When we teach college writing, we’re generally asking students to write in genres that they may have never read. Why, then, do we expect them to be able to write these successfully?
Genres are, as I have often observed, slippery things and can’t really be completely understood through explicit instruction. Sure, scholars can and often do catalog features of a genre, but as Thomas Beebee has argued, “genre is never fully identical with itself, nor are texts fully identical with their genres,” and thus they’re constantly changing, so any attempt to catalog a genre will inevitably be outdated the moment it is published.
Instead, genres are better understood through immersion. Since people tend to imitate speech patterns as they hear and read them, then it’s necessary to read in the genre you want to write in if you want to sound fluent, in the same way that a person can’t really gain fluency in a foreign language if they never hear or speak it outside of sanitized classroom setups.
If we are to teach a genre, then, we need to have students read it. This becomes a problem, though, with most classroom genres, because those genres don’t actually exist outside of assignments. Certainly we can give students model papers, either artificially generated or generated by previous students.
Rather, the question becomes: What are these artificial genres trying to approximate? If the goal is to have students write papers similar to, say, conference papers in a given discipline, then we should have students read conference papers and simply say “write a conference paper.”. If the goal is to have them write a blog post, then they must read blog posts. (It is worth noting, though, that the blog post is sort of an outdated genre in my experience, despite my use of it here. Most first year students aren’t aware they’re reading blogs even when they actually are, but most aren’t reading them at all.).
For us as writers instead of as teachers, though, this carries another important implication: We need to be reading the genres we are writing. This is common writing advice, of course, and easily done if you’re writing a novel in your favorite genre to read. But how do we gain access to the things that are not fun to read: the query letters, the portfolios, the resumes, etc?
The key here is the concept of saturation. Reading one example of a genre isn’t enough to spontaneously reproduce that genre, because, as Beebee says, no text is fully identical with its genre, so you don’t have enough data to make a complete picture from one text. If you read enough, though, you will become saturated and, like a saturated towel, begin to drip out the genre in whatever form makes sense for your purposes. That is how we naturally learn a new genre.