By David E. Hailey, Ph.D.
Professional and Technical Communication
Utah State University.
Introduction – Toward Creating a New Paradigm for Evaluating and Writing Digital Content.
Chapter 2 – Everything Is a Text!
Chapter 4 – what does it mean to “Publish”?
Chapter 5 – Theory behind Usability Studies
Chapter 6 – Proposing a New Approach to Content Evaluation.
Chapter 7 – Writing Persuasion-Centric Content
Chapter 8 – Writing Quality-Centric Content
Chapter 9 – Writing User-Centric Content
Chapter 10 – Professional Writer in an Agile Environment
Chapter 11 – The Future–If there Be Such
An ongoing battle between professionals (even professionals who teach at universities) and theorists is the claim that altogether too often the theorists’ theories do not apply in the workplace. The professional writer may well ask, “What does all that rhetorical mumbo-jumbo have to do with me?” As one of those professionals who also teaches at the university, I suggest that question valid and is too seldom properly addressed. Genre theorists, for example, present academic ideas that seem to explain at the core how genres work. They talk about the idea that genres occur as the result of activities and not as the result of structures. But how is a professional supposed to take that idea to the workplace? In contrast, Krug says, “Don’t make me think!” Now, that’s an idea you can get your mind around! Moreover, it has practical implications. On the other hand, as ideas go, it is cute and simplistic.
I think genre theorists’ arguments are sound I and subscribe to their theories, but how does that help a professional writer producing a proposal? All this talk about activity and interactivity seems of little value to someone who grinds out pages of boilerplate every day, or someone who has to make a ten-pound bag of manure (foisted on her by some VP) fit on a webpage.
I suggest the disconnect between theorists and practitioners comes from the theorists not taking the one more step of tying the theories to the real world. Why is that a problem? If you need to make tactical decisions, you can get by with an idea as simple as “Don’t make me think!” You need to produce a webpage, you need that webpage to be usable, and you need to do it soon. You have neither the time nor the need to think about the bigger issues. But what if you are the one making the strategic decisions? What if you are the one deciding how the site will be divided up? What if the purpose of the site is to present the company in its best light and not particularly to sell something or provide a service? Krug’s prescription applies to a sales or service or information page but not necessarily to your site. Just as you would write differently for an NSF proposal and a sales brochure, you would write sales and marketing pages differently.
Although one-size-fits-all prescriptions often sound good (and they are often easily done), they never work in practice. There are always exceptions, and if you do not know that, you step into the traps set by the exceptions. If you only know recipes (usability prescriptions), you can only cook by the recipes. If you understand at a fundamental level (theoretical level) how food tastes interact, you can build your own recipes. Similarly, if you understand at a theoretical level how communication works, you can invent your own recipes for effective writing in different environments. Understanding relevant theories is critical for informed, strategic decision making. These first five chapters explain what the theories have to do with the real world.
The difficulty in evaluating quality of writing in digital media seems to stem from a collection of conditions both subtle and serious. Together these conditions make it hard for us to see past structural distractions to the heart of the written texts. A text might look well written but be for the wrong audience (a subtle but serious problem), or it might be mechanically sound but serve the wrong purpose (again, subtle and serious), or it might ramble on and on without going anywhere but be on the right topic (and again), or it might have an inappropriate rhetorical stance, or a text might be perfect but be connected by a link that brings irrelevant audiences to the page. There are great opportunities for good writers, editors, and developers to evaluate the writing in a website and not only make it better and make the website more persuasive as well, but also improve their value in the workplace. Only writers, editors, and developers with a strong understanding of rhetorical processes can do this, but first they have to see the endemic distractions that reside in digital environments and get past them.
When we read a traditional document, we read it through a set of filters or expectations that might include an understanding of the document’s genre, its author, our grammatical and other mechanical expectations, design impact, and so forth. A handwritten love poem on a Post-it note would receive a completely different set of filters from a typewritten, legal letter. Our filters for a traditional mystery are different from the ones we use on a Steinbeck novel. We read Shakespeare in facsimile format and enjoy the odd, archaic artifacts that come from Elizabethan printing. In contemporary printing, even small print errors distract. These filters are critical for seeing the relevance of a document to its purpose, but we often do not take the filters with us when we read texts in digital media.
For a while, after the advent of email, academics marveled at how casual email documents immediately became. This casualness is in part because writers of email often seem unable to connect the genres of their email with their analog models. For example, a formal application letter for a job written in email might begin with “Hi Bob.” Even English teachers often ignore the standard mechanics of writing and write completely in lower case or write with careless use of spelling and grammar, even when writing professionally to peers. I suggest that the casualness of the email, even in exceptionally formal environments, is an example of traditional filters not transferring to these digital documents. I suggest this is part of the reason the professional writers I poll are consistently unable to evaluate the writing samples I give them. They are attempting to evaluate them in the absence of filters they would have no trouble using on traditional, analog documents.
Professional communicators have limited vocabulary for discussing writing problems in digital media. Rhetoricians have developed a sophisticated language with theories, tested or being tested, that explain how communication (and especially persuasion) works. Unfortunately for writers – even writers with degrees in writing – the majority of these ideas are taught at graduate level. Writers are left with limited vocabulary for justifying a rhetorical need or explaining a problem. They might know about identifying the audience, but they might not know why that is so critical.
Worse, in an environment where “anybody can write,” engineers, IT professionals, programmers, secretaries, artists and (more recently) computers can all become technical writers and publications managers. I have seen professional editors conclude that an approach to chunking (when chunks are so often written for different audiences and by different authors) is to write for a single, universal audience – not bother with audience analysis. For a person with little rhetorical grounding, this might seem like an excellent idea. For anybody that understands writing theory, it is a disastrous idea.
Digital media is a pastiche of cut-and-pasted segments that are typically on topic but are often directed at the wrong audience or purpose. This has become even more evident with the advent of “chunking.” Because they are usually on topic, we often miss the fact that these chunks may address the wrong purpose or audience or be rhetorically inappropriate.
Authors often take cut-and-paste shortcuts when writing new material for websites, often at the urging of their stakeholders (perhaps especially when websites are first being built). It is easy to cut a segment from an already existing document and paste it into the new, Web document. Typically, when a segment is pasted into a website it is on topic, but that is often the only positive thing we can say about it.
Current testing methodologies tend to distract us from our best opportunities for analyzing the text. When content evaluators look at online help, they have no difficulty recognizing that online help is a document with a genre. When these same evaluators look at a collection of different genres (a website), they see a place (a site) or an object (a bookstore). And when they evaluate the site, they use the metaphor “place” to guide them. For them, those meaningless metaphors become their “genres.”
Even when evaluation experts introduce the idea of studying the text, they consistently evaluate the structure of the text or examine the content only superficially. For example when discussing statements about evaluating text, Carol Barnum (2002) suggests that examiners “Identify unfamiliar words, or words that are used incorrectly; identify sentences/paragraphs that are unnecessarily complex; provide examples of te[x]t that is misunderstood on the first reading; identify where there are too many/few headings or overly complex organizational system; identify any information you couldn’t find easily in the table of contents, index, or other aids.” In no usability study heuristics I have ever seen as anybody asked, “Is the text on topic? Is the rhetorical stance appropriate for the audience? Does the text actually meet its intended purpose?” While it might be self-evident that these things should be examined, it takes only a short tour of the Internet to see they are not. Instead, recommendations are superficial “identify unfamiliar words,” or structural “identify where there are too many/few headings or overly complex organizational system.”
In this book I will claim that although the metaphor for websites might be “place,” a large website is still a document that it is made up of countless different genres, and we cannot effectively evaluate it without knowing those genres.
This is not so much a new problem as an exacerbation of problems I have already pointed out. In the new realm of chunking texts for use in single sourcing and multi-sourcing, multi-sourcing, interactive relational databases, and automated information management systems, IT professionals increasingly design pages to pull content from other pages, so a segment of a safety bulletin, meant to be printed and hung on a bulletin board, might become a paragraph in an interactive module designed for safety training and might also be imported into a proposal ultimately designed for an NSF grant. Imagine an XML page containing the names of all corporate members with all of their contact information and a short resume for each of them. You could create a page that simply listed all of the members by name on a webpage, or you could include contact information and bios of each of them and paste that on the Internet, or you could make any of the information available for PDAs or cell phones, or for printing – all mining information from that one XML page. Obviously, this can be a powerful tool. But it can also be very dangerous.
In discussions with IT managers I often hear the complaint that the single-most difficult problem as they developed information management systems is inappropriate content being automatically loaded into documents. For example, imagine the “short bios” I mention above being loaded into a proposal. Biographies (even short ones) have a variety of purposes, and they need to be written in different styles for these purposes. A biography designed to show the collegiality of the workforce would be inappropriate for showing how professional they are.
As professional writers, we may see ourselves as craftspeople (wordsmithing) or mechanics (fixing the text) or sculptors (molding the text) or researchers (collecting information and documenting it) or even translators (making difficult material available to a lay population). In each case we are seeing ourselves through filters we construct of metacognitive metaphors. Often unique to the individual, these metaphors give us different vocabularies for understanding and discussing our writing processes. Typically, we do not actually notice our metaphors until they are pointed out by others or we take the time to carefully explore our writing processes. Think about your own different writing processes. How would you describe them? To develop a vocabulary, you will necessarily construct descriptions based on metaphors you have internalized, usually subconsciously.
You may be aware of the processes in your writing, although you might never have considered them in detail, and you no doubt have different processes for producing different genres or modes of writing. For what it’s worth, I see my theoretical and fiction writing as exploration. I seldom know, when I sit down to write, where my ideas will go. As I write about a subject, I come to know it better. In a sense, the more I rewrite, the better I understand my topic. For computer documentation, my metaphor changes completely. I become a watchmaker, polishing, tinkering, and repairing until the text is (hopefully) flawless.
Not only do we all have metacognitive metaphors for our writing processes, but those metaphors drive the processes to such a degree that one can tell (to some extent) which metacognitive metaphors were used while the text was being produced. In “Tuning, Tying, and Training Texts: Metaphors for Revision,” Barbara Tomlinson (1988) argued, “Such patterns of figurative expression are an important part of our socially shared knowledge of composing . . . and may well influence our composing behavior” (p. 58). In her research, Tomlinson examined more than 2,000 texts where writers described their writing process, consolidating the writers’ descriptions into a list of eight metacognitive metaphors.
One of Tomlinson’s (1988) eight metaphors is “sculpting [wet clay].” In this metaphor the writer is attempting to take something basic, perhaps not very good but containing a lumpy resemblance to an excellent topic, and convert it into a well-formed and interesting finished product. Obviously, at the core of the process is recursive writing. This sculptor might choose words that communicate well, but she may also be looking for elegance or surprise or grace or texture. In brief, while the “mechanic,” writing the very best he can, may produce an excellent document, the “sculptor,” writing the very best she can, will also produce an excellent document, but the definition of “excellence” for the two documents will probably be different, as will the reading experiences.
The metaphor we use can lead us in ineffective directions, however. Suppose a writer’s metaphor is more linear. Perhaps the writer sees himself as something akin to a conduit, spilling out the text in a singular and unaltered process—teachers often see this metaphor in the “midnight specials” they receive from their students, usually turned in with a mumbled apology. This year, I looked at a high school, science essay written by a nephew. He had written 10 pages about the impact of Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein on astronomy, and he received a D. As I talked to him about his process, I realized he saw himself as a funnel of sorts. He poured a variety of resources into his mind and dribbled them one by one onto the page. He didn’t even filter the material through his own opinions. He simply poured it out with never a thought for rewriting. Needless to say, the work was D quality, or worse. Fortunately for my nephew, the teacher asked for a rewrite for a final grade, and he ultimately got a B.
I am not suggesting my nephew was thinking, “I am a funnel.” He saw himself as simply writing. But he saw writing as finding material on one page and moving it to a new page—basically, nothing more than cutting and pasting. Had he seen himself as working within a metaphor that involved digesting the material, responding to it, and polishing his product with recursive writing, things would have been completely different from the beginning.
The end product of any metaphor can be flawed. The conduit and funnel metaphors will lead to defective writing if the topic has any complexity at all. The other metacognitive metaphors direct their authors similarly, sometimes with effect and sometimes in inappropriate directions.
The “mechanic” who sees herself as fixing problems has a definition of perfection that involves elimination of all errors. Part of being flawless for the “mechanic” is selecting vocabulary for maximum readability and effective reception, making certain all statements are complete and accurate, and making certain there are no mechanical problems in the text.
Imagine writing a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal. In this environment you meet severe style and formatting restrictions; everything being mechanically correct and accurate is critical. The NSF receives thousands of proposals every year. Often, the first thing reviewers look for is any stylistic or structural justification for rejecting the proposal. Missing or misnaming a topic can be enough to get a proposal thrown out. Moreover, if the vocabulary is surprising or the mechanics are faulty, reviewers will characterize the author as unprofessional and/or outside the discourse community. The demands of documentation and NSF grant proposals shout, “Be a mechanic!”
Such a metaphor can lead to competent work that communicates well. Still, the metaphor, itself, may keep the “mechanic” from seeing (or valuing) the possibility of going beyond a document that is correct or accurate to a document that could be called “aesthetically exceptional.” For example, sonnets, plays, and works of creative nonfiction should be something more than just correct and accurate. This is not to imply the metaphor “mechanic” is flawed or that computer documentation should be sublime. The “mechanic” metaphor is perfectly appropriate for the right documents, but it (as do all metacognitive metaphors) establishes a relatively specific vision for what an excellent document should look like—a vision that will never meet the needs of all documents.
In short, as we write, the processes we choose can be described using a variety of metaphors that can help us understand them. The different processes we choose, and the metaphors we use to describe them, can lead to excellent works, but they can also blind us to interesting and different possibilities and direct us into unfortunate choices.
Just as we write using metacognitive metaphors as our filters, we also read with similar metaphorical filters. These, however, are genre-based filters. When we read a genre, we know what its purpose is—what it is supposed to be doing for us and to us. We know what the social interactions are. We know what the structures should be. Even if we cannot name the genre, we know what to expect from it, and we have no trouble seeing when it fails to do that. But what if we cannot identify the genre? What if all of the metaphors lead us in wrong directions? What if we are evaluating a text, but think we are evaluating a place?
If, when we design a website, our metaphor is “place,” we may fail to notice we are designing a document. If, when we evaluate a website, our metaphor is “place,” we may pay attention to navigation and atmosphere and forget that we are also evaluating a multitude of genres. We have so much trouble evaluating content on websites because we have so much trouble seeing that we are evaluating genres and not stores.
While computer documentation and NSF grants might demand we “be a mechanic,” sometimes documents are wrong when they seem to shout about how we should approach their publication. The common metaphor used in web navigation, design, development, evaluation, and discussion is “site” (a “place” metaphor). We go to distant sites and navigate them, and we evaluate sites based on the quality of their navigation and our sense of the design of the place. When we have tested these sites over the past 10 or so years, we have used usability studies. In these studies we look for breakdowns in navigation and failure to bring the users to whatever they need. We might ask test subjects to look for a particular piece of information or ask them to perform some task. What we will be measuring is how well they can do that. Designing a website that does that is called user-centered design.
Within the metaphor of “place,” and in the tradition of usability theory, when we describe appropriate writing, our descriptions tend to be based on usability prescriptions—“keep it short,” “chunk it,” “use bullets,” “try not to write below the window,” “use subheads.” The list of prescriptions is quite long; it almost always involves structural terms and virtually never includes descriptions of style or rhetoric. p.4, describes writing for the Internet. The book begins with the following questions, “What did you do on the web yesterday? Were you just browsing around . . . or were you looking for something specific?” Redish answers, “Most people say ‘something specific’” (p. 1). Of course, she is absolutely right. Most people look for specific things on the Internet. But Redish moves from that statement to a claim right out of usability theory “Most people skim and scan a lot on the web,” and “Most web users are very busy people who want to read only as much as they need to satisfy the goal that brought them to the web” (p. 2). She also describes her own habits when using the World Wide Web (WWW) “Yesterday,” she said, “I downloaded a file, ordered a book, compared prices on a new cameras, read a few of my favorite blogs, checked the Wikipedia entry for usability, looked for information on a health topic for my elderly aunt ( p. 1). These statements do describe the processes of a huge number of Internet users, so it is reasonable for her to ask, “What makes writing for the web work well?” and answer, “Good web writing is like a conversation, answers people’s questions, lets people grab and go,” and “Think of your web content as your part of a conversation—not a rambling dialogue but a focused conversation started by a very busy person” (p. 4). That is good advice, but only for one community of WWW users. The truth is actually much more complicated. The WWW is made up of an infinite number of genres, and good writing is always writing that is appropriate for its genre. It is carefully considered and crafted by its author, and it meets the needs of its exigency. Good writing is not some prescriptive, one-size-fits-all (brief and friendly) style.
My descriptions of metacognitive metaphors and genre filters above lead to results completely counter to the advice suggested by Janice Redish. Ironically, I also did many of the things she described. But I also did things she did not mention. I read an essay about Tiger Woods. I went to ABCNews.com and read several news stories and the reader comments that followed. I went to CBSNews.com and watched 60 Minutes in its entirety. I went to YouTube and watched a number of video reviews of video cameras. I marked up several student papers in an online class, using Word’s remote editing tools (I also spent time reading comments from students in that online class). I read several of the latest reviews on the new BMW 330 diesel. I read all of the research I could find on biofuels. And I read a 25-page scholarly paper about genres. Moreover, I downloaded a good book onto a computer (a Kindle) and took it to bed. In other words, I treated the web exactly as I would a library. I read a variety of different things written in a variety of different genres and in a variety of different styles—some casual, some exceedingly dense, some short, some very long. In all of that, I read from three large categories of writing: user-centric, persuasion-centric, and quality-centric.
Redish and the other web experts are describing only one audience—“the user.” I suggest there are many purposes for web content for a large variety of different audiences. Redish and other usability gurus discuss only the first type of writing. She is right that many, perhaps even most, people on the WWW are users. Even so, we still have to write and evaluate content for the others, and the usability model does not work for that.
Consider tourist sites. Of course you can do an information “smash and grab” on the site, but the state of New Mexico would rather see you linger on its site. They hang out bait, and the longer you stay on the site, the more likely you are to take the bait. They have contests, and if you win, you get to go to New Mexico on an amazing ski vacation. They hold events: “New Mexico restaurant week returns for second helping” (New Mexico Tourism Department, n.d., n.p.). You will not likely buy anything on the New Mexico tourism site, but if they can put an idea in your head about how they can give you whatever it is you hold most dear (skiing, art, camping, history, birding, fishing, the list goes on and on), the site will have met its purpose. Maybe you will choose not to go to New Mexico right away. Instead, if they can stay in the back of your mind, you might be in a meeting where you are considering a company retreat . . .“I wonder if we could time the retreat to New Mexico’s restaurant week.” The point of this site, and thousands like it, is to get you to linger. This is a persuasion-centric site, and its task is not accomplished by efficient navigation, but by quality of content.
In a different environment, readers are encouraged to linger and learn. Lynda.com offers a good example. This site offers instruction by subscription. You can spend dozens of hours learning in any one of hundreds of instruction sets. As with the tourism sites, the more time you linger at Lynda.com, the better it is for them—and for you. The same thing applies for NASA.gov. You can find thousands of pages of games, videos, instructions, descriptions of planets, moons, stars, galaxies, descriptions all the way to the furthest object ever found. For years I have tracked the adventures and misadventures of the Mars Rovers until they have anthropomorphized and seem to have personalities, Spirit being the unlucky one. Again, quality of content and not navigation is the critical key (see Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 approximately here. Figure 1.1 presents a Venn diagram that demonstrates the relationship between the figures.
In Figure 1.1, it is possible to see three distinct classes of content. These classes will overlap to some extent. For example, one might argue that in one case the content might be expected to sell a product, although it might be quite long—Canon sells its cameras on Amazon.com with content that would run for pages if printed out. In a different case, the content might consist of a table that offers the details of a variety of solar panels in only a few words and a click-to-buy button. The difference is not so much what the content is supposed to do as what the author expects from the reader. If the audience is expected to go to a page and pick up a piece of information or do something, the page is user-centric. If the audience is expected to linger and learn, the page is quality-centric. If the reader is expected to linger in the face of persuasion, the page is persuasion-centric. I will discuss these all in great detail in the second section of this book.
Within each of these three categories are a variety of genres. Many of the genres were exported out of analog media, but many more could never exist outside a digital environment. I suggest the writer should fully understand the genres (exigency, purpose, audience and author expectations, in addition to structure) and write the texts based on that understanding. In other words, I suggest that genre, not medium (even on the Internet), defines writing style and quality.
In Letting Go, Redish continued a tradition begun by Jacob Nielsen in the early’90s. He did a series of studies on how people read on computers (beginning before the web even existed), and accurately concluded that people tend to scan rather than read. Based on that, he devised a series of important and valuable design rubrics. They have become the standard for web evaluation, because in the beginning they seemed to work. But he and others extended those rubrics to describing the act of writing and evaluating writing properly, creating a one-size-fits-all approach that is proposed to this day by him and the others: “Don’t require users to read long continuous blocks of text,” they say. “Instead, use short paragraphs, subheadings, and bulleted lists.” In a nod to rhetorical traditions, they also sometimes suggest, “Know your audience.”
I have already suggested that “place” is the first big problem with evaluating websites. Just as we write with metaphorical filters, we also evaluate with metaphorical filters. When we read, we read through filters designed to help us evaluate the text—honesty, quality of writing, quality of mechanics, design, etc. When we visit a place, we use completely different filters—ease of navigation, ambience, design, lighting, odor, background sound, etc. The two metaphorical environments (published documents and remote places) only overlap in the sense that they are designed. But even “design” means something completely different for each environment.
Suppose you build hotrods. You can go to GMPerformanceParts.com and shop the Performance Parts store to buy your new engine. Or you can go to WhiteHouse.gov and do a White House tour of the West Wing (White House, 2011). The metaphor for the site is “you as a guest of the President in the White House.” Although all of these sites are different, developed for significantly different purposes, the common metaphor for all of them is they are distant places we can visit. You can also go to any number of airlines and purchase tickets. Usability studies guru Jacob Nielsen points out that some early airline sites imitated the ticketing desk, giving purchasers the ability to click on virtual objects on the desk for information. The trend continues unchecked. Virtually all sites selling a product call themselves stores and have shopping carts.
These, of course, are all valuable metaphors for the users of the sites, but because they distract authors and evaluators from the publication process, they are not so valuable for them. The publisher needs to recognize that while it is perfectly appropriate for the reader to see the site as a location, the publisher must publish the site as a document that only looks like a location (a complicated popup book of sorts).
For the past 10 or so years, the preeminent tool for evaluating website quality has been the usability study. The usability study can be a powerful tool for identifying structural problems in a hyper-document, but it is less effective when applied to some of the other reader experiences—reader cognition and reader preference, for example. Knowing exactly what the reader takes away from a marketing document in terms of attitude, knowledge, and intent can be very valuable. Knowing how much the reader enjoys the site is also valuable. Usability studies have few tools and no vocabulary for evaluating reader preferences or changes in the readers’ cognitive condition. This is not to imply that a usability study is a problem for evaluating websites. It is a perfectly acceptable tool, but we should keep in mind it is only one evaluative tool in a place where many evaluative tools are needed.
I suggest that the justification for Nielsen’s usability studies for evaluating quality of websites is valid, but only in evaluating quality of navigation, structure, and user-centric content. That said, usability is but one of many tests we should use for evaluating quality on a website. Others include
Combined, these tests make it possible to evaluate more than user-centric content. With these, you can also evaluate persuasion-centric and quality-centric content. In effect, user-centric, persuasion-centric, and quality-centric content combine to create the larger idea of “reader-centric” content.
In short, in my experience, authors who develop interactive media within the metaphor of place (and evaluators who test them) have trouble seeing the sites as documents. They design, construct, evaluate, and discuss their sites as if the sites were structures or remote places. Because authors see the sites as structures, they lose sight of the purposes of the texts and write in a unique style prescribed by usability studies experts, and because evaluators see the sites as structures, they tend to evaluate structures and environments, not texts. On the other hand, authors see some sites as documents with perfectly clear genres (e.g., portfolios and online help) and have no comparable problem with them. Recognizing that all websites are documents containing at least three major writing styles makes it easier to move away from user-centric design toward reader-centric writing.
People who build places tend to be contractors or assemblers. As a consequence, the cognitive metaphor for producing websites tends to involve something akin to “assembly” or “construction” or “manufacture,” or even “putting together Chinese puzzles.”
This structural metaphor has not always been the case, however. Early scholars who examined the new, interactive genres being developed in the late ’80s and early ’90s saw them as textual—documents written with interesting new formats in interesting new ways offering us interesting new possibilities for (and freedoms in) communication. Online help and websites have evolved together pretty much throughout the history of interactive media. Although they are fundamentally the same (particularly with the advent of server-centered online help), no one has a problem seeing a help file as a document. This is largely because help file production has traditionally been under the control of documentation specialists. Major websites, on the other hand, were initially seen as programs developed by programmers; and so, although online help and the WWW are structurally the same thing at the fundamental level and although they evolved together, they took diverging metaphorical paths.
In a groundbreaking article, Stephen Bernhardt (1993) described the natures and possible futures of texts in interactive media, effectively predicting what a webpage would look like today:
Situationally Embedded: The text doesn’t stand alone but is bound up within the context of the situation—the ongoing activities that make the text part of the action.
Interactive: The text invites readers to actively engage with it—both mentally and physically—rather than passively absorb information.
Functionally Mapped: The text displays itself in ways that cue readers as to what can be done with it.
Modular: The text is composed and presented in self-contained chunks, fragments, blocks.
Navigable: The text supports reader movement across large pools of information in different directions for different purposes.
Hierarchically Embedded: The text has different levels or layers of embedding; text contains other texts.
Spacious: The text is open, unconstrained by physicality.
Customizable and Publishable: The text is fluid, changing, dynamic, the new tools of the text make every writer a publisher. (p. 2)
Note, that he refers to the product in every case as “the text,” and he concludes by making “every “writer a publisher.”
Well before there was a WWW (in computer years, where a year is a generation), Jay Bolter (1991) also described the potentials of hypermedia as communication.
Once video and sound are taken into the computer . . . they too become topical elements. Writers can fashion these elements into a structure. They can write with images, because they can direct one topical image to refer to another and join visual and verbal topics in the same network. (p. 27)
Bolter and Bernhardt voiced the opinions of many others of the day (including me), who all suggested hypertext or (later) hypermedia documents contained all of the various possible tools for communication, – including video, animation, and interactivity. They recognized that the world was receiving new, complicated documents that would enhance the democracy of publishing and open writing up to unimaginable vistas in the future. They were correct.
Over time this recognition that interactive media is a text has devolved (except for online help and a few genres on the Internet), and it is not difficult to see why. The original webpages were difficult to create. Only people who bothered to learn “tagging” in SGML and, later, HTML could do it, and the vast majority of these people were programmers. While Bernhardt and Bolter were describing what these documents could be, programmers such as Robert and Timothy Calliau were creating them on the Internet. Although the early websites were produced in a markup language and not a programming language, the early websites were developed by programmers who used the common programming mindset of the time. Most programming in the early ’90s was done with procedural (line by line) programs such as Basic, Fortran, and Pascal. By far the best approach to using these programs was to carefully predesign the entire project before putting down a single character of code. Steven Mandell (1986) explained the need this way:
To use the computer effectively as a problem-solving tool, you must perform several steps, which together are commonly called the Programming Process:
1. Define and document the problem.
2. Design and document a solution.
3. Write and document the program.
4. Submit the program to the computer.
5. Test and debug the program and revise the documentation if necessary. (p. 18)
If we look at the first two steps, we see how much went into the process before beginning with the actual programming process.
It is virtually impossible to get somewhere if you do not know where you are going. Likewise, programming, a clear and precise statement of the problem must be given before anything else is done. . . .
The programmer must understand the problem thoroughly, and must also write the statement of the problem in a clear, concise style. Documenting the problem makes it apparent whether or not the problem is clearly understood. (pp. 18-19)
Once the problem has been clearly defined, the solution must be defined.
Once the programming problem is thoroughly understood and the necessary input and output have been determined, it is time to write the steps needed to obtain the correct output from the input. The sequence of steps needed to solve a problem is called an algorithm. In an algorithm, every step needs to solve a problem must be listed. (p. 19)
David Budgen (1994) described it somewhat differently in Software Design. He suggested that the design process includes
(1) Requirements analysis, which is concerned with identifying what is needed from a system.
(2) Specification, in which the objective is to state precisely and in an unambiguous manner what the system is to do in order to meet the overall requirements.
(3) Design, which is concerned with describing how the system is to perform its task so as to meet the specification.
(4) Implementation, which elaborates upon the design and translates this into a form that can be used on a computer system.
(5) Testing, which is concerned with performing a validation of the implementation, in order to demonstrate how well it complies with the original requirements, the specification and the design. (p. 15)
Programmers would pour over requirements, design specification documents, and design flow charts again and again until everything seemed ready and they were convinced they could produce the program as a complete and bug-free product. Only then did they begin programming. It was called “the waterfall model” (Budgen, 1994, p. 15). The complete model assumed programmers would do one thing at a time: identify requirements, establish specifications, design the product, program the product, test the product, and maintain it once it is released—five or six clearly defined steps (depending on who’s defining), each step completed before falling to the next one. These same programmers created the first hypertexts, and at that time their descriptions of the best method for creating these documents fit within this waterfall model. The model is now out of date, and I don’t know of anybody who advocates it, but in many respects it is still the model applied to adding content to websites.
Over time (and with the advent of object-oriented programming) the waterfall model fell into disuse, largely replaced by variations of rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping involves creating the product (the website, for example) in simple form and improving it in iterations. The process exactly parallels rewriting as it is taught in pretty much any high school or college. A more contemporary term with a more specific meaning is agile software development. As agile software development implies, in this model the programmers (usually a small group) develop the program, changing things on the fly in iterations as the need arises. There are a variety of agile software development models, including extreme programming, scrum (hence the rugby allusion above), and spiral programming.
Although agile programming parallels the writing process in many respects, no form of programming privileges writing to any degree, nor do programmers use any of the writing or publishing metaphors I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Instead, programmers see themselves as constructing a finished product. Waterfall programmers view the process much like construction—figure out what you need, then design a structure very carefully, build it, test it, and sell it. Object-oriented programmers view the process as assembling the components (not unlike Legos building blocks) into a completed product, moving them around and modifying them as necessary until finished (although a common tenet of agile programming is the assumption that the project is never actually finished).
In short, programmers do not see hypermedia elements as texts; they have never seen hypermedia elements as texts, and so they established production metaphors compatible with construction and assembly. At an early point in the evolution of digital communication, technical communicators bought into the programmers’ structural metaphors.
Although writers were among the ones who saw the opportunities of hypermedia very early on, they were not the ones who selected the names or working metaphors. So although Amazon.com, Cabelas.com, and GMPerformanceParts.com are all really interactive, online catalogs, they are all presented as stores. Today the New York Times describes its customers as “readers”—implying that even online it still sees itself as a text—but CBSNews.com, Newsweek Online, and ABCNews.com all describe their customers as “users.” Users are not readers. The word “user” has no connotation that implies “reader.”
Earlier, I suggested that even on the Internet the metaphors we use affect (even effect) the quality of what we write. Those few authors who are the very best use the best metacognitive metaphors, the metaphors that lead them to the most carefully polished texts. Naturally, the best writers have more than their metaphors going for them. Some writers are so good with words they can produce excellent documents whatever their metaphor (or perhaps they consistently find the best metaphors). For the rest of us, however, even with the best metaphors, the most we can hope for is excellence. But I think excellence is a worthy goal. Writers who write and rewrite and craft and sculpt and polish and do whatever else they have to do to produce excellent texts produce the best documents. But a writer who doesn’t even know he is writing has no chance of producing good texts by any measure.
Using “assembly” or “manufacturer” as their mental image for their publication process, developers tend to construct excellent navigation and design, but the content is viewed as a component, basically a module (like a window or door) that is added once the structure is done—usually later and often much later. But if, as I suggest, a website, any website, is a document, all of its component parts are texts (I discuss this in great detail in the next chapter). The texts are not added to the site; they are the site.
One of the best known usability experts, Jacob Nielsen, describes sites in terms of location and navigation. Although he suggests that “content” is critical, he describes good content in terms of its structure. In Designing Web Usability (2000), he suggested the following for good writing for the web.
Nielsen (2009) suggested using plain language: “Because users don’t take time to read through a lot of material, it is important to start each page with the conclusion” (p. 111), and in his “10 Heuristics for User Interface Design” (2005), he suggested that “the system should speak the user’s language, with words, phrases, and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented tools.” But as I search through Nielsen’s many texts on the topic, I see two important things. First, Nielsen sees websites as places to visit, and so he discusses effective design in terms of place and navigation. Secondly, he sees “text” as designed to do one thing: facilitate the user’s need to do something or extract some piece of information.
Jared Spool, Tara Scanlon, Will Schroeder, Carolyn Snyder, and Terri DeAngelo (1997) also examined effective writing for the web in Website Usability: A Designer’s Guide. They used Fog, Flesch, and Flesch-Kincaid’s readability studies and concluded that “the less readable a site was, the more the users were successful with the site” (p. 68). In short, Spool et al. used readability heuristics, and nothing more, to evaluate writing on the Internet, using that to prescribe how documents should be written—and the less readable the better. In terms of other texts, Spool et al, suggested that graphic design has no impact on website usability.
Of all the books available on the topic of evaluating websites, Carol Barnum’s (2002) Usability Testing and Research is my first choice. Barnum is a technical communications professor (a writing teacher), and her approach to evaluating websites is much more comprehensive and expansive than most other usability studies experts. In Usability Testing and Research, Barnum effectively consolidated and updated the work of her predecessors in the field. She not only discussed many methods for how to do usability studies, she also detailed many (and more comprehensively) processes for designing and developing sites. But Barnum said little about writing style. For example, in her list of the top 10 mistakes of web design, she named the following:
Slow download times
Non-standard link colors
Long scrolling navigation pages
Scrolling text or looping animation
Lack of navigation support
Outdated information (p.375)
In terms of writing, I believe there are far worse mistakes. In the cut-and-paste pastiche of the Internet, there are thousands of pages torn from original documents and pasted on websites. Many of these pages are on topic, but written for wrong audiences or purpose. This, in my opinion, is the most dangerous mistake authors make when publishing a website. And in an examination of more than 100 books and articles on the subject of evaluating websites, I have found only one that has discussed this problem. In Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson (2010) explained (tongue placed firmly in cheek),
With all that content, surely we don’t need to worry about creating more, right? We can just go get some. I mean, it’s probably already on our site, even. Somewhere. It just needs freshening up.
Or else we think that maybe, just maybe, other people are out there generating content that might be of interest to our audiences. We can aggregate it. Filter it. Republish it. For free. (p. 22)
Halvorson implied that the trend to copy-paste has become a problem based on flawed logic. Web developers suggest, “Why write things, when you can simply download them?”
Copy-pasting has become an addiction for website publishers. Moving beyond simple copy-pasting, publishers have developed a taste for single sourcing and server-side publication. These are important contributions to publishing. None of the significant sites could exist without them. CBSNews.com, MSNBC.com, NASA.gov, ComedyCentral.com—none of these could exist without server-side content delivery and single sourcing content. On the other hand, for writers, things in comparable environments are becoming much more complicated. Moreover, in such environments, evaluating texts can approach impossible.
It is possible to look at several sites and see how publishers fall into this trap. The first two examples are from a collection of pages meant to attract sophomores into a technical communications program. The example page from the first site offers an overview of the careers technical writing graduates might enjoy (Anonymous, 2001a).
Students thinking about majoring in English inevitably confront the question: "What are you going to do with an English major?" Contrary to popular belief, however, career opportunities for English majors are quite favorable because English majors are adaptable. They have the critical thinking skills to adjust to a variety of different career paths, and in a world where workers can expect to make major career changes more than five times during a lifetime, adaptability is no small asset. English majors have found job opportunities in financial institutions, insurance companies, federal and state government agencies, the hospitality industry, universities, museums, and service organizations. They are employed as personnel and planning directors, administrative associates, marketing directors, technical librarians, wage and salary representatives, service correspondents, claims adjustors, and insurance agents. The English major is also an excellent undergraduate major for those who wish to enter law, medical, or dental school; complete post-graduate work in literature, film, creative writing or library science; or enter sales, management, and marketing programs in large organizations. [Emphasis added]
The title of the segment promises to be about careers, and so the text discusses careers—it is on topic. But insurance companies? The hospitality industry? Planning directors? Marketing directors? Sales, management, and marketing? These are indeed job possibilities for English majors, but jobs for technical communication graduates? Technical communication graduates typically get jobs as technical communicators. The paragraphs were written by an unknown someone who wrote them for the university’s general bulletin years (perhaps even decades) ago. In 2001 someone who knew nothing about technical communications pulled them from the online general bulletin and pasted them into the undergraduate technical communication website. They are on topic in the sense that they are obviously meant to attract students to the English program, but they are written for literature majors.
A single sentence from a different page on the same site reads like an academician writing to another academician (Anonymous, 2001b).
MissionStudents take classes in two areas: first, they build a theoretical foundation in rhetoric so that they can assess any writing situation and adapt their writing to the context as audience-aware, self-aware, self-confident writers; and, second, they learn about writing in a variety of contexts using the most up-to-date tools of technology so that they know both how to write and why they are writing, thus preparing them for the ever-changing job markets of the twenty-first century.
This is a single sentence that goes on and on and is applicable to both a wrong audience and a wrong purpose. Originally, it was written to explain to Northwest Accreditation evaluators how the technical communication program worked. Its original purpose was not to recruit students but to impress highly educated evaluators. Later it was copy-pasted onto a page in the site meant to explain the philosophy of the program to sophomores considering their options vis-à-vis choosing a major. A page describing the philosophy of the program would present a different voice, with a different vocabulary, and a different philosophy (if, indeed, a philosophy page is actually appropriate).
This and the previous example were designed and produced as user-centric texts, and so they are written to provide information, which is what they do. The purpose of the texts, however, is to be persuasive. They are persuasion-centric texts. If the purpose of the texts had been carefully considered, someone would have considered the audience and how that audience might have been persuaded. Had someone done that, it would have been immediately clear the texts on both pages fail entirely.
Ironically, the text above has been through numerous usability studies with faculty leading students through the process. Neither faculty nor student ever noticed that although the site is usable, the content is designed for wrong audiences. That is because the page meets all of the relevant demands listed by usability studies gurus. Furthermore, the copy meets the content demands of Redish. It downloads quickly, a reader can scan it relatively easily; it is chunked, and the tone of voice is friendly. So for 3 years this page occupied its place on the site, undergoing examinations by annual usability studies classes and their teachers, with nobody ever noticing it was written for the wrong audience. More importantly, this is one of the pages I have had scores of professional writers and advanced students examine (more than 100 subjects at this writing), and with only two exceptions, they failed to identify the problem with either page.
I can identify the mindset of those who developed this third example, because it suffers from the exact symptoms exhibited by the first two. A bookstore is selling the first publication of Lewis and Clark’s epic journey across the West. The book is priced at $350,000, and the copy reads like this (Powell’s Books, 2009):
Two volumes octavo (228 x 149 mm) pp. xxviii, 470; pp. ix, (1), 522. Large folding engraved map (70 x 30.2 cm). Folding map lightly foxed with a tear repair (6mm) in crease located in east Mississippi. Map was drawn by Samuel Lewis from Clark's original and engraved by Samuel Harrison (1789-1818) who may also be the engraver of the plates.
5 engraved plates, foxed: "Fortification" facing p. 63, Vol.1; "Falls & Portage" facing p.261, Vol.1; "Great Falls of Columbia River" facing p.31, Vol.2; "Great Shoot or Rapid" facing p.52, vol. 2; and "Mouth of Columbia River" facing p. 62, Vol. 2.
Some foxing and soiling throughout both volumes, some marginal worming in volume 1, filled in on a few leaves, marginal tape repair on Ee2 in Volume 2. Original printed boards entirely uncut with the map as issued, rebacked. Boards rubbed and soiled. Handsomely housed in a morocco slipcase with a chemise for each volume.
The text begins with a section that describes the quality of the book, then moves to a description of the book’s importance:
Remarkable narrative of the most famous and significant American land expedition in history. 1,417 copies were printed in 1814. Approximately 23 copies remain extant with very few in private hands.
The next section is an odd and ambiguous paragraph that may or may not apply to these volumes. The question is, Why is there a segment about books being published 100 years later, and what does Thwaites have to do with these volumes?
Nicholas Biddle transformed the journal entries of Captains Lewis and Clark into an artful narrative. Biddle was the rare combination of genius coupled with financial solvency giving him the talent and the freedom to render the narrative highly readable and take no credit. Mr. Biddle chose Paul Allen to complete the publication process hence the name "Biddle — Allen edition." The Journals (as they were originally written) were not published in their entirety until one hundred years after the expedition. That definitive edition was brought to press by Reuben Thwaites in 1904.
Finally, there is a strong, marketing paragraph that explains how important these books are. It is apparently made up of quotes by a whole collection of people, though it is hard to know who might have written what after the Coues quote.
This is our national epic of exploration, conceived by Thomas Jefferson, wrought out by Lewis and Clark, and given to the world by Nicholas Biddle." (Coues, History, I, v-vi.) Every aspect of this set is testament to the sheer determination of those involved. The turbulence of time has decimated the number of copies remaining. This set is, in every way, a remarkable piece of Americana. Wagner-Camp 13.1; Tweney 89: 44; Streeter Sale Vol. 3: 1777; Sabin 40820; Howes L317; Graff 2477.
Like the careers page, the above quote is properly on topic, but the comments are a pastiche of physical bibliography and cut-and-pasted texts from elsewhere, paragraphs from different writers, written in different times and for different audiences. Only the final two paragraphs make meaningful rhetorical statements, and one paragraph is so ambiguous it may not even be about these books. Evidence that the copy is not based on informed rhetorical decisions, is reinforced by a variety of other rare books on this site that are supported by nothing more than a physical bibliography and a request for reviews by customers: “Be the first to comment on this book for a chance to win a prize.” This “Be the first . . .” is a real irony. The book is one of perhaps 100 in existence. Who is going to be able to comment on it?
It might be suggested that anybody interested in a book of such rarity and value needn’t be sold on the book’s importance and value. That is somewhat like saying BMW need not bother marketing their $115,000 M5, because anybody who is interested in it will know all there is to know about it and will willingly buy it with no sales effort from BMW. But this book, like the M5, has competitors. The question BMW has to answer is, “Why not Mercedes or the new 4-door Porsche?” Other books are also important and valuable; why buy this specific book? I suggest a purchaser will buy the book or car with the most persuasive narrative (provenance).
These paragraphs, like the previous two examples, are persuasion-centric. Later we will see that what they are trying to persuade (and whom) might be ambiguous, but there can be no doubt that the point of the page is to persuade, and I suggest that it does not.
If we examine the homepage of ParrishBooks.com (a rare-book competitor), we see what looks for all the world like a page in a catalog of books. It has links to other pages, and although the directory for the site uses the name “store,” the homepage could as easily be in a traditional catalog. ParrishBooks.com sells rare books online, and the fundamental design principle of the site is rhetorical. Although they present their site as a place (store), they designed their site as a publication. The authors also present their marketing pages as pages from a catalog, so their content is rhetorically sound, solving the correct needs, directed at the appropriate audience, doing what it is supposed to do rhetorically. On the other hand, their text is dense, and usability testers would find it in desperate need of chunking—so for our purposes, I have chunked it so we can focus on writing quality and not usability. In their presentation of author Richard Bach’s, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Parrish Books says (2011),
By Richard Bach
Book No. 3772
Macmillan, 1970. A scarce signed first printing with dustjacket. First Edition, First Printing, Signed by Author .
Binding: Cloth. Book Condition: Near Fine. Jacket Condition: Near Fine. Size: 8vo - over 7.75" - 9.75" tall.
A lovely First Edition, First Printing (so stated) signed for Parrish Books by the author on the half-title page at a 2009 signing in Beaverton, Oregon at the launching of "Hypnotizing Maria." Mr. Bach signed it with an additional squiggle and sun on the page.
The book is complete with the four tissue pages following page 55 and in quite nice condition but for the customary touches of fading on the edges of the covers and light foxing on the endpapers. Also there is a previous owner's neat bookplate on the front endpaper and a contemporary inscription "To Our Mom, 12/2/70 Happy Birthday. Hope enjoy Jonathan Seagull" on the page opposite the half-title page, inscribed in the year of publication.
The dustjacket is price-clipped but has "50454" on the rear panel which matches the "50454" on the back cover of the book. The dustjacket shows spots of wear primarily at the edges of the creases and spine but overall is a quite nice compared to others of its age.
Signed first printings of Richard Bach's most well-known book are getting quite scarce and Parrish Books is lucky to live in the same area as Richard Bach so we see our favorite author from time to time.
Parrish Books guarantees all signatures as authentic. This book includes a Certificate of Authenticity from Parrish Books.
The writing is on topic, directed to the right audience, and meets the needs of the purpose of the text. It is a unified block of copy written specifically to sell this book. The value of the book is found not in its content but in its history, so the purpose of the message is not to tell readers what the book is about but to tell them why it is valuable. The content was written specifically for this book and specifically to the appropriate audience.
The Powell’s Books description is cut and pasted from a variety of places, so has no unified message, and any attempts at persuasion are spotty at best (may even have been accidental). Moreover, it had no discernable purpose or audience. Powell’s Books clearly sees their website as a place and their homepage as its door. As a consequence, they seem to have no working metaphor for their design and no filters to use for evaluating their writing. Parrish Books also see their site as a place, but within that metaphor, they recognize their purpose is to sell their books with persuasive copy. They clearly recognize their purpose and audience.
In short, properly done, the texts lead to a gestalt where the total of the page is worth more than its parts. The best websites will be written/edited/published because the writer/editor/publisher will make certain the navigation is excellent and make certain the design is elegant (to the degree that elegance is rhetorically important in a specific site), but will also make certain that all of the component parts go together in a rhetorically sound manner to fulfill a definable purpose. Evaluating these texts becomes possible when writers realize they are constructing documents, not shopping centers.
I keep using the word rhetoric, a word technical communicators tend to hate because it conjures up images of slippery language used for inappropriate purposes and because it is that “soft and fuzzy” part of language that technical communicators tend to think is irrelevant to their writing.
I would slip past the word, except (as we shall see) it is critical to excellent writing and content evaluation. For the purposes of this discussion (and somewhat simplistically put), “rhetoric” is the part of communication that persuades, and even the most technical documents are rhetorical to the extent they persuade. This is a simple sentence, but it contains a great deal of theory and a number of terms that need defining. So what do I mean by persuade? Imagine a help file. How rhetorical would you expect online help to be? Surely there is no place for pathos there—no need for emotion. After all, online help is all about ethos (accuracy in this case) and logos (logic). But that isn’t true. When a reader approaches a help file, some system has already broken down. The excellent help file author deals with the assumption that she has an anxious, perhaps even angry, reader. The best online help is written with ameliorating reader anxiety as one of its components. This is but one rhetorical component perhaps occurring at a subliminal level. Other rhetorical components that are similarly subliminal might include font selection, colors, shape, interface design, and more.
Rhetoric occurs at all levels in all documents. Writing on a Post-it Note is a rhetorical choice. The choice of pen or pencil (assuming such a choice is available) is a rhetorical choice. Cursive or Roman or italic is rhetorical. Red or black or blue ink is rhetorical. There can be no document produced by humans that does not contain rhetorical choices.
Rhetoric as a discipline has a long history. Aristotle suggested that it is the counterpart of dialectic (logical part of the discourse). If knowledge is a doorway, it has two doors: dialectic and rhetoric. Originally, rhetoric was described only in terms of oration, but over time it has come to mean more. When you design a page, you might choose a font that looks more professional (perhaps for a resume) or more friendly (a letter to a friend) or sillier (comic strip); these are rhetorical decisions. You might feel like your pages are too daunting, so you chunk your copy and insert more white space to make them friendlier—a rhetorical decision. You choose to use gray on an IBM website instead of pink paisley. You choose to write documentation in a carefully crafted voice, as professional as you can make it—rhetorical decisions and more rhetorical decisions. The font you choose is rhetorical; the colors you choose are rhetorical; the page shape is rhetorical; the photo choices are rhetorical; the decision to use animation rather than an illustration is rhetorical. The entire website is a complicated combination of rhetorical decisions. People who do not understand this, have difficulty producing effective websites—websites that “talk” to their readers.
Imagine you are helping design a website that sells a Harley Davidson Motorcycle tour across the Southwest. How different would your language be if you were selling a BMW tour in Bavaria, or if you were selling flowers or collectable guns? Suppose you were attempting to sell bird watchers on the idea of going to New Mexico to look at the cranes in Bosque del Apache. How would that be different from selling Western history buffs on a trip to Ft. Sumner to see Billy the Kid’s stomping grounds? New Mexico needs to attract tourists from both groups and many more—many different audiences with many different rhetorical problems for a single site. The author for this site must identify the purpose of each page (perhaps even each section of each page), its preferred audiences, and write (or evaluate) with that information in mind.
The need to apply rhetoric to different purposes and audiences applies to even the most technical content. It is one thing to point out that a $350,000 book needs to be sold, but on the other hand, technical content also needs to be sold, perhaps more subtly but sold nonetheless. As I have already mentioned, the best online help documents defuse stress as their readers solve their problems. Readers often see comments such as, “You can solve that problem by. . . .” But there are even more subtle rhetorical tricks. Space is designed so not to intimidate readers. Colors are chosen to enhance the ethos of the document. For example, you would never put an orange background in a help file designed to support legal software, although you might put a pink-paisley background in an online cookbook. To use a clean white or pale gray background in online help is a rhetorical decision. On the other hand, Microsoft uses pale yellow as a background for its online help—a different rhetorical decision. Moreover, great information pages often end with, “Was this helpful?” This provides feedback to the web managers, but it also acts to demonstrate that they care whether you are getting what you need.
The same rules apply to even the most complicated informational pages. IBM’s (2009) discussion of XSLT, a tutorial, is exceptionally professional. It recognizes that the person who reads it is likely a beginner at XML, and it writes in an accessible language but avoids the attempts at humor or “baby talk” often common to such efforts. You can see such language in publications that begin with “A Dummies Guide . . . .” I am not implying that these publications are incorrect to use “fun” language, but that, in this case, it would be inappropriate for IBM to use it.
Well-crafted documents will contain a rhetorical stance. Your rhetorical stance combines your need with your audiences’ needs and expectations. You recognize your audience and establish a stance that is appropriate for that audience and the conditions. It may include your exigency (the need or requirement driving your writing), but if it is well done, it will certainly include a crafted voice. For example, it may include (or specifically exclude) humor. It may exclude (or specifically include) contractions. The logic may be point by point, with each point carefully spelled out and discussed, or it may be made up of enthymemes.
However it is crafted, the rhetorical stance will change with virtually every genre. The preacher’s stance will be different from the teacher’s stance or the conference presenter’s stance or the angry father’s stance, although all of those stances would be variations of lecturing.
In short, all writing is infused with rhetoric to some degree. Uninformed writers are unaware of its presence and do not know how to use it, but the best writers work hard to make sure their rhetoric is under control and well groomed—even if they do not, necessarily, know they are dealing with it.
We all intuitively see websites as places we visit, but the claim that websites are documents is not difficult to demonstrate. First, one need only look at the source code. What we see when we “visit” a website is a façade. If you look under that façade, you will see the reality of the website. Although understanding of the code may not be immediate for the uninitiated, it all translates into plain English.
<Change the font size to 2>
<Begin boldface here>
<Go and get photo.gif and put it here>
<Go and get movie.swf and put it here>
<Begin text at 300 pixels from the left edge and 150 pixels from the top>
The code shows us what is really going on. We (users) do not “go” to Amazon.com; we download these source-code pages into our own computers and they combine all of the different resources and display them. After that initial page comes in, our computer requests such art as photos, flash files, movies, or whatever else did not show up with the file. In effect, we order a text, receive it, order supplemental texts, and receive them. I recognize I am not saying anything new. In the depths of our logic, we all know we are not really going to remote places. But once we begin designing sites, we are of two minds: while we are placing our texts onto the site, we are thinking in terms of how well the texts will load on remote computers, but when we think of how the readers will access the material, we think, talk, and write in terms of a remote place with users and navigation problems.
Here is where we see the difference between writing and constructing. We see and evaluate all writing through unique sets of filters. If I send my wife a little love letter on a flowery Post-it note, she will probably not check my spelling or grammar (in fact, she might see sloppy penmanship and misused grammar as cute), but she is also an NSF grant proposal reviewer. As she reads these proposals, she sees nothing cute about mechanical problems, poor vocabulary, sloppy organization, and the like. We all typically evaluate any discourse as we experience it. Our filters are always in place, and to the extent we have the skills, we switch to the correct filters as we move from one genre to the other.
The filters we use to evaluate texts go well beyond my abilities to identify them all, but a short list of them will include things such as
Of course, this is a tiny fraction of the complete list, but each of these plays a role in our evaluation of a text. For example, verisimilitude is driven by the author’s (and readers’) knowledge of the subject matter of her story. But we also change our expectations as we change genres. In the movie (1987) Throw Mama from the Train, there is a delightful scene where a elderly lady is writing a novel about a submarine. She calls the periscope “the thing the captain looks through to see out,” and she calls the intercom “the thing the captain uses to talk to the crew.”
Verisimilitude is not to be found in her novel. On the other hand, we see Harry Potter wave a magic wand to light a candle or drive off dementors or summon a flying broom and we don’t bat an eye (well, most of us don’t).
Because we conceptually visualize a website as a remote place, the filters we naturally use to evaluate texts seem not easily transferred. As a consequence, what we read on the Internet can be wrong, illogical, even irrelevant, and we may well not even notice. Sometimes we expect verisimilitude and sometimes we do not. We seldom know the age, sex, or experience of the author. Authors often create pages without considering their purposes or audience (which can easily all be different).
The thing I have noticed in 16 years of doing and teaching web design is that when people see web design as assembly or construction, they tend to see the text as an added component, often as an afterthought (this tendency even applies to writers). When they can, they will grab previously written texts and paste them into their sites. In fact, a current trend is to write texts (chunks) designed specifically for cutting and pasting in different places for different audiences and different purposes. I have no problem with chunking. It can be an efficient way to manage content in a constantly changing environment. But people who are “assembling” their sites, instead of “publishing” them, tend to pay only superficial attention to the texts they are pasting, and so we find ourselves reading content that is on topic but for the wrong audience, or is on topic but was written for a completely different rhetorical purpose, or is on topic but the information is irrelevant for the purpose of the site. These pasted texts will always be on topic, and so they look right, but they are often wrong nonetheless.
For readers, viewing the site as a place is not a problem. Good sites can easily be designed to create a virtual reality, of sorts, where readers tour through the many “rooms” of the site. But for professional writers, seeing the site as a place causes a serious blindness to many components of the site. Professional developers and evaluators who see websites as places, tend to focus their evaluations in terms of structure and navigation. They perform usability studies, and consider them their measure of quality. If users can quickly “navigate” through the site, it is an effective site.
Earlier in the chapter, I introduced a page designed to describe careers graduating technical communicators might aspire to. Every year, I offer a graduate course where early in the course we evaluate the defective pages on that site. Their inability to identify problems on the page seldom changes. First, students begin discussing design issues.
Student A. “I don’t like the use of this color.”
Student B. “I like the use of the colors.”
Student C. “There is too much white.”
Student D. “I like the white space.”
Student A. “I don’t like the page metaphor.”
Student D. “I like the page metaphor.”
At this stage, the students are discussing aesthetic issues, using no logical or rational justification for their comments. “I like (or do not like) this.”
Next, students typically begin evaluating navigation on the site. The site is small and uncomplicated, so navigation is not much of a problem. We use text-based links and the other accepted processes, so there is seldom much argument about navigation.
About this time in the process, I suggest they examine the text for quality of writing. Typically, they will find a mechanical problem or two but suggest that the site (including the texts you have already seen) is generally well written. When I suggest that there are egregious errors on all of the pages, they go back and review everything more carefully, but virtually never find anything more. Only in a few cases has anybody felt there might be a problem, but they have always been unable to explain why it was a problem. I invariably have to point out the specific problems and explain why they are problems. Once I point to them, I get a big, “AHA!”
“But these are students,” you say. “They cannot be expected to already know this.” These are indeed students. But they are also all working technical communicators. They include editors, lead writers, web designers, even communications directors. None of them are beginners at this, yet seldom do any ever recognize the problems in writing until I point them out.
Relational databases, XML documents mining information from other XML documents and inserting that information into XHTML documents, and Darwin Information Typing Architecture are among the new systems that presage the evolution of knowledge management in our immediate future. For the past 15 years, we have been cutting and pasting ill-considered texts all over the Internet. Imagine what it will be like when the cutting and pasting becomes automated. For example, on one Amazon.com (2011a) page, you can see
Fullriver Battery specializes in the manufacture of AGM batteries. Controlling the entire process from grid casting to final assembly, quality is assured with a 5-year Solar PV Application Warranty, subject to terms and conditions. Deep Cycle batteries by Fullriver are designed to be discharged and recharged hundreds of times. They are built differently than car batteries. A VRLA (valve-regulated lead-acid battery) is a sealed lead acid rechargable battery. They do not require water or any maintenance during their lifetime. VRLA batteries are AGM (absorbed glass mat battery) and Gel (gel cel) batteries. Fullriver deep cell batteries are used to store electricity and provide power for solar, wind turbines, boats, RVs and electric golf carts. * FULLY RECYCLABLE AND SAFE TO TRANSPORT. Certifications include UL, ISO9001, JIS, CE, TUV. Safe for air, sea and ground transportation. Approvals DOT, IATA, IMDG, ICAO. (n.p.)
The copy is not too bad, but the block of text with no breaks could easily have been fixed if only a human had taken the time to look at it. On the other hand, on a different page the content looks like:
AGM Electrolyte Suspension System Custom Built Military Grade Alloys Maintenance free Operation Fast Charge Delivery Capabilities Extremely Low Self Discharge Rate Extreme Vibrations, Heat and Weather resistant Sealed Non-Spillable Non Hazardous Construction Maximum Power Density and Deep Cycle Capabilities (Amazon.com, 2011a)
This comes from the section of the Amazon page specifically meant to sell a product. Instead, we see a string of words with a single (apparently irrelevant) punctuation. But you can see worse. Another description meant to sell a battery line looks like this (Amazon.com, 2011b): “UPG D5745 Sealed Lead Acid Batteries (12V; 18 AH; UB12180).” In this marketing segment, the copy is simply repeating the title of the page. On the other hand, it doesn’t make me think, so it is usable.
The problem with the second two examples is that the process is managed entirely by computers. Computers collect information from a variety of resources and recombine it into automated pages using what Amazon calls artificial intelligence. Just as Amazon is, computers all across the Internet are regularly publishing documents unaided by human intervention. In the near future, this process could well become the rule and not the exception. I recently had a conversation with an IT manager for Lockheed Martin whose job is information management in an environment where information mining is a key component. Her greatest complaint is that documents are often a mish-mash of voices and rhetorical stances that dissolve into gibberish (24 November 2006, in conversation). In response to this problem, some information managers suggest that all documents be written for a universal audience. I suggest that a document written for everybody is written for nobody.
Typically, the automation of relational databases is built around metadata. Metadata is fast becoming a critical tool for managing and mining ideas, but I have never seen metadata that lists genres, rhetorical stances, purpose, audience, or any of the other critical components of human discourse, although all of those could easily be integrated into the metadata.
Communication is moving in exciting new directions, but to be effective it should remain communication and not database transfer. To make this happen, we need to remember that we are dealing with documents made up of complicated new texts in new combinations, and we need to remember that texts are made up of purpose, audience awareness, rhetorical stance, exigency, and much more that should not be left behind.
In short, to effectively move into the future of communication, we must expand our definitions of text and genre and rhetoric so that we have no difficulty seeing that interactive media (all interactive media) is communication, not construction. This is necessary for effective writing and evaluating of interactive media, but is critical in a future that includes automated document publication.
We seem to be simultaneously facing two problems. It seems that as professional writers, surprisingly few of us can effectively evaluate the quality of writing. At the same time, writing is becoming more complicated, automated, and more difficult to evaluate. The problem with having difficulty assigning quality to texts is easily overcome. Once writers see the problems, they quickly find solutions. The problem with texts becoming increasingly complicated will never be overcome. Complex and complicated information systems (CCISs) are replacing simple websites in every market. The trend in these systems is single sourcing, where one text (or one part of a text) can be used in multiple documents for multiple audiences. Being unable to identify the purpose and audience of a text being used in a new environment makes it impossible to know if that text is being used for the right purpose or audience.
I suggest there are two solutions for this problem. The first solution is to develop a set of tools that can be applied to solving the problems. The second is to develop a set of theories that can be used to better understand the tools. The first part of this book deals with identifying ways to use rhetorical theories as tools. The second two parts of the book demonstrate how to apply these new tools in digital media in general and in web publishing in particular.
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Amazon.com. (2011b). UB 12180 sealed lead-acid batteries: Product description. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.amazon.com/UB12180-Sealed-Lead-Acid-Batteries/dp/B001DL7D1O/ref=pd_sbs_hpc_3
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New Mexico Tourism Department. (n.d.). New Mexico: Land of enchantment. Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://www.newmexico.org/
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Nielsen, J. (2005). 10 heuristics for user interface design. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html
Nielsen, J. (2009). Ten usability heuristics. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html, current in 2009
Parrish Books. (n.d.). Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach [Marketing page]. Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://www.parrishbooks.com/prostores/servlet/-strse-3384/Jonathan-Livingston-Seagull-,/Detail
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As with most terms possessing both informal and formal meanings, genre is often used casually by people who see the term as having to do with recognizing families of texts with common plots and structures. Within this paradigm, mysteries are all in the same family, as are science fiction stories, horror stories, and so forth.
A traditional mystery, such as an Agatha Christie novel, has a plot that involves solving a crime. Structurally, it is typically a story slowly revealing a previous story—the crime—and it often involves an odd but exceptional detective tracking down some malicious character. This is what traditional genre theorists call its form. The structure of such a mystery can be described using a modification of Freytag’s pyramid for plot structure (see Figure 3.1).
[insert figure 3.1 approximately here]
As you can see from the figure, the structure includes an introduction (exposition), rising action or tension, climax, falling action, and conclusion or denouement. But it also includes another story with its own rising action and conclusion. The stories perhaps share the denouement. Originally designed by Gustav Freytag to describe tragedies, the pyramid is commonly used by literary scholars to help explain parts of a story’s plot. In a traditional Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, somebody would arrive at Holmes’s flat and describe a problem (exposition), Holmes would grapple with the problem for a significant portion of the book (rising tension), discover the culprit (climax), and everybody would stand around confused, wondering how he figured it out (falling action), until Holmes explained the methods in his madness (denouement).
As I have pointed out, a unique characteristic of a mystery is an additional story (an additional pyramid) that usually, but not always, ends before the exposition begins. In fact, the point of the story is usually for the hero to figure out what happened in that earlier story, which then leads him or her to the perpetrator. Hercule Perot, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Peter Marlowe all fit nicely into this description, but Spade and Marlowe have notably harder attitudes, and the ambiance of their literary world is very different from the more cerebral universe of Holmes and Perot. Spade and Marlowe live in a universe of noir fiction mysteries, which are usually much bleaker. These mysteries (common in literature and movies since 1920) will often contain incomplete successes, unpleasant weather, alcoholism and drug abuse, grimy streets and grimier people, and an antihero as the protagonist. Because these detectives are so jaded (or “hardboiled”), their stories are called “hardboiled detective mysteries.” Yet another mystery (police procedural) often contains multiple plotlines with two or more unrelated mysteries and the protagonists attempting to solve them all simultaneously. Again, since they are mysteries, they contain the earlier stories the police try to unravel. For example, the television series Crime Scene Investigation often involves two or three unrelated deaths, and we watch the teams solve their cases and (when necessary or possible) discover and arrest the murderers. More recently, however, television police-procedural mysteries have had fewer complex stories in a single episode, substituting a more complicated back story. In any case, these mysteries are all relatively simply described in terms of their structures, which include plot structures in common. As a genre, a mystery can be said to include a detective (or detectives) attempting to identify a perpetrator by unraveling a previous story while the perpetrator is attempting to obstruct the investigation with lies, red herrings, and more than a little prestidigitation. The descriptions of any of the above stories will fit within my depiction of Freytag’s pyramid above.
In Interpretation and Genre, Thomas Kent (1986) suggested the above approach to describing genres is “synchronic”—rule bound. But he also described a diachronic approach to describing genres. In this description, genres are culturally driven and constantly changing. Authors are forever testing the boundaries of genres, and as soon as the rules of a mystery (or any other) genre are established, they are broken.
Phillip K. Dick’s (1964) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has many of the characteristics of a hardboiled detective mystery but is also a science fiction novel. In effect, it is a science-fiction-hardboiled-detective-mystery with a noir twist, an antihero, and an unsatisfactory conclusion where the villain (as cruel as he might be) is the victim, and the hero is nothing more than a contract killer.
In Stephen King’s (2001) Black House, the protagonist magically flits between parallel universes to stop a serial killer. The Amazon.com review (2011) described it as “a fantasy wrapped in a horror story inside a mystery, sporting a clever tangle of references to Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, jazz, baseball, and King’s own Dark Tower saga.” The prequel, The Talisman, is a coming-of-age-high-adventure-fantasy-horror-mystery.
Frank Miller’s (n.d.) Sin City is a neo-noir collection of graphic short stories that includes action comic elements mixed with allusions to the hardboiled detective stories, produced in a format resembling medieval romances (made up of related short stories on different subjects but evolving toward a common conclusion—e.g., la morte de Artur). Not only are the plots of the Sin City stories complicated mixes of multiple genres, but the graphic presentation and the conceptual connection to the Vulgate Cycle introduces even more structural complexity. Such complexity might be difficult to effectively graph and impossible to describe using synchronic rules.
The theory that describes genres in this fashion is commonly called traditional genre theory. This theoretical framework goes all the way back to Aristotle, who made it a lifetime ambition to sort his world into taxa (taxonomies or genres). Aristotle believed that everything (including everything written by man) could be placed into categories where everything shared common features. While this is to some extent true, it should also be clear by now that the boundaries are elastic at the very least, and may actually be inventions—that there really are no such boundaries.
According to Sharon and Steven Gerson (2000), in Technical Writing: Process and Product, a proposal or report contains a title page, cover letter, table of contents, list of illustrations, executive summary, introduction, discussion, conclusion, recommendation, glossary, works cited page, and appendix. I should note that the Gersons are not specifically examining the two genres as genre theorists; they are simply describing them from their point of view as technical communication educators. They are explaining to students the elements they should have in their completed documents. Still, it becomes clear that their structure-based description makes it possible to simultaneously describe disparate genres using the same structural descriptions. Both the report and the proposal contain those same components.
At the same time, their description of proposals describes only one kind of proposal. The proposal described by the Gersons suggests something like a formal National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal. But a proposal can as easily be submitted informally by a contractor to a resident who wants a new roof or deck. In this case, the proposal might be presented over bacon and eggs at the local family restaurant.
In short, it is easy to identify a simple work of fiction by its genre; identifying highly complex works is much more difficult. Structures become increasingly convoluted, often evolving out of literary genres from the distant past. In contrast to saying “mystery” or even “hardboiled detective story” to name one of these more advanced genres, we are reduced to complicated descriptions.
Moreover, traditional genres can neither include all variations of a genre nor exclude all alternate genres. The genre “proposal” can have structures as varied as formally written to the NSF or a project pitched over breakfast, and although its purpose is entirely different, a report can share those same structures.
Thinking about genres at this level is not useful to writers. This approach to describing genres creates a collection of pigeonholes that confines and misleads writers (and evaluators of writing). Traditionally, if someone needs to know if a body of writing is any good, she will evaluate it within the context of its genre. A proposal does not look like a love letter. Each would be evaluated differently. But even different proposals are not alike. To evaluate a proposal, you must know what kind of proposal (e.g., formal, informal, internal, external), and you must know the proposal’s social situation. In simple terms, you need to know why the proposal is needed, what it is supposed to do, and to whom.
Now introduce the complexity of the Internet. Proposals on the Internet might not look at all like analog proposals. Moreover, on the Internet, consecutive paragraphs manifest entirely different genres; it can be impossible to know what any paragraph is, much less how to evaluate it. For example, a typical Amazon.com page will contain as many as a dozen different genres, ranging through a whole variety of menus, lists, product descriptions, and reviews. The pages are designed to be user-centric, but, depending on its source, the quality of the content varies from exceptional to useless. To deal with the problem of multiple genres and varied quality, I will propose converting a more contemporary description of genre into a tool that can be used to identify the genres of the texts we are attempting to evaluate or write—a tool that can also be used for evaluating the quality of the content within these genres.
The tool I will describe comes from theories advanced by the North American school of genre theory. Very briefly stated, they advanced a theory that genres are recurrent actions in response to communicative situations and that those objects people call genres are really artifacts of the actions. In such a genre theory, the forms (structures) of the texts are no longer very important. Once they become unimportant, it becomes easy to see what is important and use that to parse and evaluate texts, in addition to using it in planning and writing new texts.
In contrast to the Gersons’ description, in Technical Writing: A Reader Centered Approach, Paul Anderson (1987) described proposals differently. He suggested that a proposal is an action. “In a proposal,” he said, “you make an offer. And you try to persuade your readers to accept that offer” (p. 704). He went on with, “You say that, in exchange for money or time or some kind of support from your readers, you will give them something they want, make something they desire, or do something they desire” (p. 704). Anderson described proposals in terms of interactivity between author and audience, and within his description a proposal can be as formal (NSF) or as informal (bacon and eggs) as needs demand and still meet his description of proposals. Moreover, no other genres can be defined as “you make an offer. And you try to persuade your readers to accept that offer.” Those genres that seem to fit within the description (e.g., providing coupons or price reductions—making an offer—to get customers to purchase products) can be carved out by more carefully describing the proposal in greater detail, or, conversely, it can be demonstrated that they are in the same genre family even if they are called something else (“I’ll knock another 10% off if you’ll buy this car” is a proposal).
A genre theory based on social interaction permits more detailed and accurate descriptions of the relevant genres than a structure-based description. “You say that, in exchange for money or time or some kind of support from your readers, you will give them something they want, make something they desire, or do something they desire,” introduces ideas of purpose, audience, and interaction or situation.
As I mentioned earlier, the idea of recurring activities based on recurring interaction of the purpose, audience, and situation of a text comes from the North American school of genre theory. Although there are a number of different variations in their genre theories, generally speaking, Caroline Miller’s description is that a genre is a recurring social action. This implies that the structures people call genres (mysteries, science fictions, etc.) are actually artifacts of the actions, “social artifacts,” according to Miller (1994a). In an excellent description (perhaps even definition), she said:
Genre we can understand specifically as that aspect of situated communication that is capable of reproduction, that can be manifested in more than one situation, more than one concrete space-time. The rules and resources of a genre provide reproducible speaker and addressee roles, social typification of recurrent social needs or exigencies, topical structures (or “moves” and “steps”), and ways of indexing an event to material conditions, turning them into constraints or resources. (p. 71)This description makes an important break from previous descriptions by her and others. In the past, theorists have called genre a recurring social action. But Miller now describes it as a social action that can occur. That concession will be important later in this chapter. But for now it may be sufficient for me to explain exactly what her description implies to me and how I intend to use it as a tool for evaluating and writing digital content. If we break her description into something akin to a heuristic describing what she calls genre, it might look like this:
So imagine a situation where a company has hired a new president with a tremendous background. There are exigencies or needs that demand communications: press releases; newsletters and memos to employees; writing a new, official presidential biography; etc. All of these different kinds of documents are driven by the exigencies generated by the president’s arrival. Press releases will be sent in a variety of forms to a variety of media and will have identifiable patterns of interactivity between the company and the press (e.g., the media should be warned the press release is coming, and the company should have a sense of what the media wants; if it is any good, the release will no doubt be followed by a variety of phone calls and interviews, and additional ones may be released as a result). The patterns around the writing of the biographies will be completely different and equally identifiable. Once you understand the appropriate interactions that are expected (constraints), you know how the writing should be cast, or if you are reviewing something someone else has written (evaluating), you should know how it should have been cast.
Adding to Their Descriptions
Forgive me if I twist Miller’s words even further. While the American school does an excellent job of describing the nature of genres in a socially interactive setting, we need a more specific set of elements to be able to evaluate web texts. I suggest that for our purposes, genres of texts are defined by
With that in mind, I repeat the genre theorists’ suggestion that every utterance begins with an exigency or need. The force that necessitates communication can be called the text’s exigency. Moreover, even if it is only created to fill a space, every text has a purpose. If we assume the role of professional writing is producing text for a client (even if we are the client) that is directed toward an identifiable audience, we can identify components that must always be in place before we can effectively evaluate content—they are exigency, urgency, purpose, rhetoric and structure, and results. These can be converted into questions:
These questions, combined with their answers, provide us with a description of the genre (see Figure 3.2).
[Figure shows exigency leading to purpose leading to audience surrounded by situation.]
In the illustration, the question, “Why do we need this?” leads to the description of the exigency. The question, “What is this supposed to do and to whom?” leads to a description of the purpose of the text and its audience (these are inextricable). “What is the structure of the interaction?” leads to an understanding of how the text is constructed, and how the author and audience interact. Finally, “How well does the text do what is intended?” provides us with our evaluation question.
Assume that professional writing is meant to accomplish something; in other words, it has a purpose. That purpose will evolve out of an exigency and urgency, which is to say some pressure or need drives each purpose. The purpose will typically be to get someone to do something or change in some way. Excellent authors of texts know the exigency and purpose, because that knowledge is necessary for identifying the audience, and only by knowing the audience can the author produce a text that will affect it. But people evaluating existing texts may not know the exigency or purpose of the text and so can have little sense of the audience. Like the author, the evaluator must identify the audience to evaluate the text.
With traditional genres (e.g., NSF grant proposal), determining what it is, what it is supposed to do, and whether it is successful may not be difficult, because the evaluator will have a good sense of the genre (which supplies some sense of exigency, purpose, and audience) based on traditions within traditional texts. Continuing with the proposal example, purpose and audience will be self-evident. With many of the new, interactive genres, however, identifying the genre, recognizing what it is supposed to do, and determining whether it does that thing can be more difficult. With the newer complex information systems (e.g., NASA), it can approach impossible, although it is no less important. To deal with the new paradigm of complex and complicated information systems, we must find a tool or heuristic to guide us through the process. I suggest that by reapplying the descriptions advanced by the North American school of genre theory, we can do that.
I begin by suggesting that genre and medium often have very similar definitions. Arguably, they are opposite ends of the same continuum. If I say, “ink and paper,” it is clear that I am talking about a medium, and if I say “hardboiled detective story,” it is clear I am naming a genre, but if I say “e-mail,” things are no longer so clear. A traditional book is a manifestation of ink and paper and is likely to be seen as a medium, but brochures and posters could well be seen as genres, although conceptually a brochure is not particularly different from a book—just a few hundred pages shorter (see Figure 3.3).
Insert Figure 3.3 approximately here.
In the figure we see a continuum. On the left, we find elements that are clearly mediums. On the right end, we see elements that are clearly genres. Although we might be comfortable calling brochures and e-mails genres, it is impossible to apply exigency, purpose, or audience to such broad terms. With proposal, things are somewhat better. We have more information, although we still do not have much. Like lecture, I suggest that proposal is a collection or class of related genres. With proposals we know that someone is offering to do something in exchange for something. But we still do not know nearly enough to evaluate the quality of any given proposal. An NSF proposals or a contractor’s bid is arguably a genre. We now have a sense of the exigencies, the purpose of the proposal or bid, and the approximate audiences, but we do not have a sense of the social structures surrounding everything. Saying “roofing contractor’s bid” gives us a lot more, and a “roofing contractor’s bid in writing” gives us even more. We do not have to ask the contractor what his exigency is; we can pretty well guess it. We know the audience is someone wanting to get her roof repaired or replaced. We have typically seen comparable documents, so we know what it should look like. We could probably evaluate this document because we know what it is supposed to do and what the social interaction looks like—in other words, we know the genre.
Genres and Subgenres
Suppose we look at the traditional description of lecture. We see that it is simple enough to define lecture as a condition with a structure involving an orator expounding to an audience. In such a simple case, there is an orator, an oration, and an audience. We know nothing else about any of them. I suggest that is because lecture is not a genre. I propose that lecture is, instead, a family of related genres.
Once you look at the idea of lecture more carefully, my argument becomes clear. Consider the homily, a kind of lecture where the speaker addresses an audience from a pulpit and the audience typically never interrupts, in contrast to a disciplinary lecture (father/son, boss/employee) that might require a great deal of interaction with the audience. We now know more about the purpose and audience—not a lot, but some more nonetheless. With a classroom lecture in front of a white- or blackboard, the speaker presents information to students, but the nature and purpose of the information can be completely different from class to class. A history teacher might use chalk to fill a board with an order of events leading to a historical condition, and the students might be invited to interrupt often for clarification and discussion. An engineering teacher may well be demonstrating skills—modeling the universe with equations—to 200, or more, students who are expected to interrupt only if necessary. These chalk talks can be reduced even further to more genres or subgenres. For example, some engineering teachers present the lecture, then, to make certain students understand, have their students do homework and turn it in for a grade. Other engineering teachers have the students do the homework before class, and the teacher and students work out the homework (and other) problems during the subsequent class period. In each case, the nature of the lecture will be different. Recently, teachers have been recording their chalk talks so the students can watch the lecture via video and then do their homework. Having had their students do both the lecture and homework before class, these teachers are able to move to more advanced and more theoretical information during class. For example, the late Frank Redd, a master teacher, teaching orbital mechanics at Utah State University, had his students watch videos of his lectures, then do homework assignments. Having done that, they would attend his class, where they wrestled with the much more advanced quantum problems in orbital mechanics.
On the other hand, some university departments are developing courses where the students sees the chalk talk online and meets with a tutor or facilitator to ask questions and demonstrate an understanding of the material. These students may never actually meet the teacher of record. It seems as though anytime you identify a genre based on its structure and content, you can identify a subgenre, and that will have subgenres, and they will have subgenres, and so on and so on and so on. Closely examine the interior of the genre, and its structures will always collapse. On the other hand, I reasonably successfully described the above genres based on the interaction between teacher and students. Importantly, I feel no need to name them once I can describe them. The description of the interaction is enough information for knowing what I am looking at. The more complete the description, the better I understand the text and what it is supposed to do.
In short, in the traditional structure-based paradigm, altogether different genres can be described by the same structure, and a single genre can be described in terms of a variety of different substructures. In contrast, an activity-based genre is described in terms of interaction between elements such as need, purpose, authorial intent, audience, etc.
Extending theories the genre theorists have proposed, I offer a heuristic for identifying and describing the genres of texts in general and web-based texts in particular and a vocabulary that enhances discussion of content quality. I suggest that if you can accurately describe the genre’s various characteristics, you can effectively evaluate and parse the text, but you also have the language for discussing your results. There is no need to apply some kind of name to the text (e.g., mystery, grant proposal, sales brochure) because many of the new, digital genres are as yet unnamed and may even be unnamable. A good description is better in any case. The key is to begin by recognizing the characteristics of the genres you are evaluating. These can be distilled from theories advanced by the genre theorists and me earlier in this chapter. I believe the most applicable ones are as follows:
If you can describe these six characteristics, you have effectively described the genre, identified what it is supposed to accomplish, and you can determine whether the artifact accomplishes that.
The author or client has some kind of need that the text is expected to meet. The need may vary from earning a living to making a profit to making a bigger profit, or any of the million different needs individuals and corporations have. Please note, these needs are not descriptions of what the text is supposed to do but of why the text is needed. The need (exigency) is the force that drives the production of the communication, and it is reasonable to assume that a variety of different purposes might evolve out of a single need.
Connected to the idea of exigency is the urgency it generates. A sudden silence in a crowded and noisy room may cause someone to giggle or say something. In this case the exigency is the silence, and the urgency is trivial. On the other hand, in a murder trial, the urgencies are huge. The exigencies lead to levels of urgency, which lead to what the communication must do to be effective (purpose)
Exigency and purpose might seem similar and are easily confused, but they are quite different. Arguably, exigency is the force that precipitates the act, while purpose is the intended result of the act. Suppose I have inherited a warehouse of antiques. I need to do something with them. Perhaps I am also unemployed and broke. Then I probably need to sell them. So those are my exigencies: I have a sudden cache of antiques and I am broke. Now we come to the purpose. Since I need to get rid of my extra antiques, I do something that will sell (purpose) them. Perhaps I write a newspaper ad or post flyers on telephone poles (not all choices are good) or write a letter to an auction house (audience) or do all of them. Although the exigencies remain the same, the purposes can change. With the flyers and newspaper ads, my purpose might be to sell the antiques, but with the auction house, I might be trying to find out what my antiques are worth so I will know what to sell them for.
Understanding both exigency and purpose is necessary for understanding the genre of the text. These are simple ideas once you understand them, but, nonetheless, when I discuss them with professional writers, they have the most difficulty grasping the difference between exigency and purpose.
With the rebuild of a marketing page on a website, the exigency might be the company’s decline in sales, while the purpose of the text might variously be to unload old stock or hype a new product or develop a mailing list. Of course, since this is about communication, “hype a new product” is incomplete. Extending the purpose of a communication always leads to a description of its audience—“hype a new product to . . . ,” “unload our old stock to . . . ,” “create a mailing list of . . . .” Arguably, knowing the exigencies of a text always leads to an understanding of its purpose, and the purpose leads to a description of audiences.
In short, the exigency can be seen as a description of a “problem.” “We are bleeding profits” or “we have tons of old inventory we can’t sell” or “nobody seems to know who we are” or “we have this great new product we need to bring to the public.” These are all exigencies.
Purpose is different. The purpose of a text is to solve the problem. “This page is designed to persuade readers to buy . . .” or “this page advertises our steep discounts on all of our old stuff” or “this page introduces us” or “this page introduces our new line.”
Exigency always answers the question, “Why do we need to do this?” The purpose will always answer the question, “What is this supposed to do?”
Clearly, recognizing the audiences of a document is important, but it is relatively simple to demonstrate that exigency and purpose are even more critical for describing the genre of a text. There is a very interesting spoof of Photoshop tutorials called You Suck at Photoshop. It presents itself as a series of 20 tutorial videos, but after a only a few moments of watching the first segment, the viewer realizes it is actually a story about a neurotic (possibly psychotic) Photoshop guru who is losing his wife, hates his job and boss, and is in an advanced state of emotional devolution. The initial episode began with the following:
Maybe you have a photo of the Vanagon that your wife and her friend from high school spend Friday nights in. . . . Oh, hey look, I’ve got that one myself, right here, so let’s go ahead and open that right up. That’s what we’ll start with.
Let’s just say for hypothetical that you really want to do some shit to this Vanagon—I mean the real Vanagon. But let’s also say you’ve got a restraining order to prevent you from getting close enough to do that kind of shit to it. So let’s have Photoshop do the dirty work for us.
(Big Fat Institute, 2007, 0:32-1:05)
In a total of 20 episodes, the narrator shows his viewers a variety of bleak events from his personal life: how to prepare an image of a wedding band for posting on E-bay, how to remove a hypothetical someone (himself) from a security video taken outside a store where thousands of thumb drives have been stolen, how to regain a girlfriend he has flamed in a previous episode, and more. All in all, it is an exceptionally creative piece that splits the difference between audio book with its narrative stripped away and satire of a typical video, Photoshop tutorial.
The videos went viral, and within only a few months, these tutorials developed a significant following that speculated for more than a year on who was producing them (8.5 million people, according to National Public Radio, 2008). The consensus was that this was a new and creative approach to telling a story. The episodes seemed to represent a completely new genre of fictional, first-person stories hidden in apparently traditional tutorials. In the end, completely different exigency and purpose were revealed in a National Public Radio (2008) interview. The introduction to the interview spelled it out: “Troy Hitch talks with Scott Simon about You Suck at Photoshop, a hit series of web videos created to explore viral marketing concepts [emphasis added]. Hitch is the creative director for the agency Big Fat Institute.” The text’s relationship with the audience completely changes once it becomes clear this is marketing research and not simple fiction. It is still very creative, and it is still some kind of hybrid that is in many respects like an audio book and in other respects a tutorial, but it is also the staging platform for a study in viral advertising. And 8.5 million people had the genre and audience wrong—they thought they were the audience, but they were not; they were the subjects of the experiment. Its principal audience was the advertising community, and its purpose was to examine new marketing techniques.
In a different case, PowellsBooks.com advertises a two-volume set for $350,000. When I suggested their marketing effort for the book could be improved, the rare book manager replied with the following:
Because this geographical area was so important to the Lewis & Clark adventure, the 1814 in original boards makes sense for us to have as a showpiece or attraction. . . . Not that we would turn down a reasonable offer, but it is the only part of our rare book inventory that we did not mark down 30% this spring. (Berg, personal communication, 11-22-2009)
In other words, according to her, the primary purpose of the page is not to sell the book, but to enhance the ethos of the company. Without that information, an evaluator (me) would automatically be looking at the document as a sales (as opposed to marketing) tool. Without knowing the exigency and purpose, we can never know about the additional, complicated layers of complex documents, nor can we know the totality of their audiences. In effect, we can never be confident of any evaluation we do without knowing why the document was produced.
The audience has exigencies as well. We all have hopes and needs, and in that respect we are all vulnerable to excellent persuasion. The task of the author is to identify those hopes and needs, perhaps through an analysis, and craft the text that taps into them (offers them what they need). With the right rhetorical approach, the law student looking for funding to finish her degree is as accessible for the recruiter as the unemployed high school graduate looking for a place to belong.
The audience will have specific expectations of the author, and the author will have specific expectations of the audience. Continuing the above analogy, the audience might expect honesty from the recruiter (ethos), though they might not expect (or even want) complete honesty. The audience might expect interesting stories describing what they might get out of enlisting (pathos), and they might be looking for sound reasons for enlisting (logos). The recruiter will also have expectations: an honestly interested, adventurous, healthy audience, not charged with a felony, etc. Audience expectations help define the genre. When the genre changes, audience expectations also change. Suppose I am accessing a tutorial on programming some complicated activity in Flash. The author’s expectations are completely different and so are mine. The recruiter’s presentation need have no structure, but with the tutorial, I expect carefully laid out instruction and impeccable accuracy. On the other hand, the author has to make assumptions about my level of expertise based on the purpose and nature of the tutorial.
All of these together become a situational social activity that includes what the writer produces, how it is produced, where it is presented, in what form it is presented, author’s expectations of the audience, and audience expectations of the author. If the author (by “author” I mean the person who makes the utterance—it could be a speaker or someone using American Sign Language) calls the audience on the telephone to propose something, it is still a proposal. Knowing the proposal occurred as a phone call as opposed to a note or a formalized package gives us the ability to describe the proposal in a meaningful way as opposed to naming it.
In an evaluation, if we know the exigency and purpose, plus the author and audience, we have a sense of what the text should look like. That begins to give us an ability to evaluate. If the form of the text matches our expectations, and we find that it is impacting the audience as it should, we should be able to declare that it is well done. Introducing audience response to the purpose of the text completes the cycle while (often) introducing a new cycle. Suppose we see the text is obviously directed at the wrong audience or at no particular audience. We instantly know it is not well done. Suppose we see a text that was repurposed from somewhere else. Again, we instantly know it is not going to be effective.
But we can do more. If the text is directed at the right audience and is used for the right purpose, we can go to the next step to see if the voice is right for the purpose and audience. Should the text be highly rhetorical? Should the text be subtly rhetorical? Should there be no obvious rhetoric at all? Once you can name the exigency, purpose, author-audience, situation, and structure of the text, you can ask meaningful questions about it. Moreover, once you know the exigency, purpose, and audience, you can create the text in the most appropriate structure for any given situation. For what it’s worth, this is my key to writing well and evaluating texts you’ve not seen before.
If we return to my problem of being broke and having to sell my antiques, we can see how the descriptions can be overlain by that transaction (see Figure 3.4).
[figure showing the complete cycle of selling the antiques.]
Because they focus on relationships between the exigencies of the authors, purpose of the works, and the nature of the audience, genres described in the context of their activities become easy to identify, to understand, and to evaluate. Note that in the previous sentence, I say “described.” With an activity-based genre theory (from the point of view of professional writing), genres are much more usefully described than named, and the more detailed the description, the better.
It is possible to demonstrate how everything comes together with a pair of charts (see Figure 3.5).
[Place figure approximately here]
The first chart depicts a schema describing how an author might approach a writing task. By knowing the purpose of the text, the author can identify and describe the audience. Knowing purpose and audience permits the author to identify an optimal structure for the text.
Purpose, audience, and structure each place a variety of different demands on the author. Once the text is complete, the author steps out, and the art becomes an artifact. To evaluate the text once the author is no longer present, the evaluator must replicate many of the steps used by the author.
The first thing the evaluator must do is identify the exigencies and purposes of the text. That identifies the audience. Actually, this may be all the evaluator has to do. In the case of the “Careers” webpage example I used in Chapter 1, the instant we know the purpose of the page and the audience, it becomes clear that the page was never designed for that audience. We immediately know the page is problematic. For more complicated evaluation, you must drill deeper into exigencies, purposes, audience needs and expectations, and best structures—including rhetorical stance—to know why a page works or does not (see Figure 3.6).
[Place figure approximately here.]
Figure 3.6 depicts how an evaluator can use a similar schema for examining a text. The author will likely be gone, but the evaluator may find the original purpose of a text by asking stakeholders. Knowing the purpose of the text permits the evaluator to identify and describe the audience and best structure. The evaluator can then determine the extent to which the text meets its goals.
This, then, is the rhetorical situation for professional communication. The rhetorical exigency of the author is to meet the exigency of the audience. This is a very erudite way of saying, “To get what she needs, the author has to craft a document that gives the audience what it needs.” The description of that interaction between author, text, and audience is the genre.
In “Genre as a Social Action,” Carolyn Miller (1994 b) suggested that genres are recurring rhetorical situations and that a text that cannot demonstrate an identifiable, recurring rhetorical situation is not a genre. According to Miller, “Genre refers to a conventional category of discourse based in large scale typification of rhetorical action” (p. 38). In her description of the rules for identifying a genre, she argued that some texts fail to meet the rules and are not genres.
In her chapter, “Anyone for Tennis?” Anne Freadman (1994) suggested that an important part of understanding genres is understanding what the audience is supposed to do as well as understanding what the audience actually does. Using the exchange between two players on a tennis court for an allegory, she suggested that genres are games, “minimally, of two texts in some sort of dialogical relation” (p. 48). Extending Freadman’s argument leads to the conclusion that there may be few recurring rhetorical situations. Rather than the game of tennis, I suggest the game of chess is a better analogy. Every move in the game of chess is in response to a previous move. Every move has an exigency and a purpose, and the audience will make a move in response. If the reply is a part of the genre, then the reply might be any of a whole variety of moves, some of them excellent and some nonsensical. In chess, there are 32 pieces the players use in their “communications.” In the real world, the players have nearly infinite communication possibilities. Not just with language, but with looks, behavioral responses, and even objects at hand. Such a broad range of possibilities leads to the conclusion that there may be few situations that can truly be called recurring. One reasonable conclusion from an activity-based genre theory is that there are activities that may occur only once but can still be described with the genre theory tools. This raises serious implications about understanding the meaning of genre. Extending the argument that genres are repeatable situations to their ultimate conclusion is the existence of genres of one or even of zero.
Following from Miller’s description, I suggest that genres are defined by situations that can recur as opposed to necessarily recur. The pattern of a social situation might happen only once, but it can still be described in the same manner as other genres. Originally the word genre (meaning kind, class, variety) was meant to describe how human art and communication could be categorized into meaningful and comparable families. Such a mindset works as long as you want to put together a class dedicated to a particular clump of literature (e.g., hardboiled detective stories) or art (abstract expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, Dadaism) or music (romantic, classical, New York jazz) or communication (lecture, conversation, love letter). But if you want to understand how language works, genre in its old context is inadequate. In fact, the term may actually be unfortunate. Although the word may technically mean group, it may describe conditions that often have little to do with clumping structures. Rather, it may be a description of the rules of Freadman’s “game”—her ceremonies. Moreover, Freadman went on to suggest that genres might be identifiable in terms of differences rather than similarities. The class studying hardboiled detective stories might well spend their classes contrasting their texts, looking at their differences, because there may not be much interesting in their similarities. For example, in science fiction, Phillip Dick’s (1964) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Isaac Asimov’s (1950) I Robot are both works of science fiction about robots and robot-like androids, but science fiction and robots is where any comparison ends, and a reader of one would be wise to expect something entirely different from the other. A class studying works of science fiction might well dismiss their few similarities and discuss their vast differences.
How many books are there like Do Androids or King’s Black House? They can both be lumped into science fiction and mystery, but I know of no other books like Black House, and although Do Androids has now been copied by others, it was originally unique. Did it become its own genre when it was copied once? Twice? Thrice? Exactly how many times does the situation have to recur before it can be called a genre? I suggest the fact that it could recur is the important point, not the fact that it has recurred.
Lumping the above books into groups where they share so little seems counterproductive. In fact, it becomes relatively simple to identify other works of literature that have no peers. Nobody has ever done a good job of explaining the inner workings of a book as simple as Malamud’s (1952) The Natural. Is this a baseball story? Yes, it is, but it is much more. It’s a rewrite of The High Book of the Grail (Briant, 2007)—it’s a grail myth, but ironically it is a Jewish grail myth, with an ending that can only come from a Jewish grail myth. Where is its peer? This book may be unique to itself—a genre of one. You Suck at Photoshop, a story being told through a series of Photoshop tutorials, is another unique genre communication—another genre of one.
It is even possible to create a genre with no contents. As far as we know, we have never had a conversation with aliens from another planet. Yet, hypothetically, such a conversation could happen; descriptions of hypothetical conversations with “ET” occur in the news regularly. Carl Sagan’s (1997) Contact does this, depicting a hypothetical conversation with protagonist Ellie Arroway. In this case, the alien presents itself in her father’s image. More recently, Stephen Hawking suggested that he hopes that first conversation never happens. He sees aliens as potentially dangerous, and suggests we sit back, quietly mind our own business, and don’t draw any attention to ourselves—try to avoid that first conversation because it will not be nice. My point is this: although we can hypothesize about a genre that might be called “first conversation with an alien,” the conversation exists only conceptually; no such genre physically exists yet (as far as we know). That said, the genre first conversation with an alien is simply an empty set.
Empty sets are common in both the sciences and math. In biology, the genus brontosaurus is empty, now belonging to paleontology. In math, anytime two sets overlap, they create a new set (all overlapping numbers in set A and set B). If there are no overlapping numbers, the set is said to be “empty.” If the idea of collections that contain nothing is common among the disciplines, I can see no reason it cannot be similarly applied in genre theory.
If genres include only repeating patterns, many texts can be said to have no genre. If we are to evaluate texts based on their genres, all texts must have unique identifiable genres—even texts that do not yet exist. This makes it possible to discuss texts in terms of their best structures even if no structures exist. And this (and here is the important point) is particularly true in a digital environment, where many genres have not yet been invented. If we return to an active participation theory for describing a genre and reexamine the definition of proposal established by Anderson (1987), we can change his description to fit any situation, describing different genres. “In a [demonstration],” he might have said, “you [show someone how to do something by doing it in front of them].” “In a [progress report] you [explain to someone how you are doing on a project].” If you can describe what a text is trying to do, you are beginning to describe its genre. If you can do that, you can measure how well the text does what it is supposed to do.In short, to be able to effectively evaluate the quality of a text, it is necessary to know its genre. If there are texts with no genre, there is no good heuristic for evaluating them. If we discard the requirement that they be repeated, genres become easy to define and use for evaluating texts.
In the past, we tended to accept the genres identified by others. A critic somewhere coined “impressionist” derisively. Someone coined “hardboiled detective story.” I have even seen education identified as a genre. For the purposes of literary study (and perhaps education), this is fine, but it is a passive approach. I suggest an active approach. For writing and evaluating texts, it is useful for us to be able identify and describe the genres we are manipulating, even if no one else ever has and even if our description remains only in our own minds. The better we can describe these genres, the better we can identify what we need to do to make them the best they can be.
Returning to the Army recruiter discussion, suppose I am well below my quota for the month. What might I do? Well, I might make a recruiting poster. We can immediately see that we have the makings of a genre. So perhaps I put Uncle Sam on a large poster that says, “We need you,” and put it outside the door of the recruiting office with no interest in whom my audience might be. Maybe it will attract someone and maybe not. Suppose I go a different direction. Suppose I create a poster that will hang in the unemployment office and other places where the majority of people are either unemployed or underemployed. Recruiting poster is no longer sufficient for describing this more specialized poster. Recruiting poster designed to attract the unemployed and underemployed is much more accurate (and begins to describe both purpose and audience). On this poster, a picture of Uncle Sam might not be inappropriate, but it might be less effective than other images. The new poster should be designed for the more specific audience. Such a poster would be designed to offer hope for an exciting career for the unemployed. But the audience can be made even more specific. Suppose I am planning to place the poster in the unemployment center in early summer, when so many recent high school graduates will be flooding the market. Now the poster might represent a stepping stone for a future career with a few adventures along the way. The better you understand the purpose and specific audience, the more effectively you can evaluate the quality of the text.
Although recruiting poster can be called a genre, it is clear that it can be broken into a virtually infinite collection of more focused genres. More accurately, recruiting poster should be called a “genre collective” or “family of genres,” or perhaps a “supergenre” (coined by one of my graduate students). The genres within the recruiting poster family are described, rather than named. The description introduces purpose and audience. One might say, “This poster is meant to point out to qualified college students that they can enter the Army as officers,” or “This poster is meant to entice unemployed high school graduates to log into the Army Game on the Internet, where they can be further enticed into coming into the recruitment center for an interview.” Once you identify a genre by describing its purpose, it is a simple task to evaluate how effectively it succeeds at that purpose.
It is a simple matter to identify a genre when it is lecture based, or written from one person to another, but what if the author is not human? Moreover, what if the reader is also not human? Contemporary communication is becoming increasingly difficult to understand if we fail to adapt. In the end, the point of studying the genre is to make it into a tool we can use. It is fine if a genre theorist wishes to speculate about the nature of a genre, but we are technical communicators, and we need tools more than we need speculation. Suppose your house sends condition reports to your computer, and your computer decides whether to pass the reports on to you or simply makes the appropriate decisions itself. In increasingly complex information systems, that kind of thing goes on all the time. Messages are sent back and forth between computers, and orders are given with no human intervention.
CBSNEWS.comgets much of its news from RSS feeds that are in their turn fed by XML databases. It also picks up news from blog feeds. It tracks its users, and if it knows their zip codes, it provides them with local information—news and weather. It receives its local weather from a continuous feed provided by Weather.com and its local news from whatever feed the local paper provides. In addition to configuring for a specific zip code, it configures differently for different browsers and devices—cell phones, iPads, laptops, PDAs, etc. We might assume any texts at CBSNEWS.com are professional if not excellent, but there is no reason to believe that. Since it gets so much of its text from external sources, if there is no one monitoring the incoming data, there is every chance that its quality can be inconsistent. The other news outlets demonstrate similar problems. The New York Times online component also accesses blog sites for its news. For example, one site it depends on, FiveThirtyEight.com, currently displays the following message:
While Mr. Silver is on vacation, and the posting here is somewhat less frequent, we thought it would be a good time to invite fans of FiveThirtyEight.com to weigh in on their favorite posts from the past. (Cohen, 2010, n.p.)The newspaper seems to be handling the problem of Silver’s absence well enough, but this points to the problem that external resources can be and often are independent and even undependable. At least for the news media, the content is largely similar. Other commercial providers might have a broad spectrum of genres. A company might have databases simultaneously providing content to proposals, annual reports, sales brochures, and content pages on websites for sales and servicing customers. This is a new and complicated problem for writers, but it presents new opportunities. Surprisingly few writers are able to do a good job evaluating content in these environments. Those few who possess these new skills should someday be in great demand.
As communication becomes increasingly complicated, it becomes more important than ever for professional writers to understand what is going on with the texts. Because developers and users of websites persist in seeing them using “place” metaphors, it is important that we as writers do not. We need to be able to negotiate through different texts (designed for different purposes and different audiences) all combined into a kind of web-stew. The stew might look really great, but if its ingredients include straw and horse apples (that is to say, inappropriate content) it isn’t being all it can be. It is a good idea to examine the contents of the stew before publishing it.
Publish a stew? Well, that brings up another question that must be answered before we can effectively evaluate texts: “What does it mean to publish?” If a website is a place, it is difficult to see it as a publication. In the next chapter, we examine some different genres of digital publication. A game might be called a novel in the right circumstances, just as a poem might be called a “puzzle.” A computer might write a book, and its only reader might be another computer. We have an idea of what we mean when we use the word publish, but it is generally fairly narrow and not necessarily descriptive of the process in its larger context.
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