How does an overall sense of the rhetorical situation help a writer move forward and write well? In earlier episodes of my podcast, Teaching Writing, I considered how audience and purpose contribute to an answer to that question. Today I want to complicate and add to those two factors by considering the genre that a writer--at work or in an academic setting--faces.
So, to refresh: when you are writing, you need to know why you are writing--what is the point or purpose? At work, this is usually pretty clear cut. You email to follow-up with someone on a project, confirm a course of action, request information, arrange a meeting, and so on. Some documents, however, have more than one purpose, and that can complicate things considerably. The second main variable to consider is audience: who will read your message? With email particularly, there is a "To:" field that answers that question; keep in mind, however, that email is easily forwarded and the initial or primary audience you have in mind may ultimately be only one of the audiences that reviews your message.
For more extended texts, such as reports of various kinds or performance reviews, researchers have noticed that the genre or kind of document itself exerts a great influence on what can be written. The "work" a writer wants to do by creating the document--get a raise, pass a probationary period--is constrained by the genre. You need to write within the limits of what a specific kind of document allows. When writing at work, your organization probably has unwritten expectations for the documents produced within it. A year-end review is probably not the right place to pitch an idea for a new marketing program.
In some cases, lower ranking employees may be asked to write background reports--white papers, for example--that provide information about a topic or new product without recommending a course of action. The person requesting that report will use it in discussions with those further up the hierarchy to come up with an action plan. Knowing your place within the group is essential information for deciding how much of a recommendation or argument you should include in your documents.
If you are supervising new employees or people new to your workgroup, consider sketching out a plan for them to learn the written genres that are important to your work. Partner them with a more experienced employee who can review their documents before you see them; create a file or folder with examples of good work that they could review; perhaps make point form notes about what you are looking for in the documents you request.
These are all techniques for helping people learn new genres. Try to keep in mind that the way things are written in your organization may vary in important ways from other, similar organizations. Don't assume that new employees will bring specific knowledge of how to write well for you, and do put a plan in place to help speed their learning and acculturation into your organization.
Roger Graves, wecanwrite.ca