As graduate students a large part of our jobs is to write things down: notes, measurements, analysis, thoughts, ideas, and reflections. It is crucial to think about the goals, the purpose and the audience of our writing, particularly with texts that will have consequences for our careers, but these concepts can often seem nebulous and overwhelming. The concept of genres ties these ideas together with a framework that might feel more intuitive.

Genres, as described by Bazerman (2003), are “recognizable forms of communication … accomplishing certain acts in certain circumstances.” In other words, each piece of writing has a function within a community of people. A journal article, for instance, may describe a new method, distribute information in the form of data, or propose and justify a novel hypothesis. A dissertation has multiple functions: while adding new content to the body of work in a field, it also establishes the author as a participant in that discipline. 

In my experience, reframing my written work as a social activity helps to clarify the overall goals of the work and the perspectives and priorities of the audience. Once these higher-order questions are resolved, approaching particular details — how to organize the introduction, or which previous authors to cite — becomes more straightforward. Thinking of the audience as a community can also elucidate what further questions I need to address to feel confident in my own credibility to assert the points I’m making in the text.

Considering the genre of a text you write as a graduate student means consciously asking what community you’re participating in, what you intend to accomplish, and what steps you can take inside and outside of your writing process to achieve these goals.

Exercise: applying genre theory to your own work

Consider a piece of writing you are working on or have worked on recently. Take five minutes to jot down answers to the following questions:

  • Think about the community in which you are participating.
    • Who are the primary members of your audience?
    • How do your personal and professional identities relate to this audience?
    • Are there any co-authors? What are their positions and roles?
    • What broader group(s) of people will find your text relevant?
  • Think about the intended purpose of the text.
    • What are the goals? What do you hope to accomplish in writing, editing, or transmitting/submitting the work?
    • What factors are important to this purpose? Consider various elements, for instance the visual layout of a poster; the arguments and perspectives considered in a review; or which journal an article is published in.
  • Given your answers to the questions above, what aspects of the text are most important to focus on as you’re writing?

This final question is one I like to keep in mind often, as it helps to keep me engaged and prevent overwhelm. Some of the concepts above can seem rather unclear, especially with particular genres (e.g. qualifying exam proposals) where expectations often vary depending on the specific audience. If you have no idea who is in your audience or the broader community, or what factors are important for the success of your work, asking your advisor is usually a good place to start. For advice and guidance at any stage of this process, we highly encourage you to book a consultation with a writing fellow!

Works Cited

Bazerman, C. (2003). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices, 309–339.