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Questions within questions

Recognizing the set and sequence of components

Genres are models

A genre has a conventional structure.

One way to understand the purpose of a genre is to figure out what type of question it answers.

For instance, here are some questions that have provoked earlier generations of writers to develop certain genres:

  • How do I do x? Procedure
  • What does x mean? Definition
  • How is the company doing? Annual report
  • What is your original idea? Academic essay
  • What can you do for my organization? Resume
  • What's the real crime here, and how will it be solved? Detective novel.

So, when you approach a new type of content, ask yourself: what is the basic question this genre responds to?

Related article

Writing in a genre (Full chapter from Hot Text, in PDF, 770K, or about 13 minutes at 56K)

Questions within questions

Once the audience has gotten your attention with a broad question, and persuaded you to write in a particular genre in response to that question, you discover that, buried inside that larger question, the audience may have a whole set of follow-up questions, which come up in a certain order.

In fact, the follow-up questions often fall into a nested hierarchy.

For instance, within the basic question, "How do I do this?" (which we reply to with a procedure) are smaller questions such as, "What tools do I need to get ready?" and "What should my work look like now?"

In response to questions like these, writers have come up with tool lists ("You need a Phillips head screwdriver") and illustrations inside the steps ("Insert Tab A into Slot B").

Recognizing the set and sequence of components

So the procedure, as a genre, has a set of components that must be included, and convention-the rough agreement of thousands of writers over many years-dictates a certain way of organizing those components.

For instance, to be a procedure, a text must include at least one instruction--a step the reader should take. That step answers the key question, "What do I do next?"

But a procedure may also contain other elements, each of which addresses a particular question the reader might ask in this context. Here are some of the follow-up questions that may lead to figuring out particular pieces of a procedure:

  • What should I know before I start? Introduction
  • What's the point? Goal
  • When should I do this? Context
  • What tools do I need? Tool list
  • Is there anything I should do before I start? Prerequisites
  • What's the basic idea here? Conceptual overview
  • How does this task fit into the larger process I am working on? Process diagram.
  • What do I do next? Step
  • What should I watch out for? Warning
  • What did that term mean, in the step? Definition
  • Can you give me a hint? Tip
  • Now that I've done what you said to do, what's the result? Result statement.
  • Do my results match yours? Illustration.
  • What's that strange gizmo in the corner of the illustration? Callout
  • What does this picture show? Caption
  • Could you give me an example of the way this step is supposed to work? Example
  • I did what you said, but it didn't work: now what? Troubleshooting.

You can see that these questions--and the elements that carry your responses--follow a rough sequence.

Genres are models

If you were creating a diagram of a generic procedure, you might draw a nested hierarchy, indicating which elements were optional, and which were required and in what order--essentially, a Document Type Definition (DTD) for the genre. In fact, genres are informal analogies of the content models you create for XML delivery.

A genre acts as a general model, an uncodified but widely acknowledged structure, with an implied style.

Each writer, through pressure, inspiration, or laziness, will twist the model a little, to fit a particular context. But even with these variations, you must write so that visitors will quickly recognize that the text is following an established convention with a familiar structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What genre does your audience want from you?

 

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