• Introduction
  • Glossary
  • Analyzing Art and Texts
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    HTML can be useful for transferring content to other online publishing platforms, typically by copy/pasting to the new platform.

    Sometimes you’re going to be writing to an audience you’re unfamiliar with, and this will require you to do some imagining or some research. In the situation you’re addressing with your writing, what will your audience care about the most? What do they value that you can tap into to help change their minds? Rather than take guesses at this, many writers will try to get to know an unfamiliar audience better by speaking to them or reading things they write. Even rudimentary research can give you valuable insights into those you want to communicate with and help you select the appropriate tools and approaches in your writing.

    Consider possible unintended audiences when sending out a public message. Photo by Kaboompics.com

    In today’s world, it’s also true that we have to consider unintended audiences for our messages, especially when those messages are going out on a public platform like Twitter. In 2015, a woman employed in public relations sent what she thought was a humorous tweet to her 170 followers right before she boarded an international flight to Africa. While in flight, her tweet was picked up by a writer for a popular tech blog who retweeted it and posted about it on the blog; by the time this woman landed, she had received tens of thousands of tweets condemning her for what was widely perceived as a racist joke. In addition to the public humiliation she and her family faced, she was fired from her job. 

    Whether the public shaming this woman experienced was deserved or not, this is an important lesson in carefully considering audience–intended and unintended. The fact that our words can be shared and transmitted to other audiences suggests we need to be careful in our communications when we’re the writer, and perhaps also just a bit more humble and open-minded as listeners.

    Image by Wikipedia

    And we may have to consider computers–or at least the algorithms written for them–as part of our audience. For example, let's say you've got a message that you want to promote on a platform like YouTube or Facebook and you want it to reach a wide audience. To do so, you'll have to consider how to leverage the algorithms that promote content: How can you get your company's press release to be at the head of users' Facebook newsfeeds? Can you get your video to the front page of YouTube? Figuring this out requires understanding how those platforms make decisions about what's going to be foremost in users' feeds.


    2.7 Message and Genre


    For our purposes here, the message is the actual writing that we produce, whatever form it takes. One element of this message we'll pay attention to is its content. We make choices about content based on our purpose and our audience–will a personal story best move my audience or would statistics do a better job? What about a combination of the two? We might also consider the words and sentence structures that will be most appropriate–can we avoid using technical jargon, for instance, or will our audience expect that?

    In addition to thinking about content, we also need to pay attention to the form our message takes. As a student, you've probably become familiar with a set of forms (or genres, which is the word we'll use more): the essay, the research report, the short essay response on an exam, etc. But in the larger world, there are a multitude of genres we could use, ranging from the opinion editorial to the press release or the political campaign speech. And new technologies are consistently bringing us new genres: Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, text messages, and so on.

    Discussion Question

    Good writers carefully consider which genre will be the most appropriate for their purposes and their audience. Sometimes we don’t get a choice in this area–your boss wants a brochure for new employees or your professor assigns you a research paper. Even if we don’t have a choice, it’s still critical to understand the role that genre plays in our writing.
    Scholars in the field of writing studies talk about genres as arising from social situations, and that means our writing is influenced by the context in which it takes place. Think about the wedding announcements you may have seen on Instagram or in your local newspaper and how those came to be. (You can see some from the New York Times or here's some with more local flavor from the Daily Herald.) Imagine the first couple who, way back when, decided to announce their upcoming wedding in the newspaper so it would reach a larger audience. This hypothetical first couple had to make decisions about what to include and how to phrase those details.
    Through time, as these unique rhetorical situations recur, a certain set of expectations about the form the message will take begins to solidify. To return to our example, after many couples follow that first, brave couple's lead, expectations (or conventions) start to emerge, leading to the recognizable genre of the engagement announcement that we see today. Certain patterns of organization might emerge as will certain phrases that help meet the needs of the context. You know you're dealing with a formalized genre when you start to see lists with help on how to write in that genre (such as this tip sheet from Brides.com for writing up your wedding announcement in the newspaper or this one from Martha Stewart about announcing your wedding on Instagram).
    An example of a longer message posted as a series of tweets (credit: @BanburyRUFC)

    However, features that we come to expect in a genre aren’t always fixed. For instance, the tweet’s origins as a text message limited content to 140 characters, which might be enough for brief status updates (the original goal of tweets) to a group of friends, but isn't really suitable for conveying more complex ideas. But as Twitter became more widely used by corporations and governments, some of them started circumventing the 140-character limit by attaching screenshots of typed press releases. Or you may have also seen some Twitter users use bracketed numbers at the end of each tweet in a series to let you know how many individual tweets make up the larger message. The needs of people using Twitter have shaped the way it’s used and have forced the genre itself to adapt; most users can now use 280 characters in their tweets (which still isn’t a lot).

    Not all forms are appropriate for every message and every situation, and a good writer will make careful choices about which genre to use in any given situation based on what each genre allows for. I’ve heard friends complain about Instagram posts with lengthy captions; these complaints suggest that most people see this platform as a way of sharing images, and they open up Instagram to see things, not to read stuff. Similarly, we don’t read obituaries expecting to learn about the deceased person’s weaknesses or failings in life; the expectations of this genre are that we extol a person’s virtues and accomplishments, even though we know that nobody’s perfect and the obituary’s subject certainly had flaws. An obituary that was brutally honest about its subject would really throw readers for a loop.

    source: Minnesota Public Radio

    But even in these cases where writers may have subverted the expectations, they’re showing an awareness of the genre and how it is typically used. One obituary that went viral recently was written by siblings whose mother had abandoned them. The beginning of this obituary followed the expected conventions, but it soon takes an unexpected turn with statements like “She will not be missed by [her children]"–ouch!  You might question the appropriateness of these choices (and many have, including the editors who published it), but it’s hard to deny the powerful effect of authors who understand the way a genre is supposed to work and who grab our attention by subverting it.


    Discussion Question

    Think about a genre you're familiar with (digital, visual, musical, or print) and consider if you've ever encountered an example of that genre that subverted or changed the expectations you have for that genre. Describe what was different about this example—just note a couple of examples—and how you reacted to it. For example, I think of the movie Shrek and how it subverted a lot of the traditional fairy tale tropes, especially in the end when the princess Fiona decides to remain an ogre. I loved that twist because, instead of following the expectation that she (like so many fairy tale heroes) would want to return to "normal," that choice celebrated Fiona recognizing something valuable and desirable in being an ogre.

    The more you understand about genres (the form a message takes) and how they can be used, the more skilled you’ll be at communicating effectively. It’s important, too, to recognize that each discipline often privileges certain genres for the communication that takes place in that field. To become an expert in a field is to understand those genres and how to use them to share knowledge with other members of the field.

    2.8 The Context


    This idea of the context (the circle around our triangle) is kind of a catch-all for everything else that might influence our writing in a given situation. Part of this context is the social context surrounding writing that we just talked about with genre. (See how all these elements are tightly integrated?) But there are other forces to consider as well.
    Something prompts the writing you do, sometimes before you even know what you want to say. For instance, after being late to class several times thanks to long lines in the campus food court, I feel like something has to change. That desire to see change might come before even knowing what change needs to take place. (The ancient Greeks would have called this desire the Exigence of the situation.)
    This prompting can be external (your boss asks you to put out a press release) or it could be internal (you want to express your feelings to that special someone in a Valentine’s Day card). The compulsion might be about something really grand (there’s injustice in the criminal sentencing guidelines and you want to make others aware of that so we can make change) or something mundane (you’re going to be late to the movies so you text a friend to have them save you a seat). But the point is, some problem or need inspires us to craft some writing that we hope will address that need.
    We can create a sense of urgency in our writing that not everyone might see (and that we then need to convince them of). A politician, for example, might see an emergency worthy of drastic action in the number of homeless people in a city. That sense of emergency might not be shared by others, however, who may see these numbers as not so alarming or might see other issues as more urgent. So if that politician wants to see things happen, she will need to convince her audience that the numbers of homeless people do, in fact, represent a crisis worthy of her proposed actions. Most people may not pay attention to her collection of ideas and solutions if they don't feel there's a real problem.
    Good writers don’t take for granted that everyone else will see an issue or idea quite as compellingly as the writers do. Part of your job as a writer, then, may be to demonstrate the exigence of the moment that compels you to write, to persuade your audience that the time for action or change is, indeed, right now.