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There’s no such thing as a text without an audience. Texts are written for someone or some group. It’s no different in academia. Why then, I would like to ask, do students have to write texts that don’t address an audience (except the teachers or supervisors)?

In my counseling sessions at the university, I deal with a lot of students of varying levels and disciplines. But they have one thing in common: they don’t know their texts’ audience. One might be inclined to blame them for not thinking about it. I, however, would like to suggest that we could blame their teachers and supervisors, who did not construct the assignments accordingly. What is implicit in each and every text those same teachers and researchers publish, is lacking in their students’ work. It wouldn’t take the teachers much more work than before to invent new writing assignments with a clear context, purpose and audience. Not only would the students learn how to deal with differing assignments, it would also be more challenging and, ideally, fun. If the assignments mimicked the ones the students faced in their future professions, they would learn even more.

So what does it take? Not much at all. For each writing assignment you need only a few ingredients: Apart from information about the topic, the text genre (essay, seminar paper, book review, research report, conference abstract, journal editorial, public speech…), you need a more or less specific audience. The audience is comprised of the real or imagined people who would be reading and need to understand the text. Should it be a group of other researchers, who work on the same problems? Could it be the other students from class, who only have a superficial understanding of the topic? Or could it be a group of government officials, who need to be convinced about an argument?

Depending on the text genre, the purpose of a text differs. With that purpose, you also need to imagine how the audience will use the information presented. And therefore, you need to know or imagine, what the people in the audience might want to know, what they already know or how much definitions, technical terms or acronyms they understand. Knowing the audience will influence a text on different levels. That’s why a supervisor’s advice, „Your grandmother should be able to understand your master’s thesis“, doesn’t seem appropriate (that’s a true example, unfortunately).

My clients struggle with their texts, among other things, because they lack an audience. As soon as they have or can imagine one, they can start to work on the answers to questions such as: Which style should I choose? Which words do I need to explain in more detail? What kind of references do I need to make? Which writing conventions and reading habits do I need to consider? In which role do I appear in the text? These and other questions need answers and decisions within the text. We can only decide once we know whom we are writing for. If we don’t have an audience, what’s the point of writing at all?

If you are a student facing an assignment without audience, you have two possibilities: Either you ask your teacher for whom you should be writing the text or you can invent an audience for yourself. You will gain confidence when you know who is supposed to read your text. Only then will you be able to shape your text and prose the way it needs to be.

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This ebook comprises most of the posts I published on this blog. Download it for free and read about the various aspects and challenges of academic writing.

Mind Your Writing Ebook

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One: Mindful Writing

Part Two: The Writing Process from Start to Finish

Part Three: Challenges of Academic Prose

Part Four: Dealing with Academic Genres

Part Five: How Famous Researchers Work

Part Six: 10 Reminders for Academic Writers

Bibliography

 

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.

When I talk to workshop participants about writing a conference abstract, a few of them usually get confused. They ask, how they could possibly write an abstract about research they haven’t yet done. The conference might not take place for another year, but the abstract is due next month. How can you write about your research, if you don’t yet know the results that you will want to present at the conference?

You have to play the game everyone else is playing. In order to be accepted by the conference committee, you have to write the abstract “as if” you’ve already finished the research. This is called a promissory abstract (Swales/Feak, Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts, 2009, p. 55). The abstract should not, however, disclose that you haven’t yet done the research or that you don’t yet know the results of the analysis at the time of writing. Instead, you should present your research as confidently and authoritatively as possible. That’s what the committee wants to read (aside from innovative, current and focused research). They don’t want to read that you might find this or that or what you don’t yet know but certainly will, after spending a year doing the research that is not yet properly funded… No, if you want to participate in the conference with your own paper, you need to convince them with a strong abstract. It doesn’t matter whether you finally present exactly what you had promised. At every conference I visited, some participants changed their paper titles or even the entire content. Of course, you shouldn’t boast or lie in the abstract, knowing that you won’t be able to deliver. Don’t promise a revolution, in case you simply add a small piece to the puzzle everyone else is working on in your research community. But be self-confident and show in your abstract what you’re able to contribute. The abstract should “sell” your paper to the conference committee.

If you play the game, you do as everyone else does. Do it professionally and seriously. Nobody will notice, because they play it too.

Recently I counseled two clients who were working on conference abstracts. Although I have written a few abstracts in my time as a PhD student, I looked at this academic genre with fresh eyes. To understand a genre, we do not simply have to understand the formal requirements. Rather, we need to understand the purpose of a text and what it is meant to accomplish. Depending on the context, an abstract has specific purposes, which need to be considered. Here I want to talk about a conference abstract. Similar considerations apply to abstracts for journals and other publication forms.

First, you might get a list of requirements regarding length, content, terminology, and other aspects of the abstract. You will do well to implement them, or risk a rejection for not following the rules.

The length of the text is one of the more challenging requirements. Usually an abstract’s length ranges from 250 to 500 words. Since you don’t have much space to fill, you must make every word count. There should be no word that doesn’t contribute to what you want to say. If they are not required, delete all literature references and get rid of qualifying words (adjectives, adverbs) that only produce vagueness. Write as clearly and informatively as possible. Use the available words consciously.

Now we come to the structure of an abstract. For a conference, you want the readers and potential attendees of your presentation to know the basic information. Of course, your paper’s title should already tell everything in short form. In the abstract, however, you can introduce arguments for why someone should be interested in your paper.

You should start by giving an overview of your topic. One to three sentences do the job. After giving some context, you tell the reader to which field of research you want to contribute and why. With this information you will show the relevance and that you are connecting your work to a discussion. On the other hand, you will tell the reader why you are contributing to this research, namely that there is something missing or not yet understood. You are going to fill a gap in that discussion. This part doesn’t need many sentences. Keep it short and concise. Then you will present your project that fills that gap. Here you can include information about the structure of your presentation and the material you’re working with. But don’t get carried away; remember the limited amount of words left. Here you also introduce your main point, argument, or thesis. Keep that short and precise as well. Ultimately, try to find a good closing sentence. You may for example go back to the overall topic presented at the beginning. Whatever you do, you should give your abstract a clear ending.

If you include these few elements in your abstract, it will embody the most important information you want to communicate. Besides this, it might be good if you refer to the conference or panel title or the overall topic. Make the connection clear by using key concepts or phrases.

Whether you follow these suggestions or not is up to you. But make sure that you know what you want to do and take deliberate decisions about the different aspects of the abstract. Abstracts often promote your paper so that you can participate in a conference. It constitutes your entry ticket. So take your time, even if the short text doesn’t look like much work. On the contrary, I think that the shorter the text, the more you have to think about what to exclude and how to write what should be included. Working on the abstract, you might sharpen your thinking about the topic and your argument. This, then, helps you to work out your presentation – yet another genre that needs trimming.

Next week, I will post some reflections about a phrase that I heard at a seminar with an expert in scholarly publishing.

Sources:

A blog post by Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor

Booth et al. 2008: The Craft of Research, p. 211

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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