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Linda Sweeney

The Importance of Genre in E-Writing

By Linda Sweeney, National-Louis University

"how r u? is papr ok?"

How many instructors and tutors out there have received a similar email from a student? Like me, you probably raised your brows, wondering if the student were next to illiterate since his spelling and writing seem so primitive.

Surprisingly enough, however, this student likely can read and write, though he certainly is sloppy and unaware of how to address his audience. His message is modeled on those he exchanges with friends from whom he picked up the electronic jargon. The concise and slang-filled writing style is not unlike the approach he uses for Instant Messaging (IMing) or chatrooms. At least this student is writing, reflecting the resurgence of an art pushed aside for so many years by telephones. Furthermore, as instructors of developmental writing or tutors in learning assistance centers, we can build on this upswing of interest in correspondence, which is based on real world communication and popular media. Addressing e-writing and the genres within it can give us "teachable moments."

The Influence of E-Writing is Mainly Positive

Just exercising one's ability to communicate in print is helpful for the writing process. The more writing is practiced, the better it tends to get. As far as annoying acronyms, most people who use them actually do know how to write English correctly. Thompson (2004) says that a recent dissection of college students' IM texts found that only 90 of 11,700 words were acronyms and that the 171 spelling errors in the study were mainly forgotten apostrophes. E-mailing and IMing can give excellent writing experience, the perfect means to think about audience and purpose, since writers are often responding personally.

Another plus for the electronic age is, of course, word processing. Writing classes are usually held in computer labs . . . and should be. The ease and availability of cut and paste make revision easier, emphasizing the recursive, reflective character of writing.

Not that there aren't negatives to e-writing forms. The biggest problem, of course, is the lack of access to technology for students from lower SES and impoverished schools (many will end up in learning assistance centers and developmental coursework for other reasons, as well). Also, though students make more revisions with word processing, without an instructor's or tutor's guidance, the less experienced tend to add wordage to the end of a paper instead of actually reworking it (Daiute, 2000).

It is up to writing help professionals -- developmental writing instructors and tutors -- to provide direction and develop metacognitive awareness in students.

Genres of E-Writing

Text structure is taught in reading as a means of helping readers form expectations for various kinds of books and articles, making the task of reading easier. Likewise, genre is taught in writing so that writers have some idea as to how to organize their projects. Awareness of text structure and genre are metacognitive skills that all students need to develop.

Email and other forms of e-writing are distinct genres and should be addressed as such, something we tend to forget because electronic communication is so fast and so easy, it seems quite casual. Most people see email as falling somewhere between talking and writing (Wollman-Bonilla, 2003); therefore, they also see correcting mistakes as less important and worrying about other stylistic elements unnecessary.

As we note with the email sample at the beginning of this article, however, emails can be very important, shaping attitudes toward the sender. In E-Writing, 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication (2000), Dianna Booher addresses the use of email for all kinds of purposes, including making business contacts and advertising. Some of her suggestions would serve students well, including: (a) avoid stream-of-consciousness rambling, (b) judge reading time to determine length, not screen space or page count, (c) allow cool-off time before sending any emotional message, (d) avoid either all upper case (seen as shouting) and all lower case letters (seen as lazy), (e) limit emoticons or smileys since they can become annoying, (f) remember who you're writing to and shape your communication for that person. In addition, Booher suggests selecting the right medium for communication, possibly not even sending an email when protocol demands a formal report or letter (such as introducing yourself to a new organization or department), as well as when you need to "read between the lines" or notice the body language of the receiver of your message.

Another good resource for email rules is NCTE's electronic thinkreadwrite lesson on Audience, Purpose, and Language Use in Electronic Messages at (check out the self-scoring email rubric). Guidelines for email seem logical but, just as we note for many other tasks, students can stand to be made explicitly or metacognitively aware of them.

An interesting combination of traditional journaling and email can be viewed as a genre of e-writing. Though I usually have journals or reflective letters sent to me as attachments, some instructors may be making use of new technology for direct electronic journaling. Longhurst and Sandage (2004) build a case for using "appropriate technology that meets pedagogical goals with minimum disruption" (p. 52), saying that email makes the best sense for both the submission of weekly or bi-weekly journals, as well as teacher replies to them. Tutors who correspond with students by email may want to check out this article.

Other instructors and tutors use IMing with students, though I myself found this tool irritating, since students were not available when I was looking for them and then they appeared at inconvenient moments. Again, however, there are rules to be gone over as to how one writes messages to one's friends and how language should change when a writer is addressing peers, a tutor, or a teacher.

Chatrooms resemble IMing but allow for more participants. Though get-togethers can be difficult to arrange because of individual schedules, chats allow synchronous communication in an asynchronous environment for online classes. Bender (2003) suggests that participants in chats remember they are in a conversation with others, speaking "with" them, not "at" them. She also indicates that the number of participants be limited, perhaps to five or six at a time, and that students need to address one another by name when they type messages.

Last but not least, postings on a discussion board are a type of e-genre. Since I teach online, I've been delighted to find an increasing number of articles on how to encourage good posts and how to evaluate postings. Guidelines can be based on assessing how well an online student is relating to his or her community -- again, remembering to speak "with" or "to" someone, as opposed to "at" them. Edelstein and Edwards (2002) propose a rubric which rates, among other things, relevance of a post to the topic being discussed and contribution to the learning community. Meyer (2004) gives examples of several different rubrics that rate postings according to developmental cognitive frameworks such as Bloom's Taxonomy or Perry's Scheme of Intellectual Reasoning. Online instructors would do well to give their students a sample of a "good posting" at the beginning of a class. In addition, sharing a posting rubric with students and asking for their input can do wonders for the level and amount of participation in an online class.

Literacy is a Social Act

Sharing actual examples or models of e-genres is a positive for students and gives them a better idea of appropriate and effective structures for their writing. Writing does not take place in a vacuum. Except for secret diaries, writing is meant to communicate with other people at the personal or public level. The writing theorist/philosopher, Bakhtin (1990), believed that every utterance, written or spoken, is the result of every other utterance that has gone before it, thus making communication a continuing dialogue.

Learning itself is social and collaborative (Vygotsky, 1978). Everyone affects everyone else, teacher, tutor, and student. Though developmental writing instructors and tutors try their best to keep themselves out of student writing (at least they try not to rewrite student papers themselves), their influence is only natural. If the occasional student worries about having his or her writing changed by outside input, they can be assured that every novel in print has had extensive contributions from several editors and is, therefore, not the unadulterated work of one person.

Since e-writing is meant to reach others, sometimes in other places in the country or even the world, the collaborative effect of combining the medium and the message is strengthened. Again, tutors and developmental writing instructors can use this knowledge for teachable moments. Peer review works well for e-writing as, for example, students collaborate on how best to word an email. Learning assistance centers might do well to offer workshops on the subject of e-genres and would probably attract interest with this subject. Most importantly, simply the act of corresponding back and forth with a student can get him or her to write with the tutor's or teacher's responses serving as models.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1990). Art and answerability. In Art and answerability: Early philosophical essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Austin, Texas: University of Texas.

Bender, T. (2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Booher, D. (2001). E-Writing: 21st century tools for effective communication. New York: Pocket.

Daiute, C. (2000). Writing and communication technologies. In Perspectives on writing: Research, theory, and practice. Indrisano, R., & Squire, J.R., eds. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Edelstein, S., & Edwards, J. (2002). If you build it, they will come: Building learning communities through threaded discussions. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume V(1), Spring.

Longhurst, J., & Sandage, S.A. (2004). Appropriate technology and journal writing. College Teaching, 52(2), pp. 69-75

Meyer, K.A. (2004). Evaluating online discussions: Four different frames of analysis. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, Volume 8(2).

NCTE. Audience, Purpose, and Language Use in Electronic Messages. Retrieved June 10, 2005 from

Thompson, J.E. (2004). This 2 shall pass. From The Baltimore Sun, originally published April 17, 2004.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and society. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wollman-Bonilla, J.E. (2003). E-mail as genre: A beginning writer learns the conventions. Language Arts, 81(2), pp. 126-134.

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