Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Genres, Metagenres, and the Rhetorical Situation

by Professor Lisa Lucas Hurst

In order to better understand ways of writing in your discipline, it is useful to understand some terminology.

What is a genre?

We talk of genres when we discuss music—country, rock, rap, blues. The word also applies to things like different types of writing. In the field of composition, we think of genres as closely related to types of rhetorical situations

What does “rhetorical situation” mean?

One easy way to think about it is with a mnemonic device “SOAPSTONE,” which Advanced Placement students will recognize as a rhetorical analysis strategy they learned in AP English.


Speaker           Who is the speaker?

Occasion         What is the occasion?

Audience         Who is the intended audience?

Purpose           What is the intended purpose?

Subject            What is the subject?

Tone               What is the tone?


Analyzing the SOAPSTone questions for any writing or speaking task will help you understand the rhetorical situation.

Click here for a 3-minute video about the rhetorical situation from the University of Jamestown Writing Center. (Transcript below)

Can you give me some examples of genres?

The resume is a type of genre. Let’s answer the SOAPSTONE questions: A resume has an obvious speaker (the writer of the resume) and occasion (applying for a job). A resume is written for a very particular audience (potential employer) and purpose (to get an interview), and the subject (your qualifications) and tone (highly professional) are presumed.  Resume writers usually understand the rhetorical situation they are facing, even though they might not know exactly how to approach the task.

Email is another genre. You may not use email much, but you probably intuitively understand that it is a genre—a rhetorical situation that demands a different type of reading and writing than other rhetorical situations such as texting or writing papers for a class. You probably understand, further, that email has sub-genres: Although the speaker would remain the same with professional and personal emails, they would differ in occasion, audience, purpose, subject, and tone. The way that you write emails in a professional context—for a job or as a university student—is considerably different than the way that you would write when emailing with friends and family. Email, then, is a broad genre, with sub-genres of professional and personal email.


Click here for a 3-minute video about understanding genres/genre awareness from the Center for Applied English Studies. (Transcript below)

What are some writing genres that I will experience in college?  

In the university context, research papers, lab reports, case studies, reflective papers, essay exams, and notes for class might each be considered a genre. (And yes—email!)

How will genre come up in my classes?

 In addition to using the term to categorize the different types of writing you might do, it can also be used to classify various types of sources you will come across as you research and read. Writing skills and reading skills are iterative, meaning that your understanding of one helps improve your understanding of the other: Improving your skill at reading lab reports (or any genre of writing) will likely improve your skill at writing lab reports, and vice-versa.

Understanding genres will also help you to become a more skilled researcher. Throughout your college courses, you will examine the various types of periodical publications. These periodical publications fall roughly into three categories: popular journals (magazines and other general-interest publications), trade journals (publications written for people who work in a particular field), and academic journals (publications that focus on advancing knowledge in a particular discipline, often through peer-reviewed studies). 

A common assignment in many college writing courses is the “Genre Analysis.” Students are asked to choose a topic in their discipline which can serve as the focal point of a research inquiry where students find articles in each of the three genres of periodical publications. Then students analyze the similarities and differences in how information is presented in the different genres of journals. This type of rhetorical analysis provides a great opportunity to learn more about the genres in the discipline you are investigating. 

Side note: Research librarians love to help with the research process, and most libraries today offer one-on-one research consultations. Consider the advantages of meeting the librarian in person. Librarians can be among your biggest advocates in navigating the academic demands of college. It is to your benefit to know them by name!

I think I understand genres, but what are metagenres?

Remember how email has sub-genres of professional and personal email? Metagenres go the other way: instead of the genres being divided into smaller sub-genres, metagenres go bigger, encompassing multiple genres that fit a broadly similar rhetorical situation. Moreover, the genres within a metagenre incorporate the same kind of “way of knowing” in a discipline.

What do you mean by “way of knowing?”

You are probably just beginning to take courses in your major. It may be helpful to think about knowledge in your discipline in a few different ways:

  1. There is a body of established knowledge—also known as the "scholarly conversation" that you will be researching and learning about.
  2. There are ways of knowing and ways of doing that have resulted in that body of knowledge/scholarly conversation (Carter, 2007).

For example, in the field of biology, there is an established body of knowledge about plant and animal life. But how did that body of knowledge become “established?” That’s where the ways of knowing and ways of doing come into play. As with all scientific disciplines, biology employs the scientific method to learn about the world. You probably first learned about the scientific method in middle school or even elementary school: Research question—hypothesis—experiment—results.

All the scientific disciplines, as well as other disciplines, employ the scientific method as a way of knowing about the world. Conducting experiments in some form is their way of doing that builds knowledge/adds the scholarly conversation. 

What does that have to do with this class?

While lower-level writing courses teach skills that are generalizable across the college curriculum, this course introduces you to ways of writing in your discipline. To that end, it is beneficial to understand scholar Michael Carter’s conception of how ways of knowing/ways of doing in the disciplines relate directly to ways of writing in the disciplines (2007).

While this course will not directly teach you how to write in your discipline, you will be exploring the various writing that occurs in your discipline; ways of knowing and doing are important in understanding the kinds of writing that you will be asked to do in your major and in your future work.

 Let’s use the example of the lab report, which is a genre in itself. Since all the scientific disciplines use the scientific method as a way of knowing, writing a lab report for an experiment is a common writing task. It is so common, in fact, that we may forget the significance of the writing of the report:

[T]he lab experience is a way of doing that is directed toward a way of knowing. It is primarily in writing the lab report, however, that doing becomes knowing. More than merely evidence of having completed the lab and having found the right answers, the lab report frames the doing as a scientific way of knowing: introduction, methods, results, discussion; establishing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, accumulating evidence related to the hypothesis, determining whether or not the hypothesis is accepted and why. It provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the relationship between the lab and the scientific concept of the lab and to frame the doing of the lab in the structure of scientific reasoning.  (Carter, 2007, p. 388, emphasis mine).

In other words, while writing a lab report may seem to simply be “what one does” in the sciences, the lab report (on a deeper level) represents how scientific disciplines build knowledge. When students are writing lab reports, they may not realize how significant that act is. By writing that lab report, you are becoming a part of the scholarly conversation.

In each discipline, arguably, there is a relationship between knowing, doing, and writing. This is important to remember when you are confronted with a writing assignment that may seem daunting: consider that this act of writing may be what helps you to fully understand your discipline’s ways of knowing and ways of doing, as both are part of what creates knowledge in your discipline. 

What about ways of knowing/doing in disciplines that are not rooted in the scientific method? Carter examined the learning outcomes of syllabi across his campus, categorizing the writing genres and their larger ways of knowing/ways of doing. He identified four metagenres:     

  1. Problem solving: You see this metagenre in disciplines such as Culinology, Computer Science, Business, and Engineering. Common writing genres include business plans, engineering reports, project proposals, marketing plans, and technical memoranda.
  2. Empirical inquiry: You see this metagenre in the sciences, in disciplines such as Biology, Exercise Science, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Psychology. Common writing genres include lab reports, research proposals, research reports, scientific articles, and scientific presentations.
  3. Research from sources: You see this metagenre in disciplines such as History, Literature, and Philosophy. Typical writing genres include research papers, reviews of literature, and annotated bibliographies. The focus of writing is examining some part of the scholarly conversation 
  4. Performance: You see this metagenre in disciplines that are assessed via performance (such as Dance, Music, & Theatre) or artifact (Visual Arts).  

My major is not listed—what metagenres would it include?

Do what Carter did and look at your course learning outcomes in the syllabi: What are you commonly being asked to do?

Please note that not all learning within a discipline will fall neatly into these metagenres. There is some cross-over: You may be asked to write a research paper in your dance class or add visuals to a business presentation. Furthermore, it is not only the sciences that utilize the scientific method. For example, various disciplines within business use scientific method (such as controlled experiments and case studies). Social sciences, education, and many other disciplines also use the scientific method.

There can be cross-over even within a genre: research reports (empirical inquiry) typically begin with a review of the literature (research from sources) because researchers need to know about prior research on their topic.

How does being aware of metagenres benefit me?

There are at least two ways that understanding the concept of metagenres can help you in college.

As a student, have you ever wondered “why are we being asked to do this?” Metagenre gives you an explanation. Whether you are being asked to solve a problem, conduct an experiment, research the scholarly conversation, or perform, you are being asked to do so because it is part of your discipline’s way of knowing. The paper, report, or performance is the way of doing in your discipline—and in that sense, the assignment is your opportunity to practice their way of doing and thus, become a part of your discipline’s scholarly conversation. 

Understanding metagenres can also help you to identify writing/reading genres, which can, in turn, help you to understand and complete assignments. For example, students may intuit that writing a research paper in history has similarities to writing a research paper in philosophy: The rhetorical situation may differ somewhat, but the general idea is the same. Try to think of the wide range of assignments in all your classes as potentially falling into these four metagenres, which can make them seem more manageable, as you can then better determine the genres of reading and writing required to complete the assignment.

What else does “way of knowing” affect?

Even the type of documentation used in most scientific fields demonstrates their way of knowing. With science, the most recent research is critical, so the date appears prominently in the in-text citations. This is not the case with disciplines in the humanities such as literature because in that discipline, the date of sources is not as critical: some of the best journal articles about Shakespeare might have been written decades ago.

It is not only the sciences that utilize the scientific method. The social sciences, business, education, and many other disciplines have ways of knowing that are modelled on the scientific method. These disciplines tend to privilege the date in their parenthetical documentation. Many of these disciplines use APA (American Psychological Association) style documentation, which is the most commonly used  documentation style in academia.

Class Activity: Look at the learning outcomes of a course syllabus in your major. In what ways do those outcomes suggest a metagenre? What are the markers of assessment: Performance? Papers? Reports? In what ways does that metagenre suggest the ways of knowing and ways of doing in your discipline? 


Carter, Michael. (2007) Ways of knowing, doing, and writing in the disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 58(3), 385-418.

Video Links & Transcripts


Click here for a 3-minute video about the rhetorical situation from the University of Jamestown Writing Center.

Today we're going to talk about the rhetorical situation. So what is the rhetorical situation? It's basically the idea that no writing exists in a vacuum. Anytime you sit down to write, you are responding to a particular set of circumstances, beliefs, and biases that are going to influence what and how you write. That's the rhetorical situation.

So let's break that down a bit, starting with purpose. Purpose is what you hope to achieve with your writing. You might be trying to argue your point, to teach, or even to entertain. Purpose will dictate a lot of the choices you make as a writer and your purpose exists within a particular rhetorical situation. It might actually be helpful to think of your purpose as at the center of a triangle with each of the points as part of the rhetorical situation. 

Let's start with the first of those points: the writer. Let's remember how identity and experiences of the writer can influence a piece of writing. Writers bring their own ideas, emotions, and values to their writing, as well as their own credibility. All of these can impact the kinds of writing that they create.

The next point on the triangle is the audience or the people or groups that the writer is trying to reach. Just like the writer, the audience also brings their own ideas emotions and values to a piece of writing, so it's important for the writer to consider their audience carefully when making decisions about the text.

The final point of the rhetorical situation triangle is the issue or the topic being discussed. This may seem obvious, but many topics have been discussed long before a single writer starts to write. Therefore, when considering the rhetorical situation, it's important to understand and consider the ongoing conversation about the issue and how a new piece of writing contributes to that conversation.

Each of these three points of the triangle are connected by other rhetorical choices that can serve the writer's purpose. One of the most important of these is genre or medium—basically, the way that a message is conveyed: This might be a book a speech a movie or even a social media post. Often in academic writing, the genre is determined by your instructor, but in other writing contexts you will want to carefully pick a genre that best suits the rhetorical situation and your purpose and all of these various parts of the rhetorical situation are surrounded by the broader context of a piece of writing almost like a circle enclosing the triangle. Context is all of the events, people, and ideas that are going on around a piece of writing when it is written. Often we read and understand text based on the other things that are going on around them.

For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's “I have a dream” speech was written in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and is responding to many of the social situations that were taking place at that time. Even though we might still read the speech today, it is important for us to understand its original context to be able to unpack the reasons King made certain rhetorical choices.

All of these ideas together make up the rhetorical situation and considering these elements can make you a much stronger writer. So the next time you sit down to write, consider What am I trying to accomplish? Who needs to hear this message? What has already been said about this issue? What is going on around this issue? What experiences, biases, and knowledge am I bringing to the conversation? If you consider these elements carefully, you will be able to construct a clear and impactful piece of writing.



Click here for a 3-minute video about understanding genres/genre awareness from the Center for Applied English Studies. 

In this short video, the focus is on one key aspects of language awareness that you need to develop to become a skilled writer. That is genre awareness.

Before knowing how to develop your genre awareness we need to know what a genre is. Most of you will be familiar with film genres such as horror, romantic comedy or thrillers. These are types of classes of film. In most cases we can work out what genre of film we are watching from the start of the film. Horror films, for example, typically begin at night and or in poor weather and have very dramatic music and often begin with very little dialog. In most cases, we can instantly identify the horror genre because we are very aware of what goes in to such films.

Now, it is very unlikely that you'll be directing or producing films in your future job, but you will very likely be expected to write in a variety of textual genres. In the workplace, these may include reports, memos, emails and while at university, essays, reports, and case analysis. So now we know what a genre is, how can we develop genre awareness?

Developing genre awareness means becoming aware of how certain texts are similar in their structure and organization & how content is dealt with, and how vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone are used.

Developing this awareness means noting what skilled writers are doing with content and how they're expressing content. By making this noticing explicit, you can discover guidelines for writing similar texts yourself in the future. So genre awareness gives you criteria for success which can help you evaluate your own developing text. Good writers are always aware of their audience and purpose and genre awareness helps us meet the expectations of our audience. 

However, there is a common misconception about genre. The misconception is that people feel that exact prescribed way of writing a text. This is not true. No two films are exactly alike as different actors, directors and script writers make big differences to the overall film. In texts, different forces act on genre. Centripetal forces are the factors which are typical in any text. But there are always centrifugal forces that operate on texts such as creativity, writer styles and different audience expectations. These forces mean that no two texts are exactly alike.

So a big part in developing your evaluative capability is to become more aware of genre and to notice features of language that good writers use. Becoming better at noticing and becoming more genre aware are vital for helping develop as a skilled writer who can write different texts in different genres that meet the expectations of their various audiences.