Writing Genres

Writing Genres

Writing Genres

Writing Genres


In Writing Genres, Amy J. Devitt examines genre from social, linguistic, professional, and historical perspectives and explores genre's educational uses, making this volume the most comprehensive view of genre theory today.

Beginning by defining genre as a typified rhetorical action occurring at the nexus of situation, culture, and other genres, Devitt argues that genre highlights variations in texts necessary for creativity, a treatment that opposes the traditional view of genre as constraining and homogenizing. In step with contemporary genre scholarship, Writing Genres does not limit itself just to literary genres or to ideas of genres as formal conventions. Devitt succeeds in providing a theoretical definition of genre as rhetorical, dynamic, and flexible, as well as ideological and constraining. This theoretical approach sees genres as types of rhetorical actions that people perform and encounter everyday in academic, professional, and social interactions. As such, jokes, sweepstakes letters, junk mail, mystery novels, academic research papers, small talk, lectures, and travel brochures are all complex genres of their own. Genres such as these have the power to ease communication or to deceive, to enable someone to speak or to discourage someone from saying something different.

Writing Genres demonstrates how genres function within their communities rhetorically and socially, how they develop out of their contexts historically, how genres relate to other types of norms and standards in language, and how genres nonetheless enable creativity. Devitt also advocates a critical genre pedagogy based on these ideas and provides a rationale for first-year writing classes grounded in teaching antecedent genres.

This study's research stems from the fields of rhetoric, composition, linguistics, communication studies, literary studies, and critical pedagogy, and works from rhetorical and social constructionist theory. Drawing from such theorists as Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin, and M. A. K. Halliday, as well as the more recent efforts of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, David Russell, and Carolyn R. Miller, Devitt in turn blazes a trail for modern scholars by examining genres in their multiple contexts, exploring how genres develop, arguing that genres foster rather than restrict creativity, comparing literary and rhetorical genres, and advocating responsible teaching methods for future genre studies.


We struggle more with getting the facts than we do deciding what to do with the facts once we have them.

—tax accountant, in an interview

The real complexity of genres, as of societies, can best be suggested in examining actual genres in actual settings. To demonstrate some of that complexity, to interrogate the six principles I proposed in the preceding chapter, and to illustrate the definition of genre I propose in the first chapter, I will examine in this chapter the genres used in a professional community, the genres used by tax accountants. In 1986, I investigated the writing done by tax accountants in the so-called Big Eight accounting firms (later merged to a Big Six and later Big Three). Among other results, I discovered a profession highly dependent on texts, one whose work was the production of texts and whose epistemology was grounded in the authority of texts. One part of the original study focused on the genres through which tax accountants performed their work, for how texts shaped the work of tax accountants varied according to genre. To describe the interaction of genres within the community and how they together represented the accountants' work, epistemology, and values, I used the term genre set. The original depiction of the tax accounting community and its genre set, in my original article, helped to establish how genres help professionals do their work, but that depiction now needs to be elaborated in order to capture the complexity of a community enmeshed in genres. Examining the community of tax accountants provides a useful example of the rhetorical and social significance of genres. My study of the genres used by tax accountants further complicates the basic principles, as, I suspect, does every study of specific practice. Finally, to com-

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