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Although genre is commonly regarded as a tool for conventional assortment, it is necessary to recognize that a genre is not defined by its formal features, but by its situational factors. The contextual identification of a genre is highlighted by Carolyn Miller, who describes genres as the “typified rhetorical ways of acting in recurring situations” (qtd. in Bawarshi 7). The word “situation” is crucial in her definition because writing results from situational demands. Such situational nature of writing is emphasized by many scholars including Amy Devitt, Anis Bawarshi, and Stanley Fish.
Synthesizing the works of these authors, we can derive that genre unites writing and context. Thus instead of focusing on formal features, a genre should be acknowledged as a publicly established form identified by its contextual features, in which writers and readers are socially connected. Since genre is socially defined, it can only function when there is a rhetorical situation that calls for a response. Returning to Miller’s definition, genres are responses to recurring situations.
Because similar situations trigger similar rhetorical responses, these responses develop into a default ways of answering a particular type of situation (Bitzer 13). Nonetheless, not all situations stimulate responses; only situations in which one or more exigences exit trigger production. According to Lloyd Bitzer, an exigence is an “imperfection marked by urgency” (6). Writers are only motivated to write due to the presence of such imperfection. Since a rhetorical writing is invented to address an exigence, the purpose of such writing is therefore to modify the situation and so to alleviate the presented problem.
Such contextual dependency of writing is highlighted when Bawarshi connects writer’s purpose and situation, indicating that writing “begins and takes place within the social and rhetorical conditions constituted by genres” (11). In other words, genres situate and motivate writers to write for a practical reason. For example, an advertisement article serves to encourage purchasing when a company tries to sell a product, while a science report serves to communicate lab results when researchers wish to publish their findings.
In short, genres are responses to situations, thus what classifies a text into a genre is primarily the pragmatic purpose of the text in relation to the given situation. Furthermore, situations does not merely create genres, they also shape genres. Consider the rhetorical situation in which a letter is written: there are some physical distances between the writer and receiver, there is a close relationship between the writer and receiver, there is something the writer wants to communicate…Given such situation, there are many constraints that dictate the formal features of writing.
These constraints give a genre its formal features. Thus genre simplifies the formal decisions writers need to make by “organiz[ing] the conditions of production as well as generat[ing] the rhetorical articulation of these conditions” (Bawarshi 9). With genre, writers are provided with writing frameworks that allow them to echo the demands of the given situation. Again, these writing frameworks are “rhetorical forms” that “comes to have a power of [their] own” as they are primarily responses to recurring situations (Bitzer 13).
This implies that genres are shaped by situational specificity, thus particular social demands give birth to particular genres as different situations emphasize different values. Therefore “keep[ing] form and generic contexts united” is essential for a genre to work and hence for us to communicate as genres are shaped by contexts (Devitt 200). Although situation suggests appropriate forms to allow effective communication, it is crucial to acknowledge that formal features do not define genres.
Formal feature can vary significantly within a genre, and such “inherent variation within all genres” is “essential to keeping genres alive and functioning” (Devitt 212). For instance, an advertisement can attract customers with striking pictures, yet it can also sell a product using persuasive statistics. No matter what formal features a text possesses, that text belongs to the advertisement genre as long as it is written to encourage consumption.
This example illustrates that although context writing set constraints to promote appropriate formal features, yet the writer’s purpose is what ultimately defines a genre. Apart from contextualizing writing, genre socially connects writers and readers. On the conveying side, writers participate in discourse communities, which are “social and rhetorical environment[s] within which cognitive habits, goals, assumptions, and values are shared by participants” (Bawarshi 5). Writers in the same discourse community tend to employ same or similar genres.
This is because the social contexts they write in, as well as the ideologies they wish to convey, are both shared within the community. Therefore, if a writer chooses to communicate with a genre commonly used by a discourse community, that writer will be identified as a member of community. What is the significance of discussing discourse communities? This answer relates back to the situational nature of writing – the concept of discourse community highlights the social purposes of genre by “locate[ing] a writer’s motives to act within typified rhetorical and social conditions” (Bawarshi 11).
Members of different discourse communities tend to express using different strategies because they write for difference purposes and respond to different situations. Thus “writers will use different language in different genres” to properly address the presented exigence (Devitt 213). All in all, genre socially connects writers by situating them in discourse communities within which participants are motivated to produce by the same type of situation.
Writers are not the only ones involved in the social context of writing, a text is given meaning by its readers as it means whatever the readers interpret it to mean. This suggests that a genre is identified as that genre when the readers perceive so. Fish describes interpretation as “the art of construction” (361); instead of finding what is in a text, readers create what is in the text through interpretation. These interpretations are shared “social and cultural patterns of thought” that result from experiences of acting within the social environment (Fish 364).
Therefore, genres are “embedded within their social and cultural ideologies” so that they trigger appropriate interpretations (Devitt 191). Genre’s situational embedment underscores that writing is “dynamic, changing over time as the assumptions, values, and practices of writers and readers change” (Rounsaville 70) because the “social and rhetorical conditions are constantly being reproduced and transformed” as writers and readers act within them (Bawarshi 9).
In sum, writing changes because context change. Hence, writing is a social action defined and shaped by the social conditions that guide production and interpretation. Socially shared ideologies give birth to textual conventions, which are “agreements between writers and readers about how to construct and interpret texts” (Rounsaville 69). Genres associate writers and readers by suggesting textual conventions. Because these conventions are shared agreements between writers and readers, they enable writers to construct writing in a manner that directs readers’ interpretation so the text conveys its intended message.
Therefore, successful communication results when writers follow text conventions when inventing and readers use these same conventions when reading. In conclusion, genre is constituted by social conditions in which writers and readers act within. Such situational dependency of writing is reflected in the works of the three authors referenced above. Amy Devitt’s text underscores the importance of understanding genre through its rhetorical purpose instead of through its form.
She opposes the use of writing models, arguing that although learning formal features is an easier approach, yet the understanding of how genre actually functions is more practical when writers encounter new situations in specific disciplines. Similarly, Bawarshi relates text and context by defining writing as a social action. He reveals that inventions always depart from preceding productions, hence highlighting the importance of applying previously established forms to answer situational demands.
Lastly, Fish’s chapter underlines the necessity of responding to an audience. After all, writing is a form of communication that involves not just the writer but also the reader, therefore writers should always be aware of how their readers might interpret their invention. In sum, the main take away point from these authors’ works is that effective writings are those that echo situational conditions.
Bawarshi. Anis. Genre and the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition.
Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2004. Devitt, Amy “A Proposal for Teaching Genre Awareness and Antecedent Genres.
” Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinoise University Press, 2004. Ede, Lisa. “Writing for Rhetorical Situations”.
Rounsaville, Angela, et al. , eds, Situated Inquiry. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Fish, Stanley E. “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”.
Rounsaville, Angela, et al. , eds, Situated Inquiry. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
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