Writers can run into problems, when they use their usual strategies to deal with new text genres. If you’re used to writing in the form of the five-paragraph essay and apply the same approach when it comes to a research article, you will be in trouble. If you were to approach your dissertation the same way as you did your, let’s say, bachelor’s thesis, you will be in trouble too – big trouble. Now maybe you think that these are extreme and unlikely examples. If so, please read Keith Hjortshoj’s Understanding Writing Blocks (2001). He shows how common they are, not only with inexperienced writers.
Every new text genre, as well as every new writing project, requires that you evaluate what you need to do. For a new genre, you might need to invest more time than you would for a new project in a familiar genre. However, you shouldn’t take it for granted that all your knowledge and strategies will work equally well for the new task.
When you face a new genre, you should figure out what you need in order to succeed with that particular task. Here are some questions I ask myself every time and that I discuss in my writing workshops. I will not, however, give too much of an answer. You should have an open mind, instead of well-intentioned answers that might not be true for you.
1) What is the purpose of the text and the genre? Why are you writing it?
In general, of course, the purpose of a text is to communicate something to somebody. The question, however, is what this specific text in this specific genre is meant to communicate. If, for example, the reason you want to write the text clashes with the purpose of the genre, then you have got a problem.
2) Who do you write for? Who is your audience?
Each time you write, you need to know more or less who will be reading your text. Even if you don’t or can’t know exactly, who your readers are, try to imagine your audience. For this blog, for example, I imagine that my audience consists mostly of PhD candidates and researchers interested in reflections about academic writing. I don’t write for children nor do I write for people who never write. To know your audience is crucial, because it affects the answers to the other questions and many of the decisions you need to make while writing.
3) What expectations and requirements are associated with the genre? What do you need to do, what shouldn’t you do, and where can you play with the genre?
Find out about expectations and requirements (language, style, text structure, length, layout, formatting, citation style etc.). Do this before writing the first word. You don’t want to have a final draft and then have to change it for the next few days or weeks to make it fit the requirements retroactively. Sometimes these expectations and requirements are clearly stated on websites (e.g. journal articles). In some cases you have to discover or decide more yourself (e.g. often with conference abstracts). You should make good use of your colleagues (e.g senior researchers), who already have experience with the genre, journal or conference. You can also ask the persons in charge of the publication (journal editors, publishers, conference organizers). Don’t assume that there are no requirements just because none are stated. Find out what you should do and what you would better not do.
These are the very basics of dealing with a new genre or text. Knowing the answers, however, might make your writing life easier and get you through the review process much smoother. Writers who don’t care about these things are likely to be rejected out of hand. If you care, do your job properly and do your research about the genres and texts you write.