Jessica Good, Consultant
Justin Bieber’s new single, “Sorry,” blends related genres— the rhythmic pulse of electropop, the warm notes of tropical house, and the verse-chorus structure of pop—to create a danceable plea for forgiveness. While we typically discuss artists in the context of music, Bieber’s lyrics cross into a genre of writing: the public apology.
Genres in writing categorize recognizable patterns of organization, tone, and style. We can recognize Bieber’s song as a public apology because it conforms to a pattern established by politicians and celebrities before him. Effective public apologies (like private ones, let’s be real) are organized around a series of rhetorical moves:
- Initiate communication with desired audience
- Admit to making a mistake
- Acknowledge the consequences of that mistake
- Explain perspective of the situation (if appropriate)
- Express remorse
- Ask for forgiveness
Additionally, the tone is penitential, while the style is appropriately descriptive. Apologies tactfully allude to what was done without delving into the nuances of the initial conflict. The primary differences between our private apologies and Bieber’s public one are those of audience and context. We address individuals to mend relationships, while, in “Sorry,” Bieber moves to redeem his reputation to an anonymous ex who represents the listening public as a whole.
Although we often reserve the labels of genre for public texts, we routinely communicate in different genres. Those emails you send to your instructors? There’s a genre for that: professional communication. Did you send your aunt a card expressing how excited you are about the concert tickets she sent for your birthday? That’s the thank-you-note genre, one you probably learned all too well after your high school graduation. In both of these cases, like in the instance of an apology, a rhetorical context prompts you to enter into certain conventions of organization, style, and tone. Abiding by those conventions enables you to effectively communicate your purpose to your audience.
While genre is certainly a label that we can apply to published writing, it can also act as a guide to forming texts as we write. When you approach your next writing project, consider asking yourself:
What is the context?
Context refers to the broader situation undergirding the occasion of writing. As a student, your context is often academic. Your instructor issues an assignment, usually by handing you a prompt and a rubric, and expects to receive a final draft on a specified date. In this case, your broad situation will include the texts you’ve read and the discussions you’ve had in class; the occasion for your writing is the assignment. You can pull from the knowledge gained through your situation as a class participant to effectively manage that assignment.
We often assess context unconsciously, but pausing to identify it will help lead you to the appropriate genre.
Who is your audience?
Part of the context of any writing situation will include your audience, or who you’re writing to. Since your audience most likely includes your instructor, keep in mind any expectations (s)he may have. Look at your prompt: what is emphasized? How is the assignment structured? Does it call for outside research, or is it primarily textual analysis?
Try to remember that even though your instructor may be your most prominent audience member, the act of academic writing propels you into the past and current research surrounding your topic. Consider if you need to include information showing how your argument enters into or even advances that larger conversation.
What are the conventions?
Conventions are rules of organization, style, and tone. You’ll approach a 4-5 page rhetorical analysis differently from an abstract of a lab report for your chemistry class because of the different standards associated with each of them. When writing in the rhetorical analysis genre, you’ll construct a thesis; emphasize active voice and an objective tone; and provide in-text citations in MLA format. In contrast, you may adopt passive voice in your abstract to emphasize the results rather than your presence as the scientist. Your citations may be in APA or another style to emphasize the timeline of work by previous researchers.
Knowing the conventions of your chosen genre will enable you to effectively communicate your intended meaning to your audience.
(Not to blow your mind, but knowing conventions also gives you the power to break them for rhetorical effect. Read more here!)
What is your purpose?
Finally, but most importantly, remember your purpose. Conventions are only a frame through which you make your argument. Focus on the point you want to communicate. Your audience should come away aware of your thesis rather than your chosen style or the tone with which you engaged sources.
So, what can Justin Bieber teach you about genre? Besides pitting your friends who like his music against those who don’t, he shows us that genre is common to communication, not just libraries and bookstores. No text is produced in isolation; there is always a rhetorical context informing its construction and reception. As a result, every text you create abides by the conventions of a genre to effectively advance your purpose.
Genre can be a powerful tool—if the Biebs can use it, you can too.