11 Identifying Genre Expectations

Genres come with expectations about how, where, and why information is presented. Genre expectations do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, as writing genre expert Amy Devitt tells us, “Genre exists through people’s individual rhetorical actions at the nexus of the contexts of situation, culture, and genres” (Writing Genres 31). In other words, people’s actions influence an audience’s genre expectations.

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. Amy J. 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 how to disguise sales letters as winning sweepstakes entries. (Writing Genres 1)

In other words, knowing what a genre is used for can help people to accomplish a goal, 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 graduate school by writing an effective personal statement.

Genres in Action

By this point you might realize that you have been participating in many different genres all along—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 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. Possibly without even thinking about it, you were recognizing the rhetorical situation and choosing to act in a manner that would result in the outcome you desired. I imagine that you would probably not share a risqué joke with your mom, send a “Hey Buddy” email to your professor, or update your Facebook status to read: “My brother has a huge wart on his foot.”

Knowing what is appropriate in these situations obviously requires more rhetorical knowledge than filling out a credit card application. 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 Genres 11). That is, we get the joke (or don’t) because of the degree to which we understand key elements of the story, from context to format. True, genres often have formulaic features, but these features can change even as the nature of the genre remains the same (Devitt, Writing Genres 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 in any genre when we are given a formula.

Fortunately, even if you have been taught to write in a formulaic way, you probably don’t treat texts in a strictly formulaic manner. When approaching a genre for the first time, you likely view it as more than a simple form. That is, we treat texts that we encounter as rhetorical objects; we choose between horror movies and rom-coms  not only because we are familiar with the forms but because we know what response they will elicit from us (nail-biting fear and dreamy sighs, respectively). The bottomline is that all genres matter because all genres shape our everyday lives.

Audience and Purpose

By studying the genres we find familiar, we can start to see how writers’ specific choices result in specific actions on the part of readers; naturally, it follows that our own writing must be purposefully written, too. For example, let’s consider a publication whose writers and editors have a specific purpose and a specific audience in mind. You may be familiar with The Onion, a fictitious newspaper that uses real-world examples to create humorous situations. Perhaps the most notable genre convention of The Onion is the creation of hilarious headlines that serve a simple purpose: to make the reader laugh. 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.

These headlines are all quite brief; otherwise, they share no specific stylistic features. The Onion titles embrace a particular rhetorical action to bring about a specific response, which differentiates its writing style from other related genres. For those of you unfamiliar with this newspaper, here are a few examples to ponder: (politically charged or other possibly offensive headlines purposefully avoided):

  • “Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race of Skeleton People”
  • “Don’t Run Away, I’m Not the Flesh-Eating Kind of Zombie”
  • “Time Traveler: Everyone In The Future Eats Dippin’ Dots
  • “‘I Am Under 18’ Button Clicked For First Time In History Of Internet”
  • “Commas, Turning Up, Everywhere”
  • “Myspace Outage Leaves Millions Friendless.”
  • “Amazon.com 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 Are”
  • “Child In Corner To Exact Revenge As Soon As He Gets Out” (The Onion)

If at least one of these headlines made you laugh, ask yourself why? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that headline writers are rhetorically aware of who reads these headlines—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.

Genres and Contexts

Interestingly enough, two texts that might fit into the same genre might also look extremely different. Let’s think about why this might be the case. Devitt points out that “different grocery stores make for different grocery lists” (“Transferability and Genres” 218).  Those differences stem from such factors as the store’s location, brand, and products, but the genre is still recognizable as a grocery list; only the context or location have changed.

Recognizing or knowing a genre is about much more than simply knowing its form, in other words. 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 contextual elements, such as how your teacher’s expectations would help to shape your assignment, what the level of the course was; or what kind of topics fit the course. The research paper you might be required to write in a first-year composition class might be completely different from the research paper you might be asked to write for an introductory psychology class. Your goal is to recognize these shifts in context and to be aware of how such shifts might affect your writing.

Genre Framing

Genres also establish expectations through frames, which are the ways information is presented to an audience. Communication expert George Lakoff tells us, “You think in terms of structured frames. It’s the most ordinary thing you do” (“Idea Framing”). Imagine  you were planning to have surgery. As  you’re wheeled into an operating room—what might you expect to see there? What people might you expect to be there? You might expect to see surgical instruments, medical equipment, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses. But what if you saw a bunch of balloons in the operating room? We would not expect to see balloons in an operating room because those objects don’t fit with our expectations for how surgery is to be conducted.

Similarly, if you were going to receive written instructions on how to prepare for surgery, you might not expect them in comic book format. Our surgery example shows us that our expectations of people’s actions in a context also influence the kind of communication we expect there. Frames are how we describe our and our audience’s expectations. Check out this great description of frames from cognitive science and linguistics scholar George Lakoff.

Lakoff also tells us how the physical neuroscience of our brains recognizes the expectations, boundaries, roles, and scenarios from different genre frames. Notice how Lakoff describes frames as political? That’s because frames are contingent on our perspective. As writers, we need to consider how our own perspective might be representative of or different than our audience’s perspective. To write successfully in any genre, we need to clearly analyze the situation to determine how we can frame information and fulfill our audience’s expectations.


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First-Year Composition Copyright © 2021 by Jackie Hoermann-Elliott and Kathy Quesenbury is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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