Academic Genres #1: Between Convention and Creativity

Scholars can’t just publish anything they want in anyway they want. There are certain constraints on how they might publish what they found in their research. As in all other writing contexts, scholars have to deal with a variety of text genres. During their studies, they deal with different genres to those they will deal with later as professional researchers. Genres in one discipline differ from genres in another. Even within one discipline journals have different ideas about what a research article should look like. Instead of going into detail and explaining genre theories, I want to discuss the basic issues that I try to convey to my clients.

As a scholar and writer, you should know about the existence of academic genres (research article, conference paper, PhD dissertation, book review and so on). They all have specific purposes, audiences, media for publication, textual components, and other dimensions to consider. While you don’t have to be an expert in every genre, you should be aware of their existence and their basic differences. You can’t write a book review as if it were a research article, nor can you write a grant proposal as if it were a dissertation. By reading a lot of texts during your studies, you will certainly have some knowledge about the main differences, even if you are not able to list them in each case. The difficulties arise, however, when you have to write a text and don’t know how it should look. Knowing about genre conventions and the things you should not do is a crucial part of writing and publishing as a scholar. This takes time and practice, just as everything else you want to master.

Conventions tell us about different aspects of a genre: language and style, text components and their order, citation rules, purpose of the text, and more. They set limits for what we can write and how. Many journals, for example, have clear guidelines on how an article should be written in order to be published. If we neglect them, our articles will very likely be rejected. So, genre conventions stabilize written communication and create specific expectations – as in the case of a recipe, a financial report, or any other text genre.

That said, we shouldn’t forget about the other side of conventions: creativity. When you blindly follow conventions, you might also get into trouble. A text always has a specific context in which it is written and published. You can strictly follow every convention you know for PhD dissertations and still fail. If you don’t adapt to the context and consider the medium of publication, the audience you’re writing for, or the purpose the text should serve, things might go wrong. The challenge thus lies in the negotiation between conventions and creativity. You should definitely be aware of, or explicitly know about, genre conventions. But you should also know about the possibilities of breaking or playing with them. Whatever you do, however, you should do it deliberately. Be sure that you know what decisions to make and why. You are the one that might need to defend them.

Next week, I will talk about the abstract as a genre.


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