“What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Genre?”
In ch. 14 of Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Brent Henze examines the function of genres within technical communication and how we can use our knowledge of genre (as a concept) to design documents for users’ needs, to understand how to modify a specific genre such as a progress report or bad news letter in order to achieve specific ends, or to teach ourselves how to undertake new writing tasks.
As both Bazerman and Henze explain, genres represent an established set of textual practices and conventions to be used for specific contexts by members of discourse communities (or activity systems to use Bazerman’s term). These established practices and conventions not only help define and limit the scope of choices available to us as technical communicators, they define and frame the expectations of our audience, and help them both interpret our document but how to use it. For example, as an established genre, a project feasibility report has well-defined sections (see Technical Communication Strategies for Today, Figure 10.6 for an example). The CEO and board of directors of a company may may simply want to know whether a project should be green-lighted or not, and therefore may do nothing more than read the abstract/executive summary and maybe skim the recommendations section. On the other hand, learning that the report recommends against the project, the potential project manager who really wants to see the project go forward may want to jump straight to the research plan in order to see if they can find fault with the study itself and, therefore, maybe revive the project. Familiar with the genre of the feasibility report, both the CEO and the potential project manager know how to use a feasibility report even before they get their hands on any specific report.
Principles of Genre Theory
Henze organizes his literature review around eight principles of modern genre theory:
- Social action: the idea that genres emerge out of the needs of a group to perform and document certain tasks (339-340).
- Typification: a “sociocognitive process” in which groups categorize similar situations into a type or kind. (341-342).
- Choice: as an established set of textual practices and conventions, genres set limits on the rhetorical choices one has when work in a particular task (342-343).
- Change: while genres represent established textual practices and conventions, they are not fixed in stone. Because they come into existence to meet the needs of a group to perform certain tasks, when the needs of the group or the group itself changes, the established practices and conventions of a genre may need to change in order to continue to meet the needs of that group (343-345).
- Competence: effective use of a genre requires establishing competence in that genre. As a social act with an activity system (again, to use Bazerman’s term), one’s ability to preform that act within a given social context depends upon one’s competence (345-346).
- Correlation of genres: as a social act, the use of a genre exists within a larger framework of interactions, and the use of one genre often calls forth or invokes the use of another genre. A call for proposals, for instance, invokes the submission of proposals, which will in turn result in acceptance and rejection letters (346-347).
- Genre systems: emerging out of the idea of correlation of genres, the principle of genre systems understands that genres can be clustered into systems or ecologies in which correlated genres circulate and interact (347-348).
- Flexibility and originality: the understanding the genres circulate and interact in an ecology combined with the understanding that genres limit the rhetorical choices available to us while at the same time being flexible leads to this last principle that sophisticated writers can meet the needs of complex or novel rhetorical situations through the use of “strategic blending of typified and innovated textual elements” (Wendy Sharer, qtd. in Henze) (349-350).
Drawing from these eight principles Henze offers four heuristics for understanding and using genres.