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Archive for the tag “genre”

Getting Started with Genre

Isaac Marvel, Consultant

Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier were working together on Marathon Man, which is a pretty intense, thriller type of film. Before the filming of a Isaacscene in which his character had apparently been kept awake for 72 hours, Hoffman decided that he too would stay up for three days, the idea being that this would help him get into the mind of his character—Hoffman was quite the method actor. Upon hearing this and witnessing Hoffman’s exhausted state, Olivier confronted him and asked “My dear boy… Have you tried acting?”

As Mary-Kate mentioned in “Writing as a Medium,” writing is not necessarily this art that requires this Hoffmanesque kind of inspiration. You needn’t spend days mentally fortifying yourself and getting into the head of your audience. Olivier’s implication of how acting operates is a much more effective example of the writing process—it’s a craft that one learns over time, with practice.

Therefore, this leads to the big question: “If writing is a craft, how can I improve my craftsmanship?” The first step is, essentially, just start writing! As Tim discussed in his blog post last week, creativity is a grind: “The best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.” Wearing yourself out yearning for inspiration will likely only result in nothing being written, possibly serving even as a justification for procrastination. To go back to the example of Hoffman and Olivier, yes, Dustin Hoffman is a world-renowned actor, but so is Laurence Olivier, and he managed this without staying up for days at a time!

On the other hand, ensuring that your writing is effective is also vital—“just starting to write” may be the first step, but it isn’t the only step. After all, there’s no point in writing if you end up throwing away all of your drafts. Thus, one’s mentality is key: you need to be keeping your audience in mind as you write. Similarly, one trick that can make this process easier for you is learning the genre expected of you. Simply stated, expectations are going to vary wildly depending on what genre you’re working with—are you working on a research paper, a novel, or a tweet? Learn the conventions of that style and you’ll find yourself writing like a pro in no time.

So how, you might ask, can one go about learning said conventions? Honestly, my first step would usually be Google; you’ll find innumerable examples of what to do and what not to do. Possibly too many examples, in fact—it can be difficult to sort through and figure out which sources are credible and which should be disregarded. At that point, I would recommend coming to the University Writing Center, as our consultants have a wide range of backgrounds in different genres, and the odds are very, very good that we’ll be able to help. Alternatively, if you’re working on a school assignment, odds are that you can ask your professor about examples and about what’s expected of you. Regardless of what you choose, or what you’re working on, learning your genre is key to successful writing.


Reading, Thinking, and Writing Outside Your Discipline

Kelly Carty, Consultantkelly-c

It’s midterm season. Hurrah! The past couple of weeks and many weeks to come seem like an endless stream of dense readings, papers, problem sets, oral examinations, and/or death by multiple choice tests.

Take a moment. Step inside my blog post. Let me transport you back to a long lost time when you could read what you wanted and write incomplete sentences dotted with emojis. Let me tell you about reading, thinking, and writing outside your field of study.

Surprise! This time isn’t so long lost. If you are like me, you probably do quite a bit of reading and writing unrelated or tangentially related to your discipline even when you are busy.

What am I talking about? Well, regardless of how busy I am or how stressed I feel, I spend quite a lot of time reading, thinking, and writing on Facebook as I browse my newsfeed and write statues or comments in response. Also, as I am guessing is the case with many of you (and by you, I mean faculty, staff and students), I rarely read or write about my current fields of study (English literature and Writing Center pedagogy) on Facebook. Instead, I read and write about current events, music, my home life, and other seemingly random things. For example, the last things I read or wrote about on social media concerned:

The location of free food on UofL’s campus

Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature

The most recent presidential debate

Urban foraging

My cat

Beck’s Debra (this is actually related to one of my classes, but it has a convoluted explanation)

Moreover, in addition to reading and writing on Facebook, I spend time reading and writing on topics tangentially related to my fields of study in the non-social media cyber world. Actually, I often do more of this type of reading and writing when I am busy with school or work because it seems like a useful break. For example, when I was reading the Canterbury Tales as an undergraduate, I found this gem of a revision to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Recently, when my younger brother was tasked with reading the Canterbury Tales, I sent him a link to this revision along with a little review. Over the past three weeks, as I wrote papers and read new plays for my Shakespeare class, I read Wikipedia pages on patriarchy, Aufheben, Gaius Marius, Husserl, Writing and Difference, Cleopatra, and the largest monoliths that have been found on Earth. I also wrote many exasperated notes to my boyfriend about how I didn’t (and still don’t) understand Hegel.

How are these adventures in reading and writing different than the reading and writing I do for my field of study?

I can choose what I want to read

Until I am fortunate enough to design my own courses, most of my academic readings will be carefully outlined on my professors’ syllabi. In my own world of social media and Internet wanderings, I can read whatever strikes my fancy. I can read about radical leftist organizations after watching a documentary on the Weathermen, 1,000 tweets classified under #debates when I want to know how the Twittersphere feels about Trump’s comments, or news articles about cutting edge science when I feel like I’m losing my knowledge of biology.

I can use unconventional punctuation and grammar

When I write for the world of academia, I am hyperaware of grammar and usage conventions. When I write on social media, I often intentionally break these conventions. For example, during the last presidential debate, I posted:


I realize this question should end with question mark and that only the first letter needs to be capitalized, but I wanted to convey an emotion and an opinion that a single capital letter and a question mark would dampen.

Moreover, I had the following conversation on Facebook chat with my brother:

Me:       Im gonna write about hegel


Bro:      “Dialectic, but now exactly in the Marxian sense

Just keep repeating that

Should be fine

Me:       Hahahahahah

Bro:      Works for trumps

There are many grammatical and usage errors in these messages. However, both my brother and I were able to convey our thoughts effectively and humorously to one another. Although it is likely that I would be able to convey the same ideas within the bounds of academic conventions, it is unlikely that I (or my brother) would be able to do it as quickly.

I can use slang and images to describe my thoughts

Furthermore, writing outside of my discipline allows me to use slang and images to convey my thoughts. When conveying my frustration over writing papers, I sent a message to my colleagues that read “Papers fj&2#8,@)@;/8 ugh.” When I was on a short road trip with lots of traffic and my dad asked me how the ride was going, I sent him this image of my cat:


(I realize this isn’t writing, but it might as well be.)

How are these activities similar to the reading and writing I do for my field of study?

I process information through text and images

This point is both obvious and important. Whether I’m reading Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a theoretical paper on semiotic squares, my mom’s Facebook posts, or text messages from a friend, I am asked to make meaning of text and images.

I emphasize main ideas

When I read articles for class or for my own academic research, my foremost concerns are the main ideas. I ask constantly ask myself, what is this author trying to say? How does the main idea of this article relate to what I am doing in class or what I am researching?

When I read tweets, Facebook posts, and news articles, I have the same concerns. What is this article’s main point about the most recent WikiLeaks update? How does #WomenWhoVoteTrump relate to electoral politics?

I am ultimately concerned about conveying meaning

When I write for the academic world, I want my readers to understand the ideas I am presenting. It would be useless if I turned in a paper that was utterly meaningless. In fact, when I write papers, I often read them to other people to make sure they correctly convey the thoughts I intend to convey.

When I write Facebook posts, tweets, and text messages, I focus on conveying meaning as well. As I have alluded to above, I often eschew conventional grammar and usage in non-academic writing to enhance my meaning.

My challenge to you is to think about the writing and reading you do outside of your field of study. How do those activities compare to the reading and writing you do within your field of study?

Watch Your Tone: The Sound of Academic Writing

Rhea Crone, Consultant

Most of us have received corrections, or suggestions for revision, on papers handed back to us by professors. Some of these comments are straightforward; “awkward word choice,” “incorrect spelling,” or “subject/verb disagreement” come to mind. Some comments, however, aren’t so clear. Among those in the latter camp are the dreaded question marks, free-floating in the margin; nefarious squiggles beneath phrases, sentences, or worse, entire paragraphs; and of course, some of the most loaded comments of them all: those suggesting a revision to “tone.”

DSCN3687So, what exactly does “tone” suggest when written in a margin? Isn’t it a term used to describe the way something sounds? How can a paper sound wrong, and why is any kind of sound significant if the paper’s argument is sufficiently advanced? Moreover, why must academic writers use one tone over another, and for that matter, why must we use any kind of tone, at all? There is no single correct response to any of these questions. In fact, in composition studies—a field that aims to simultaneously promote a sense of authorial ownership in writers of all levels, study the individual styles and needs of writers, and develop the most effective ways to teach everyone to write as effectively as possible—there is a long standing tension between those who say academic writers should not have to adhere to a specific “tone,” at all, and those who say that we must.

One has to wonder if there is a consensus on any aspect of such a debatable, fissured topic. Luckily, a set of general guidelines regarding the term itself exists. These guidelines usually take into account the following, give or take a few preferences or nuances depending on the reader/grader of a paper:

  • Use of clear and direct language, or the “active voice”;
  • Avoidance of personal pronouns, especially “we, you, you all, I,” etc.;
  • Omission of colloquialisms and/or regionally various terms and phrases.

To extrapolate from this short list a bit, academic tone is generally used so that a writer can quickly and effectively get their point(s) across, and so that the reader does not have to overexert themselves trying to understand what the author is saying. Academic tone also typically foregrounds information and argumentation, and demands that prose not sound as if it is merely the expression of an author’s opinion. Overall, this “tone” hinges on the following values: concise communication, and the establishment of authorial credibility. It also assumes that the reader of an academic paper wants to know, first and foremost, what the paper is talking about; and, of course, that the author of the paper knows what they’re talking about. Furthermore, use of the academic tone does not simply assume a certain reading style on behalf of a paper’s audience, but is ultimately an expression of respect for the reader. It does not, for example, ask the reader to believe unsupported claims, spend more of their time than necessary on reading through a paper, or require them to exert more mental energy on working through an argument than is necessary.

Now that we know what academic tone is, and why writers might want to use it, we can better understand the consequences of failing to use it correctly. These consequences don’t always result in a few required revisions or a point deduction. Indeed, academic tone can sometimes be broken with/from to great effect. Practiced, seasoned writers will sometimes switch their tone briefly, in order to emphasize a particular aspect of their argument. For example, placing a casual aside in parentheses, or including a quote from pop culture, can be used to draw attention to, and/or make a bit clearer, an important passage. In order to effectively break with/from academic tone, however, one must first understand and utilize it well. The reason for this is twofold: to borrow an adage, one must first understand a set of rules in order to break them, and the overall tone of a paper must be academic in order for a divergence/variation in that tone to be noticed at all, much less to great effect. If this tone is not broken pointedly, with some kind of rhetorical purpose, the author runs the risk of losing the attention and/or the comprehension of the reader, frustrating the reader, intellectually fatiguing the reader, losing authorial credibility, and/or needlessly obscuring an argument.

No blog post on academic tone would be complete without a disclaimer regarding various academic disciplines. Of course, not every discipline will require that papers be written in/with an academic tone. This is primarily because different disciplines address different audiences, and therefore value and judge tone differently, and sometimes it will not be necessary to write in a strictly formal, academic tone. Further, regardless of discipline, the occasional professor will encourage informal tone at various (more than likely initial) stages of any given writing assignment. Usually, however, it is best to assume that the academic tone is valued and will be expected in/of the majority of your papers.

Ya dig?

For further and/or more specific information on academic tone, please feel free to peruse the following sites:

Five Tips for Interpreting Writing Prompts

Cheyenne Franklin, consultant

The writing prompt. This piece of paper is your ultimate guide through what can feel like endless avenues of ideas or a desolate blank page. But sometimes these precious few words from instructors can seem like an encoded script. Well like any code, there is a key. Here are some secrets I’ve learned to interpret assignment sheets.

Secret #1: When you don’t know where to begin…

DSCN3677Look for keywords. Certain words go with particular writing genres. If you see words like argue or defend, then your instructor is likely looking for an argumentative essay, so be sure to take a clear stance and use evidence to support your claims. Rhetoric(al) refers to the intentional strategies that people use to make an argument. So if this keyword appears in your assignment, your instructor either wants to see you making strategic moves in making your argument or wants you to discuss the strategies used by the author of a text you’re studying. In the second case, you’ll want to write an analysis, so DO NOT just summarize the text.

For more key writing prompt words, see the key terms section of the UNC Writing Center handout on Understanding Assignments. You also might enjoy this blog post on “Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts,” written by one of our previous consultants.

Secret #2: When you’re unfamiliar with the genre…

Determine what the purpose of the assignment is. Assignments have two types of purpose: an academic purpose and a real-life purpose.

To determine the first purpose, think about what skills your class has discussed. Instructors make assignments to give you a chance to show what you’ve learned. Consider what has been emphasized in class recently. Can you put this knowledge to practice in the assignment?

The second purpose requires you to use your imagination. Remember that college writing is to prepare you for real world writing. Imagine your audience extends beyond your instructor. What goal might you have other than a grade? Now how should you approach the assignment to accomplish that goal?

See Duke University’s list of college essay genres for a description of each genre and its characteristics.

Secret #3: When you’re told not to have a thesis…

Think again. What about the assignments that forbid “personal opinion?” Isn’t a thesis an opinion? Well not in an academic sense.

What instructors mean when they warn against personal opinion is that you should not make claims based on personal feelings. You should make claims based on statistical or textual evidence, reliable resources, and clearly drawn logic. Your instructor will almost always look for a main point in your essay (aka a thesis). Just make sure the thesis is your analysis NOT your opinion.

Secret #4: When your assignment includes a quote…

You cannot ignore it. Some assignment sheets include a passage from a text you’ve studied in class. Although the instructions might not directly ask for you to address this quote, you should reference it somewhere in your essay unless otherwise instructed.

Secret #5: When you still have no idea…

It’s time to talk to your instructor. Remember that your instructor wants you to understand the assignment and wants to know if it’s unclear. Most instructors revise their assignments based on the responses they receive, and if you’re confused, there’s a good chance others are too. Just be sure to discuss your confusion respectfully. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and worry.

In the end, your instructors don’t mean for their assignments to confuse you. Still, we all encounter certain prompts that confuse the inspiration right out of us. As you gain more experience with the lingo and genres it will get easier.

What Justin Bieber Can Teach You about Genre

Jessica Good, Consultant

biebergenreJustin Bieber’s new single, “Sorry,” blends related genres— the rhythmic pulse of electropop, the warm notes of tropical house, and the verse-chorus structure of pop—to create a danceable plea for forgiveness. While we typically discuss artists in the context of music, Bieber’s lyrics cross into a genre of writing: the public apology.

Genres in writing categorize recognizable patterns of organization, tone, and style. We can recognize Bieber’s song as a public apology because it conforms to a pattern established by politicians and celebrities before him. Effective public apologies (like private ones, let’s be real) are organized around a series of rhetorical moves:

  • Initiate communication with desired audience
  • Admit to making a mistake
  • Acknowledge the consequences of that mistake
  • Explain perspective of the situation (if appropriate)
  • Express remorse
  • Ask for forgiveness

Additionally, the tone is penitential, while the style is appropriately descriptive. Apologies tactfully allude to what was done without delving into the nuances of the initial conflict. The primary differences between our private apologies and Bieber’s public one are those of audience and context. We address individuals to mend relationships, while, in “Sorry,” Bieber moves to redeem his reputation to an anonymous ex who represents the listening public as a whole.

DSCN3626Although we often reserve the labels of genre for public texts, we routinely communicate in different genres. Those emails you send to your instructors? There’s a genre for that: professional communication. Did you send your aunt a card expressing how excited you are about the concert tickets she sent for your birthday? That’s the thank-you-note genre, one you probably learned all too well after your high school graduation. In both of these cases, like in the instance of an apology, a rhetorical context prompts you to enter into certain conventions of organization, style, and tone. Abiding by those conventions enables you to effectively communicate your purpose to your audience.

While genre is certainly a label that we can apply to published writing, it can also act as a guide to forming texts as we write. When you approach your next writing project, consider asking yourself:

What is the context?

Context refers to the broader situation undergirding the occasion of writing. As a student, your context is often academic. Your instructor issues an assignment, usually by handing you a prompt and a rubric, and expects to receive a final draft on a specified date. In this case, your broad situation will include the texts you’ve read and the discussions you’ve had in class; the occasion for your writing is the assignment. You can pull from the knowledge gained through your situation as a class participant to effectively manage that assignment.

We often assess context unconsciously, but pausing to identify it will help lead you to the appropriate genre.

Who is your audience?

Part of the context of any writing situation will include your audience, or who you’re writing to. Since your audience most likely includes your instructor, keep in mind any expectations (s)he may have. Look at your prompt: what is emphasized? How is the assignment structured? Does it call for outside research, or is it primarily textual analysis?

Try to remember that even though your instructor may be your most prominent audience member, the act of academic writing propels you into the past and current research surrounding your topic. Consider if you need to include information showing how your argument enters into or even advances that larger conversation.

What are the conventions?

Conventions are rules of organization, style, and tone. You’ll approach a 4-5 page rhetorical analysis differently from an abstract of a lab report for your chemistry class because of the different standards associated with each of them. When writing in the rhetorical analysis genre, you’ll construct a thesis; emphasize active voice and an objective tone; and provide in-text citations in MLA format. In contrast, you may adopt passive voice in your abstract to emphasize the results rather than your presence as the scientist. Your citations may be in APA or another style to emphasize the timeline of work by previous researchers.

Knowing the conventions of your chosen genre will enable you to effectively communicate your intended meaning to your audience.

(Not to blow your mind, but knowing conventions also gives you the power to break them for rhetorical effect. Read more here!)

What is your purpose?

Finally, but most importantly, remember your purpose. Conventions are only a frame through which you make your argument. Focus on the point you want to communicate. Your audience should come away aware of your thesis rather than your chosen style or the tone with which you engaged sources.

So, what can Justin Bieber teach you about genre? Besides pitting your friends who like his music against those who don’t, he shows us that genre is common to communication, not just libraries and bookstores. No text is produced in isolation; there is always a rhetorical context informing its construction and reception. As a result, every text you create abides by the conventions of a genre to effectively advance your purpose.

Genre can be a powerful tool—if the Biebs can use it, you can too.

All’s Fair in Love and the Writing Center: Adapting to Unfamiliar Genres

Michelle Day, Consultant
At the Writing Center, we always say that we will work on any type of writing. Once, that even meant working on a love letter.
Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I have been hoping I might get to tutor another lovestruck student (no luck yet). But I am now realizing that, having never read, received, or composed a love letter, I have little context for the conventions of that writing genre: how it should be organized, how it should be formatted (do college sweethearts expect a “Works Cited” page?).
Affectionate missives are not the only genre my Writing Center colleagues and I have little experience with. So why do we always ask clients to bring in anything and everything they’ve written and want help with? And how do we navigate unfamiliar genre waters?
Here, I’d like to draw on the expertise of some of my fellow consultants’ blog posts to show how I might approach tutoring a student on composing written declarations of love.
  • On January 22, Scott Lasley wrote about the importance of consultants seeking to learn from a tutoring session, rather than just teach. By being curious and willing to learn, he says, “we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.
  • On January 28, Katelyn Wilkinson wrote a post about how consultants who aren’t “creative writers” can still provide helpful feedback to clients who want to work on a poem, short story, or other creative work. She suggests that tutors first establish the goals of the writer for the piece and give feedback on specific places that do or don’t work toward those goals.
  • On February 4, Lauren Short argues that “just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers.” She encourages writers to experiment with different techniques, genre, and language in order to find a unique writing style—a process we at the Writing Center would love to be a part of.
All of my co-workers’ advice plays into how I would approach tutoring a client on a love letter. Like Katelynn suggests, I would need to first know the client’s goals for the letter. Does the writer want the letter to sound polished and formal or more conversational? Does the writer know if the recipient reciprocates his/her feelings? How vulnerable is the writer willing to be? What is the ultimate message (besides love) that he/she wants to communicate? Asking those questions about rhetorical purpose can give me a framework for evaluating whether specific parts of the letter are working toward that purpose.
Second, I would need to take Lauren’s advice and hep the writer to work within his/her personal strengths and style. Writing in a way that makes the writer feel comfortable would be essential to drafting a heartfelt, natural letter, rather than one that sounds forced and uncomfortable. And, identifying some of the writer’s strengths might help him/her play to those strengths on future writing assignments.
Finally, I would need to remember to learn from and listen to the client. Pretending like I have a complete grasp on all genres of writing wouldn’t make me any more familiar with how to write love letters. So, it would be important for me to focus on my own strengths—examining the rhetorical effects of certain ways of writing—and let the writer be the expert on what the end product should look like
This is a much oversimplified version of the process we go through to provide assistance on unfamiliar genres, and there are likely a lot of other strategies consultants use. How do you approach tutoring on a piece of writing you’re not accustomed to reading or writing?

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