As you consider the use of writing and other communication assignments in your courses, keep in mind two critical elements experienced writers use to plan, draft, and revise effective document: genre and design. Genre and design are closely related. In fact, typical design conventions, such as the use of columns and headings, the placement and presentation of images and other forms of media, and the use of color and shading, are a key part of what distinguishes genres.
Given the influx of technology and the ease of sharing ideas on the Web, writers have tremendous choice in the types of documents they create. General categories of documents are called genres. When you use the word novel, for example, you’re referring to a general category of long fiction. If you say that you like to read novels, you aren’t talking about reading a particular book; instead, you’re expressing a preference for a type of writing that is distinct from poetry or biography, for instance.
Opinion columns, academic essays, scholarly articles, and personal Web pages are all genres. So are personal journals, thank-you letters, and entries on personal blogs. In fact, there are a wide variety of genres, and the number seems to grow larger every few years. Until the 1990s, for example, corporate Web pages didn’t exist. Nor did blogs. Nor, for that matter, did text-messaging, tweets, or Facebook posts. Yet all these have become important genres.
Although genre typically refers to general categories of documents, such as novels or Web pages, it can also be used to refer to more specific categories. For example, you might refer not simply to novels but also to romance novels, mystery novels, and historical novels. Or you might refer to different types of academic essays, such as reflective essays, argumentative essays, or analytical essays. The word genre, in this sense, can be used flexibly. Sometimes it’s used in the largest possible sense, and sometimes it refers to highly specific categories of documents.
Document design is the use of visual elements—such as fonts, colors, page layout, and illustrations—to enhance the effectiveness of written documents. A well-designed chart, for example, can be far more effective at conveying complex information than even the most clearly written paragraph can. Similarly, the emotional impact of a well-chosen illustration, such as a photograph of a starving child or a video clip of aid workers rushing to help victims of a natural disaster, can do far more than words alone to persuade a reader to take action. By understanding and applying the principles of document design, writers can increase the likelihood that they will achieve your purposes and address the needs and interests of their readers. In general, it's useful to think of design treated as an important writing strategy, rather than as something done at the end of a writing project. Consider, for example, how decisions about the best way to present information--as a chart, as a table, as a long paragraph of text--might come into play early in a writing project and how those decisions would affect the approach taken by the writer as they work on their drafts.
On the basis of design alone, it’s usually quite easy to tell the difference between an academic essay and an article in a popular magazine. The style in which a document is written, its organization and use of sources, and its appearance work together to help you understand that a document is, for example, a scholarly journal article, a blog entry, a letter to the editor, or a brochure. As you read a document (and often without really thinking about it), you may notice characteristic features of a genre, such as the use of boldface headlines or detailed footnotes. And once you’ve identified the genre, you can read the document more effectively. Understanding how a document is organized can make it easier to locate information. It can also make you a more astute reader. If you recognize a document as an advertisement, for example, you’re less likely to be swayed by questionable reasoning.
Genres develop to help writers accomplish a general purpose. Academic essays help writers demonstrate their knowledge to an instructor, while informative articles in newspapers, magazines, and newsletters help writers share information and ideas with their readers. Opinion columns and letters to the editor, in contrast, are often used by writers to advance arguments.
Documents in a particular genre usually share a general purpose and tend to use similar writing conventions, such as level of formality or the type of evidence used to support a point. For example, newspaper obituaries are usually formal and serious, while e-mail messages are often informal and relaxed. Scholarly articles almost always refer to the source of evidence offered to support their points, while letters to the editor sometimes offer no evidence at all. In addition, documents in a particular genre often use similar design elements. Academic essays, for example, are usually written with wide margins and double-spaced lines, while magazine articles often use columns and make extensive use of color and illustrations.
In most cases, genres are shaped by the social, cultural, and disciplinary contexts from which they emerge. When writers and readers form a community--such as an academic discipline, a professional association, or a group that shares an interest in a particular topic or activity--they develop characteristic ways of communicating with one another. Over time, members of a community will come to agreement about the type of evidence that is generally accepted to support arguments, the style in which sources should be cited, and how documents should be designed and organized. As the needs of a community evolve, the genre will adapt as well. Articles in magazines for automobile or motorcycle enthusiasts, for example, differ in important ways from articles in magazines about contemporary music. Scholarly articles written by sociologists, civil engineers, and chemists similarly also use evidence or organization in distinct ways.
As the needs and interests of a community change, genre will change as well. Academic essays, for example, might begin to make greater use of color and illustrations. In other cases, a single genre might evolve into several distinct genres. For example, as the number of readers on the Web has exploded over the past two decades, websites have become far more specialized. In the mid-1990s, most websites looked alike. Today, characteristic differences can be seen among personal blogs, commercial websites, government websites, and entertainment websites.
Note: The information presented on this page is adapted from Mike Palmquist's textbook, Joining the Conversation (3rd Edition), published by Bedford/St. Martin's.