Many people often see a genre as the sum of textual features; for instance, a lab report includes an introduction, a description of methods, one or more sections on results and discussion, and a conclusion. Scholars in genre theory, however, suggest that there is more to genre. A genre, which includes such textual features, is also part of a genre set, and the genre set is called up by a disciplinary community’s worldview. What do the genre sets suggest about the disciplinary community’s values and beliefs? What is considered significant enough to research, and why? What constitutes valid data and sound logic, and consequently, which research methods are preferred? The answers to these questions vary, of course, depending on the discipline, but the commonality of the following genres also suggests some common values across the university.
In what follows, you’ll find the most common genres that make up most research disciplines’ genre sets. Even as these genres are usually written by graduate students and faculty, I encourage you to also consider how undergraduates are invited into the discipline when asked to write brief or otherwise altered versions of these genres.
An abstract is a brief summary of one’s research and, if done well, will tempt readers to read more. The abstract may address the following: What is the research topic, and what does the discipline already know about this topic? What is the writer’s research question, and how will this build on existing knowledge? And how will the writer go about answering that research question? An abstract often needs to abide by strict length requirements (usually one paragraph).
Proposal or Prospectus:
A proposal makes a case for one’s research project and is basically an elaborated abstract. The writer will typically (a) introduce her research question, (b) provide a rationale for why the project is needed (often based on past research), (c) describe the methods used to answer the question, (d) discuss practical matters like a timeline or budget (especially if applying for funds), and (e) conclude with the significance of the project. Each proposal, like all writing, should be tailored to its purpose and audience. The length of proposals ranges from a few pages to over thirty pages. Researchers may write proposals to justify dissertation research, to present in a conference, to earn fellowship or grant funds to pursue the research, to garner honors from a professional association, or to get a book published. A major challenge is to forecast the significance of the research before one has fully done the research.
For researchers, a personal statement narrates how one’s academic inquiry has led up to her current research; the writer needs to present herself as a scholar who contributes to the discipline. Details can help the writer set herself apart from others; such details can include the questions driving the research, the projects and publications that bear out these questions, the awards and other distinctions granted to her based on such research, and so on. When revising personal statements, writers will often work hard to make seemingly separate details fit into a neat narrative and also replace vague assertions with descriptive detail.
A book review in an academic journal will discuss the book’s relevance to a particular area of research; this is different from book reviews published in popular media. The writer will typically (a) discuss how the book responds to a pressing question in the field (possibly aligning the book with other books addressing that question), (b) give a synopsis of the book, (c) elaborate on interesting sections whether for the sake of critique or praise, and (d) point to strengths and weaknesses. A related genre is the review essay, where several books may be reviewed together. In the end, a reader of a book review will want to know what she will gain from reading the book.
A literature review is generally a synthesis of research on a given topic. A writer will begin by collecting research on that topic, then classify the research into subgroups (e.g., according to, for instance, dimensions of that topic or methodology or date), and then figure out her purpose. Why would a researcher write a literature review? The first reason is simply to learn about the topic. The second reason (and this is usually the challenge) is to identify a niche from which the writer can then launch her own research; maybe there’s a gap in the research, or maybe we need to explore an offshoot of earlier studies. The challenge is to not only summarize research but to stitch the research together under the writer’s purpose, which is often to assert a new research need. Note: Some disciplines refer to literature reviews as review articles (not to be confused with the book review mentioned above).
Graduate study typically begins with coursework and proceeds with candidacy exams, a research proposal to justify the dissertation, and then dissertation research and writing. During graduate study, students learn to participate in the disciplinary community, so the writing completed for coursework can be seen as early versions of the genres above. The exam, which happens midway through a PhD program, can vary depending on the department; the exam is generally akin to the literature review and possibly the research proposal, too.
Dissertation or Thesis:
A dissertation is the culmination of the graduate student’s research and may amount to several hundred pages. While the structure of a dissertation can vary widely, the writer will usually follow through on the questions initiated by the proposal. (a) What’s the research project (introduction)? (b) What’s the rationale for the project (literature review)? (c) How did the writer research this question (methods)? (d) How well does the writer describe and analyze data valued by the discipline (data and discussion)? (e) What’s the significance of this project (conclusion)? Some dissertations actually organize the chapters according to these questions, but this is not necessarily the case. Writers of dissertations will generally be challenged by the sheer volume of the project; sustaining a large project requires intellectual endurance and agility.
Conference Presentation & Poster:
Each discipline—as well as specializations within that discipline—will hold conferences where researchers will share their work with one another. In order to participate in a conference, a researcher must submit a conference proposal, which usually has length restrictions. The conference will often include presentations and, at science conferences, posters. A researcher will need to consider how she will present her argument orally and even visually; the research must be clear and succinct enough that those who are within the field but are coming across the research for the first time will find the research accessible and compelling.
Journal Article & Book Chapter:
An article presents one’s research in a persuasive manner by calling up the strategies of the genres discussed above. The writer will typically (a) introduce her research question, (b) provide a rationale for why the project is needed (often based on past research), (c) describe the methods used to answer the question, (d) present and analyze data, and (e) conclude with the significance of the project. Each article should be tailored to the specific journal’s interests. After completing the article, the writer submits the completed manuscript to a journal editor who may also solicit reviews from other researchers in that field; this can be an extremely competitive process, especially if the journal is a top-tier publication. Then, the editor will decide to accept the article, ask for revisions, or reject the article. (Note: This is why academic articles tend to be reliable sources even if they can be critiqued.) Oftentimes, a writer may be so immersed in the research completed for the article that she can benefit from broad questions about audience, clarity, and structure. These big picture questions can then lead her to deepen her analyses and resulting claims.
Book or Research Monograph:
A book intended for an academic audience addresses the same concerns of the article, but the project needs to be rich enough to merit the length of a book. The book may be a revision of the dissertation and, like the dissertation and journal articles, challenges a writer’s intellectual endurance and agility.
[Prepared by former Writing Center Director, Haivan Hoang, November 2008]