I’ve decided to kidnap Bob’s daughter Susie for ransom. I’m behind on the mortgage payments, my yacht payments are also overdue, and I desperately need money. It is well known that Bob is one of the wealthiest people in Cash City, so I’ve targeted him as my future source of money. I’ve never met Bob, although one time his Mercedes cut me off in traffic, causing me to hit the brakes and spill my drink; the stain still glares at me from the floor of the car. The kidnapping part has been completed; now I need to leave Bob a ransom note. Let’s look at a few drafts I’ve completed to decide which one would be most appropriate.
Ransom Letter 1:
If you ever want to see your daughter alive again, leave 1 million dollars by the blue garbage can at 123 Ransom Rd. at Midnight. Come alone and do not call the police.
Ransom Letter 2:
Hav daughter. Million $. Blu grbg can 123 Ransom Rd. 12AM. No poliz.
Ransom Letter 3:
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
You have a lovely house, and I very much enjoyed
my recent visit while you were out of town. Unfortunately,
I have kidnapped your daughter. As I am
currently unable to meet several financial demands, I
am graciously turning to you for help in this matter.
I am sure that we will be able to come to some mutually
beneficial agreement that results in the return of
your daughter and the padding of my wallet. Please
meet with me at the Grounds Coffee House on First
Street so that we may discuss what price is most fitting.
Your daughter, meanwhile, remains in safe and
competent hands. She is presently playing pool with
my son Matt (a possible love connection?), and she
says to tell you “Hi.”
P.S. Please order me a skim vanilla latte, should you
arrive before I do.
Immediately, you can probably determine that ransom letter one is the best choice. But have you considered why? What does the first letter have that the other two are lacking? Let’s first eliminate the most obvious dud—letter number three. Not only does it mimic the friendly, familiar manner of two friends rather than the threatening note of
a deranged kidnapper, but it also suggests both that there is no rush in the matter and that the price is negotiable. Letters one and two are closer; they both contain the same information, but letter two fails to be as rhetorically strong as number one. The spelling errors and choppy feel might suggest that the writer of the note is not intelligent enough to get away with the kidnapping. The first letter is the most rhetorically strong because it is well written and direct. All of these letters would qualify as fitting the genre of ransom letter, but the first one most obviously fits the rhetorical situation.
It may be worthwhile to note some particular challenges you might have to approaching your writing genres as rhetorical situations. Perhaps you have come from a writing background where you learned that certain rules apply to all writing. Just nod if these sound familiar:
• You must have a thesis statement at the end of the introduction.
• Every thesis statement should introduce three points of discussion.
• You cannot use “I” in writing.
• You cannot begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
• Every paragraph should start with a topic sentence.
You get the point. These rules are appealing; they tell us exactly what to do and not to do with regard to writing. I remember happily creating introductions that moved from broad to specific (often starting with “In our world”), constructing three point thesis statements, and beginning paragraphs with “first,” “second,” and “third.” I didn’t have to think about audience, or purpose, or even much about content for that matter. All that really mattered was that essay followed a certain formula that was called good writing. But looking back, what resulted from such formulas was not very good; actually, it was quite bad.
That is, of course, not to say that there aren’t rules that come with genres; the difference is that the rules change as the genre changes, that no rules apply to all genres, and that genres require more effort than simply following the rules. Because genres usually come with established conventions, it is risky to choose not to follow such conventions. These similarities within genres help us to communicate successfully; imagine the chaos that would ensue if news broadcasts were done in raps, if all legal briefs were written in couplets, or if your teacher handed you a syllabus and told you that it must first be decoded. In sum, “too much choice is as debilitating of meaning as is too little choice. In language, too much variation results eventually in lack of meaning: mutual unintelligibility” (Devitt, “Genre” 53).
But on a brighter note, genres also help us to make more efficient decisions when writing, as we can see how people have approached similar situations. Creating a new genre each time that writing was required would make the writing process much longer, as we would not have past responses to help us with present ones (Devitt, “Generalizing”
576). As a result, the more you are able to master particular genres, the better equipped you may be to master genres that you later encounter:
When people write, they draw on the genres they
know, their own context of genres, to help construct
their rhetorical action. If they encounter a situation
new to them, it is the genres they have acquired in
the past that they can use to shape their new action.
Every genre they acquire, then, expands their genre
repertoire and simultaneously shapes how they might
view new situations. (Devitt, Writing 203)
Taking what Devitt says into account, think back to the previous discussion of the research paper. If you already have some idea of what a research paper looks like, you do not have to learn an entirely new genre. Instead, you just have to figure out how to change that particular genre to fit with the situation, even if that change just comes from having a different teacher.
Learning about genres and how they function is more important than mastering one particular genre; it is this knowledge that helps us to recognize and to determine appropriate responses to different situations—that is, knowing what particular genre is called for in a particular situation. And learning every genre would be impossible anyway, as Devitt notes that “no writing class could possibly teach students all the genres they will need to succeed even in school, much less in the workplace or in their civic lives. Hence the value of teaching genre awareness rather than acquisition of particular genres” (Writing 205). This approach helps to make you a more effective writer as well,
as knowing about genres will make you more prepared to use genres that you won’t learn in college. For example, I recently needed to write a letter about removing a late fee on a credit card. I had never written this particular type of letter before, but I knew what action I was trying to accomplish. As a result, I did some research on writing letters and determined that I should make it as formal and polite as possible. The body of the letter ended up as follows:
I have very much enjoyed being a card carrier with
this bank for many years. However, I recently had
a late fee charged to my account. As you will note
from my previous statements, this is the first late fee I
have ever acquired. I do remember making this payment
on time, as I have all of my previous payments.
I hope to remain a loyal customer of this bank for
many years to come, so I would very much appreciate
it if you would remove this charge from my account.
You can see that this letter does several things. First, I build credibility for myself by reminding them that I have used their card for many years. Second, I ask them to check my records to show further that I am typically a responsible card carrier. And third, I hint that if they do not remove the late fee, I might decide to change to a different bank.
This letter is effective because it considers how the situation affects the genre. And yes, the late fee was removed.
Chances are that I have left you more confused than you were before you began this essay. Actually, I hope that I have left you frustrated; this means that the next time you write, you will have to consider not only form but also audience, purpose, and genre; you will, in other words, have to consider the rhetorical effectiveness of your writing. Luckily, I can leave you with a few suggestions:
• First, determine what action you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to receive an A on a paper? Convince a credit card company to remove a late fee? Get into graduate school? If you don’t know what your goal is for a particular writing situation, you’ll have a difficult time figuring out what genre to use.
• Second, learn as much as you can about the situation for which you are writing. What is the purpose? Who is the audience? How much freedom do you have? How does the location affect the genre?
• Third, research how others have responded to similar situations. Talk to people who have written what you are trying to write. If you are asked to write a biology research paper, ask your instructor for examples. If you need to write a cover letter for a summer internship, take the time to find out about the location of that internship.
• And finally, ask questions.