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Genre: A Different Approach to Academic Writing

Tomorrow's Research

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Writing well within a particular genre therefore entails developing understanding of its nature and sensibilities: truly reading, analyzing, and appreciating it at a deeper level.


The posting below looks at the advantages of what is referred to as, “Genre-based approaches to academic writing”.  It is from Chapter 10: Write Anything Better, in the book, How to Be a Happy Academic, by Alexander Clark & Bailey Sousa. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd,, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. © Alexander M. Clark and Bailey J. Sousa 2018 First published 2018. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Danger of Fluent Lectures


Tomorrow’s Research

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Genre: A Different Approach to Academic Writing


Every day, usually before 10 a.m., most academic workers have already contributed writing across a number of academic writing genres. Emails with other academic workers will have been responded to; texts, tweets, or notes for the day may already have been produced. Mindful of their own writing priorities, some may have written work lists, teaching material for students, or parts of manuscripts, grants, and journal reviews: different kinds of academic writing, produced for different purposes. 

The genres of academic writing have been explored in relation to graduate dissertations (Kamler and Thomson, 2014), research proposals for grants (Tardy, 2003) and abstracts for conference presentations (Halleck and Connor, 2006). All this writing, indeed all writing, is genred. A genre in this way is: 

a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes (that) are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. (Swales, 1990: 58)

Accordingly, writing that falls into a particular genre (such as a tweet) echoes particular facets, which give rise to a piece of writing being said to be able to fit in with that genre (Frow, 2006), including shared: 

·      Formal features: The appearance and structure of the writing.

·      Thematic structure: The topics and foci of the writing.

·      Situation of address and tone: The feel and formality of the writing.

·      Structure of implication: What is presupposed by the writing.

·      Rhetorical function: The socially agreed upon aims of the writing.

·      Frame: The physical and social setting of the writing.

When we look at writing through a genre lens, writing choices become more manifest. Must writing within a particular academic writing genre contain all such facets? Some of such facets? And, if so, which and why? For example, must a grant proposal be persuasive in terms of rhetorical function or can it merely be descriptive? Does it need, in terms of formal features, to contain the literature review at the start of the proposal or can this be integrated with the methods section? Must it be written in situation of address in the third person or the first person? Can it be colloquial as well as formal in style? In terms of the structure of implication, how much should the proposal explore the backstory of historical disciplinary debates over the proposal’s topic?

Immediately, the challenge of a ‘tick-the-box’ approach to genre classification is apparent. In addition to all the likely variations, this fails to recognize that as cultural artefacts as opposed to biological species, writing can evolve and grow in indeterminate open-ended ways, which may, in itself, stretch and develop the genre over time (ibid.). In relation to academic writing – occurring as it does across manifold disciplinary, geographical, and political/ideological contexts – variations in practice quickly become as troublesome as ‘tricks-and-tips’ approaches become less applicable. 

As such, a purely definitional approach to identifying genre may appear easy, but in practice is fraught with exceptions, caveats, and grey areas. Just as fruits (Swales, 1990: 49) are difficult to box into single sets of defining characteristics (oranges, bananas, and coconuts), so, too, is developing ‘all-or-none’ features of academic writing across all contexts a lot more difficult in practice. Beyond focusing only on defining characteristics, Swales (1990) recommends that ‘prototypicality’ be used in relation to genre. This means viewing the most socially typical members of a genre as being prototypes but that less typical members can still be recognized as falling into a genre – albeit a less typical one. Olives are a fruit but a less typical fruit in the eyes of many compared to an apple. Accordingly, writing that falls within a genre tends to share a common purpose: it can differ markedly in appearance (and many other facets) but nevertheless, still falls into a particular genre. In this way, genre both produces and constrains writing (ibid.) and can be reflected in how writing is viewed in terms of the social conventions (ibid., 2004) of academic workers as articulated in formal guidelines (for example, instructions on the sections of a manuscript) or in ‘hints of boundaries’ (Frow, 2006). 

Genre-based approaches to academic writing have grown since the 1980s (Swales, 2004). In research, attention to different genres of academic work has increased with proliferation of different types of academic writing genres around process, procedure or product, new media and social media technologies to support new genres like tweets, blogs, ‘rapid comments’, and synergies between writing and technology.

Genre and academic writing: Implications

‘Success’ is always specific to genre. What will make my tweet, editorial, or teaching resource successful? The strata of The Success Pyramid help us to do the right academic work but can also ensure that writing is right, too. Taking account of genre, like The Success Pyramid, all writing starts with the question: ‘What does success look like?’ In other words, ‘What will make this specific piece of my writing successful for the likely audience?’ Answers should always take account of your values about what constitutes good writing, but it is always also about the genre in which you seek to write and the audience with which you seek to engage. Take manuscript-writing alone: what makes a successful editorial for a journal does not make for a successful manuscript in that journal. Part of this sense of success comes from understanding the audience who reads that journal, what is important to them and how you can connect your contribution to it. By then becoming more attuned to genre, you can prioritize what you want the writing to achieve – its goal – and then bring this understanding down to the daily writing tasks of, and in pieces of, writing to focus on.

A genre-based approach attunes us to the similarities, diversity, and distinctiveness of different writing genres in academic work. Also, it problematizes generic ‘feel-good’ approaches to writing that are insensitive or do not address the nuances of particular expressions of genres. 

Learning to write better, smoother, and more quickly in some academic writing genres is easier because ‘successful’ examples of some genres are more readily available. Journal articles, while containing different types of academic writing (theory papers, qualitative or quantitative research reports, or methods papers, editorials, etc.) can all be viewed as readily available ‘successful’ writing examples by vent of their very publication. That is, they are examples of academic writing accessible beyond those directly contributing to them or directly involved. Likewise, tweets, blogs, and conference abstracts are types of academic writing that can be accessed fairly readily in particular academic spaces. However, other types of academic writing are ‘occluded’. Only those privy to certain access privileges or directly involved are exposed to them, such as grant proposals, grant reviews, journal article reviews, responses to reviewers, teaching materials, text messages, and emails (Swales, 2004). This occlusion raises challenges for those seeking to write within these genres because of the more limited open availability and accessibility of these texts.

Recognizing the genred nature of academic writing and these variations in access, we offer the following processes for writing well across the manifold types of writing that academic workers need to do during academic work. Each consideration should be employed, taking account of the specifics of the writing to hand.

Developing your eyes and ears for genre

To write better and to write more: first read more. We agree with one of the world’s most commercially successful writers, Stephen King, that the roots of good writing are in reading and writing appreciation, particularly via a genre-aware lens (2000). Accordingly, successful academic writing has its roots in developing your sense of what good academic writing in particular genres looks like, whether that writing is for theory manuscripts, tweets or even emails. This helps hone our personal vision and abilities to produce such writing in and for our own academic work. 

Writing well within a particular genre therefore entails developing understanding of its nature and sensibilities: truly reading, analyzing, and appreciating it at a deeper level. This involves accessing and attuning your senses to the particular type of writing, exposing yourself to typical and atypical examples of that genre and using a rhetorical lens to examine, at a deeper level, elements of content, structure, and techniques that contribute to its success or failure. Rhetorical analyses, as detailed by Faigley et al. (2006), can help this at first (Table 10.1). 

Table 10.1  A Rhetorical Analysis of a Written Piece of Text


Description of rhetorical dimension

Key question

Intended, audience

Who the writing is explicitly for or implicitly aimed at

What are the audience’s likely concerns, constraints, or parameters?


The rhetorical techniques that are used to achieve the aims of the writing

What rhetorical techniques are used? What is the balance of logos, ethos, and pathos?

Rhetorical moves

The main steps the writing uses to achieve its purpose

What are the main points or rhetorical moves in the writing used to achieve its aims?


The degree to which the writing achieves their purpose

Your evaluation of whether the writing achieved that which the author(s) intended


What knowledge is assumed in the writing and how much does it advance?

What is the cultural or social significance of the writing?

Most texts don’t come readily labelled as being good or useful examples of writing in a particular genre. As academic work involves so much writing, when academic work is done, writing is often involved as procedure, process, or product. Each piece of writing that one encounters in such work offers an opportunity for learning more about particular academic writing genres. When the genre of academic writing to be addressed is occluded and thus, examples are not readily available, colleagues, supervisors, and mentors offer a potential source of examples. Opportunities to contribute to grant or peer review, whether internally or externally, offer useful opportunities to see good, bad, and ugly examples of writing in occluded genres. 

Writing examples that are especially good, bad, prototypical, or unusual, all offer insights that can be useful in improving one’s own writing. Graff et al. (2009) go further to offer a range of specific templates for academic writing that can be used to reprise others’ arguments, summarize literatures, and introduce quotes. Although one’s own evaluative lens will develop in time, books on writing, based on genre approaches often provide useful examples of articles using particular rhetorical techniques (ibid.; Faigley et al., 2006). Like becoming familiar with a new genre of music for the first time, at first only obvious details may be apparent. However, time and effort to develop appreciation allow new insights and understanding. Using a rhetorical analysis for a more systematic approach to view and break down writing helps discern the nuances and depth of texts and consciously develops awareness of possible variations within a particular genre of academic writing. One can better notice and understand the different techniques that writers use to achieve their ends. 



Faigley, L., Graves, R. and Graves, H. (2006) The Brief Penguin Handbook, First Canadian Edition.London: Pearson Longman. 

Frow, J. (2006) Genre. London: Routledge.

Graff, G., Birkenstein, C. and Durst, R. (2009) They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton.

Halleck, G.B. and Connor, U.M. (2006) ‘Rhetorical moves in TESOL conference proposals’, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5(1): 70-86.

Kamler, B. and Thomson, P. (2014) Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision.New York: Routledge.

Swales, J.M. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J.M. (2004) Research Genres. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J.M. (2009) Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building.London: Routledge.

Tardy, C.M. (2003) ‘A genre system view of the funding of academic research’, Written Communication, 20(1): 7-36.