itself, the employer, and the field at large. By paying attention to what the unwritten genre rules of a workplace (or school, organization, or home) are and how those genres connect with each other, you will improve your writing skills in those genres.

This text was derived from

Gross, Allison, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva. Technical Writing. Open Oregon Educational Materials, n.d. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by Allison Gross; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.