ALL effective writing instruction is guided by three overarching principles: genre, audience, and purpose. When we ask students to write without consideration for even one of these principles, we are more than likely asking them to do “school writing” rather than asking them to write in an authentic, real world context.
All writing is situated. It happens in a specific context. Genres respond to those contexts—and, therefore, situate writers. No matter what we write, we are writing in a genre. Resumé? Literary Analysis? Public Service Announcement? Back of a cereal box? Genre matters because it is how we position ourselves as writers.
Anis Bawarshi asserts that genre could be the very first positioning we undertake, the very first mental work we do as writers. We stop to think about what kind of thing we are writing—and that kind of thing makes a difference in everything else, beginning with topic choice. In some genres, I can talk about a topic in certain ways—or only address certain topics. Other genres might allow me more or less freedom with topics or with the way that I can talk about topics. Whatever genre we choose to write in –or are assigned to write—it matters to everything else we do as writers.
Sometimes teachers muddy mode and genre. The CCSS talks about modes. Most textbooks group writing by modes. But in the real world, we talk about genres. As Katie Wood Ray notes, “Good writers know what kind of thing they are making with writing. They can answer the question, should someone ask, ‘what have I read in the world that is like what you are trying to write?’ No one I know would answer that question with words like narrative or persuasive or expository. These words simply aren’t operational for people who write. They aren’t the terms writers use to talk about or think about the writing they are producing. . . . Mode words don’t actually name the kinds of things people make with writing, so by themselves they don’t give anyone a vision for writing. Genre words do that work much better.”
Because genre matters to writers—from even the intent to do writing—genre is an overarching concern to the eleven elements of the Writing Next report. How do we address strategies or process or inquiry without a prior consideration of genre? Genres overlap, but some strategies and processes and inquiries are more appropriate for one genre than another. All writing has product goals of one kind or another—but the specific product goals depend on genre. And since all the elements should be practiced in the context of writing, all of them are affected to one degree or another by genre.
One final point about genre is that just because we don’t have a name for a kind of writing doesn’t mean it isn’t a genre. There are lots of kinds of writing we might not know a name for but that would provide a way for writers to write and develop as writers. Again, Katie Wood Ray says it so well: “The thing is, genre words have limitations, too. . . . For example, what do you call those articles in magazines and newspapers with titles like “Eight Reasons to go Camping in Yellowstone” and “Five Books You Don’t Want to Miss If You’re a Romantic” and “Ten Hot Night Spots for Summer Fun”? Certainly in the broadest sense they are feature articles, but they are a particular kind of feature article. Anyone who reads magazines knows exactly the kind of article I’m talking about, and yet I’m not sure exactly what to call them. . . . Teachers need not shy away from certain kinds of writing because they don’t know what to call them.” Find the kind of writing you want to do, that you want students to do, and then find the ways that the eleven elements help them do that kind of writing.
I have a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in one of my books that shows Calvin trying to play with a yo-yo. After five frames of his trying (and messing up), the final frame shows him looking at the reader with this statement: “I can’t imagine mastering the skills involved here without a clearer understanding of who’s going to be impressed.” I can’t think of a better way to consider how audience matters in writing instruction and how it matters in applying all of the eleven elements.
Who will be impressed? Who will be reading? Whose response matters? And does that person matter to me? Some students respond more effectively to the eleven elements of effective instruction when the writing they are working on will be read by other class members or someone outside the class rather than “just” the teacher. I know many teachers who have reported what I found in my own classes: when I sent the letters of compliment or complaint to the businesses, the students responded differently to my instruction. They made the writing process their own because the audience mattered. When they wrote plays that were performed for another class, they paid attention to the instruction that involved study of models and sentence combining to create effective dialogue. Because the audience mattered.
Some of the eleven elements depend extensively on audience as an overarching concept. For example, summarizing is not a singular skill. It is a condensing of information, true. But the kind of summary, the extent of the condensing, the selection of important ideas? All of that is determined by audience. Because audience matters in all aspects of writing, it matters, too, in all aspects of writing instruction. Strategies are determined partly by the needs of the writing, as are elements of process, prewriting, inquiry. All relate to the audience of the writing. Who will be reading what I write? That will make a difference in the way I approach the task. I might have to spend more time doing inquiry, but I may be able to rely on what I already know. Collaboration is consumed by attention to audience, those present and those readers/editors of the future.
As with genre, because using the elements requires students to write—hopefully in meaningful writing situations—audience matters. And understanding audience can help students develop as writers.
I’ve shared this story about purpose before, but it might bear sharing again. When I taught junior high, I assigned my students a research paper. The subject was their choice of historical figure, and their purpose was to conduct inquiry so that they could make a case for why this person was influential in the current century. Students would get a grade for the paper in both history (where they learned about the historical figures) and English (where I taught inquiry and writing skills). It seemed like a good idea: there was student choice, there was a topic of interest, there was an academic purpose, and there was accountability in two classes.
I collected the papers just before spring break and took them to the Oregon coast with me. I started to read one paper, but never finished it. When we packed up to leave, I put the box of unread papers in the car to carry back home and started to cry. I couldn’t face reading them. I hadn’t been able to face it since I had tried with the first one. They would be awful. I knew it. They would be painful and boring. They would be lifeless. And not because the students were horrible writers. They were pretty good, actually. The problem was that even though I had had a good purpose for requiring the papers ( I thought: think of all that learning—inquiry, citation, writing in an academic voice), the students had only one purpose for writing them: because they were required. They were not writing to entertain, to inform, to reflect, to analyze, to argue or persuade. They were not writing to communicate something that meant something to them to someone else who would care what they said. Nothing would happen as a result of this writing except a grade in two classes. What they wrote was an exercise and nothing more. So the writing was just like exercise in P.E. class when compared to real running or real football or real swimming—alike in name only. Nothing alike in purpose.
Purposeful writing is meaningful. And when we write without purpose, the act of writing doesn’t really benefit us as writers. The eleven elements need to be practiced in the context of purposeful, meaningful attempts at communication. Without purpose to the writing, inquiry means nothing, process means nothing, strategies mean nothing. Product goals? Only one: to get the writing turned in, with the correct number of pages. My son’s insistence that one line on the top of page 4 meant that the paper hit the required number of four pages is indicative of this kind of writing without purpose except to get it done. A purpose that involves real communication is necessary for the practice of these eleven elements so that they help students develop as writers and not simply as producers of texts that teachers ask them to write for some reasons the students can’t even guess. Purpose is essential to their development as a writer, a development that is encouraged by the implementation of these effective instructional practices.