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Writing Rules and Genre

This semester I’m having my students write in a number of genres. That’s not a bad thing (actual results may vary…). But, as happens every semester, we’re struggling. We’re struggling because my class isn’t my students’ first exposure to writing (my students are adults–they’ve actually been writing for a LONG time, whether they realize it or not) and they’ve been taught a LOT of “rules.”

Getting the writing done.
Image by Kristin Hardwick via stocksnap

One of my favorite first year composition textbooks that I’ve taught out of, Writing About Writing by Wardle and Downs, includes an excellent essay by Mike Rose that discusses how writer’s block can be the result of viewing writing advice as rigid rules. As he notes, student writers can easily be confused by all the “rules” they pick up from various instructors that seem contradictory (because they are) or are genre inappropriate and therefore actually wind up getting in the way. He argues that successful student writers are those who are able to see writing advice they’ve been given as a “heuristic” rather than a hard rule. These students are able to modify or discard rules as they become problematic or less useful for their projects.

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The challenge, then, becomes how we can foster this flexible approach in our own students. As I often argue for many questions, I think the answer to this is one word:

Genre.

Students need genre awareness, but, perhaps more than they do, we as teachers need genre awareness when we teach our pet “rules.”

We teach our rules as though all writing is writing. But it isn’t; writing is always genre-specific in some way, especially the conventions we use. Grammar, diction, formatting, all of it–it’s genre-dependent. Not even context, but genre.

When we teach “don’t use passive voice,” what we’re teaching is write like a journalist or a fiction author. That won’t work if they’re trying to write an academic paper on a scientific topic. In fact, it’ll directly conflict with when we teach “don’t use first person”, which is appropriate for writing an academic paper on a scientific paper but not for many other genres, because avoiding 1st person often triggers passive voice.

Since genre is directly tied to the audience’s position and the author’s purpose, we need to make genre the first and foremost thing we teach when we teach writing rules.

In fact, I would argue that any “rules” that exist for writing are actually genre features. Genre is basically the “game” we play when we write.

When we teach rules absent genre, it’s as if we told all athletes that they need to focus on throwing round balls. Generally useful for several sports, but football players (who do also throw balls) find themselves at a disadvantage because round balls don’t act like footballs, and soccer players go “umm hands? No.” and hockey players don’t use balls at all, and so on. Likewise, if we tell an athlete “always run fast,” that rule probably doesn’t apply to, say, weight lifters or rowers, who are still definitely athletes doing sports.

Or, consider role-playing games. In Dungeons & Dragons, a high roll generally means you succeed. In GURPS, which will be in many other ways familiar to a D&D player, a high roll generally means you fail. As my students might say when discussing rules of writing “Which is it? Why don’t the rules make sense?”

Rules in writing, like rules in games, are arbitrary, but they’re genre specific. So, we need to make sure that we are not carelessly suggesting, by omitting discussions of genre, that rules are universal. If we fail to do so, our students might just be playing Baseball by trying to score a touchdown.

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