Writing What You Know

Have you ever been so angry with someone or a particular situation that you were able to draft a very well-written, passionate response to what angered you in the first place? Did you notice that it came easily and the words flowed effortlessly? I think this is something that we have all experienced at least once in our lives. For me, I have noticed that when I write about something I am passionate about, the piece that I’m writing seems almost effortless because I am personally invested and I have my own experiences and knowledge that I bring to the subject.

Typically, when you are passionate about something, you are knowledgeable about the subject matter. The passion you feel for the subject has led to years of experience and learning all you can about that particular subject. For me, one topic that really gets my inner fires burning is the subject of animal welfare. My love for animals throughout my entire life has moved me to become an advocate for their well-being and to prevent animal cruelty. Since I was born, I grew up in a house with cats, dogs, and other animals including fish, birds, frogs, and lizards. As a child, I couldn’t imagine anyone being cruel to these loyal and loving creatures. As I got older, and I learned of all the terrible things that people can do to animals, I took it upon myself to educate myself about issues relating to animal welfare. Through the years, I have gained an extensive knowledge which enables me to write well about the subject, establish credibility, and effectively support my arguments. I know way more than I ever cared to know about the inhumane treatment of dogs in puppy mills and the horrible conditions they live in. I know the staggering number of homeless animals being euthanized every year and it’s sickening; four to five million animals whose only crime is that their owners turned them over to shelters or threw them in the streets. The knowledge we gain for the things that we are passionate about may be difficult to take in but it is necessary to know in order to effectively write or speak up about the topic.

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Without a clear understanding of the rhetorical situation or the genre for which we are appealing to, we cannot begin to identify the underlying problem and we certainly cannot propose solutions to improve the situation. The research needs to be done prior to our commentary because we are not the first to communicate about our subjects and we must have an understanding of what others before us have said. Professor and author of Generalizing About Genre: New Conception of an Old Concept, Dr. Amy Devitt, states,

The fact that others have responded to similar situations in the past in similar ways – the fact that genres exist – enables us to respond more easily and more appropriately ourselves. Knowing the genre, therefore, means knowing such things of appropriate subject matter, level of detail, tone, and approach as well as the usual layout and organization. Knowing the genre means knowing not only, or even most of all, how to conform to generic conventions but also how to respond appropriately to a given situation.

As Devitt states, we cannot effectively respond to the rhetorical situation without knowing the genre. Once we learn the genre, we are then able to respond in a way that is appropriate to the subject.

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Another benefit to understanding our intended genre is that of being able to improve our understanding of writing, which can in turn, improve our readers’ understanding of what we are writing and even call them to action. As professor and author of The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change explains, “As people develop understanding of the communicative world, their literate practices may change to fit their deepened vision of what writing accomplishes and how. These changed practices may then influence others to perceive and act in the communicative world in new ways”. The more we learn about the ways in which our subject has been discussed by others, the better we can become as writers. By drawing on other’s perspectives, we can better understand the art of writing and how we can get the best results in our own writing. Simply speaking, our main goal is to effectively communicate our message. We can learn how to effectively communicate our message by reviewing the ways that others have effectively communicated their messages, especially in regards to our subject matter.

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In addition, just knowing your genre isn’t enough. You must also know your audience. If you only know your genre but not your audience, you could be doing something to get the opposite outcome of what you are hoping for. Your approach needs to be appropriate for conveying your message and motivating the audience to make a change. For example, in the case of animal welfare, if I was writing a proposal to stop the use of puppy mills and my audience were the people that profited from the puppy mill industry, my approach would be much different than if I was writing a proposal to the local and federal government to ensure stricter guidelines for enforcing the banning of animal cruelty in puppy mills. My proposal to the government would focus much more on the emotional and physical effects of inhumane treatment of animals and providing solutions from an enforcement perspective to make a change, whereas my proposal to those who profit from the industry would be more educational regarding inhumane treatment of animals and the detrimental genetic effects of inbreeding and overpopulation of the animals, which in turn could affect their profit. The genre for both pieces is the same, but the audience and the approach are very different.

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One element that would greatly help a piece such as this would be to create a multimodal communication. For example, this particular topic can be emotional to many, myself included, and by introducing images and graphs or tables with statistics on inhumane treatment, animal deaths, and complications caused by puppy mill breeding, my argument would be better received and I would establish more credibility by including those elements. Images can go a long way provided they are balanced well with the text. Including images, videos, audio, etc. to our communication pieces is easier than ever before with the invention of the internet and social media. We can easily and quickly improve our pieces by adding other modes to complement our text and make a bigger impact. Gunther Kress, author of Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World states, “In that new communicational world there are now choices about how what is to be represented should be represented: in what mode, in what genre, in what ensembles of modes and genres, and on what occasions.” A plethora of choices is at the touch of our fingertips and it is within our power to make the choices that will make our message more effective.

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My babies and what I’m passionate about: Abby (left) and Dexter (right)
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Snuggle Buddies!
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7 thoughts on “Writing What You Know”

  1. What a great post. This was a great way to take theory and show how it is usable in the real world. There are many people that view genre and rhetoric as things that are only important when writing for academia.

    I also love that you wrote about animals. I, too, grew up in a house with multiple animals and it was wonderful. Now that I have moved to the ‘big city’ I am no longer allowed to keep a pet: it is heart-wrenching.

    In your last few paragraphs, you talk about how images/graphs, and how they can use logic or emotion. Consider adding links to portray these examples. This solidifies your example as well as add to your call to action for effective writing choices.

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  2. Hi Heather,

    Your comments are on point about the understandings of audience and genre. Sometimes I struggle with the idea of wanting to go against genre in a certain situation, only to realize it’s a bad idea. The reason we have genres is because they have proven to be effective ways of communicating…I just like to be different! It’s critical to understand your audience, as you said. You could waste your time ‘preaching to the choir’ without realizing it.

    Multimodality is also an excellent way to communicate. Not only do you reach all audience types (visual, audio, etc.), but you can gain credibilty, as you said. I’ve seen too many people (for instance on Facebook) get too spun-up emotionally about a topic, and eventually they’ve lost me in their argument because they seem like a zealot…but of course that’s not professional communication. In your example of puppy mills, you can effect more change by taking the emotions out of it (to a degree) and targeting the needs of your audience. Too many people think they have to use exclamation points to show passion, but your excitement and knowledge will demonstrate that more subtly and more effectively.

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  3. Heather,

    Excellent posts. You’re right of course, to write well you must write what you know. And you’ve driven this point home in this post. I know in my fiction writing, I’ve often made the comment that heartache brings on a better writing binge than falling in love. I don’t know why, but perhaps you have found the answer here. Falling in love is a great story, but the pain of betrayal is something one can feel so passionately it brings out the heavy writing material.

    You might try condensing this introduction, “Typically, when you are passionate about something, you are knowledgeable about the subject matter. The passion you feel for the subject has led to years of experience and learning all you can about that particular subject.” down a bit before moving into the story about your feelings on animal cruelty. I also think some links or images would be effective here to really drive the point home.

    I like that you added photos to this blog, but they seem more of a last minute addition instead of blending in the text. I think that would feel better to the reader, if you simply add more amid the blog as well, then close with these two.

    I like the way you add the quote from Devitt in a different font and color. That made it really stand out and I think it worked very well. Good work.

    I love the line where you write, “By drawing on other’s perspectives, we can better understand the art of writing and how we can get the best results in our own writing. ” I think this goes well in explaining that we become better writer, by becoming better readers.

    Other than these few suggestions, I really enjoyed your post this week. Excellent job, keep up the good work.

    Stacie

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  4. Hi Heather,

    Your post made me think of a recent mistake I made in genre choice! I was commuting home from work on my bike last week when another person on a bike hit me on the urban trail. I was just starting to veer left in order to wait at a stop light when a man riding at full speed yelled “on your left” as he plowed into me. I went flying onto a combination of pavement and gravel. When I picked myself up I noticed that my left arm had three huge, deep scrapes/burns on them and my bike basket was cracked. I was flustered, furious and felt like some rule of general care for other humans on bikes had been violated. I wanted to yell at the man who hit me, but I knew this was the wrong genre choice for communicating my anger. The unfortunate thing is that I couldn’t think of another genre in which to communicate how angry and violated I felt. So I collected me things from the bike path, and with tears in my eyes road off without even looking the guy in the face.

    Of course, a few hours later, I realized that my injuries and bike damage were much worse than I had initially thought.This makes sense because it was a really bad, high impact, sudden crash and my adrenaline was probably going nuts in the moments that followed. Three days later, bandaging my scrapes/burns takes me at least a half an hour everyday (so that I look presentable teaching and so that they don’t get infected), and because of some other skeletal/muscle damage I am not able to lift my left arm above my head or do a push up. I also can’t turn my head from side to side because the motion hurts and a really expensive part of my commuting bike (the crank shaft) is broken. So what GENRE did I choose, in the end, to voice my anger at this situation? FACEBOOK, of course! Filing a police report would have perhaps been a wiser choice.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to reflect on genre choices in real life! I wish I’d thought about it more at the time of the crash.

    All the best,

    Chase

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  5. Heather,
    The statement, “the knowledge we gain for the things we are passionate about may be difficult to take in, but it is necessary to know in order to effectively write or speak up about a topic,” reminded me of Porter’s idea of intertextuality. Although you speak to the personal knowledge which is your inner “intertextuality,” the concept that we write in response to other people and other texts is suggested in your statement, which I think strengthens your writing. Being passionate about an issue is not enough to be effective; it needs to be coupled with a personal investment of knowledge and experience, which you clearly present.

    Including images of your personal animal companions stirs pathos in the reader. I agree with Stacie in an earlier comment that you might consider adding a few other images that help to illustrate your point of concern, and because images of animals does cause pathos and emotional connection for many readers.

    Well done.
    Teresa

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  6. Hi Heather —
    I enjoyed reading your blog; you have an accessible writing style and a personality that comes through with your anecdotes. I found it interesting the way that you start out with questions that any reader might want to mull over, then move into larger questions about genre choices and familiarizing yourself with the facts before launching into an emotional account. You seem to recognize that a blog post can be a bit less formal than a graduate-student paper.

    Also, you made good points about knowing the conventions of your genre and pinpointing your audience. These are all good things to remember when writing about the subjects that are the most meaningful. And I liked the photos of your babies, but can see that maybe the post could have been strengthened by graphics that address problems like puppy mills and euthanizing of animals, just to underscore your point about the appropriateness of multimodal genres for certain audiences.
    Thanks for a good read!

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  7. Heather, I love the use of the extra images. Looks great. I particularly like the one that says, “Don’t breed or buy, while shelter animals die.” I have often felt this way, not only about animals, but children too. I’m a big advocate of adoption and feel there are already plenty of children in this world in need of a home and someone to love them, why not me? Great addition.

    Stacie

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