Functional Genres

In the first three genre sets, and in the process subgenres, the primary function of the writing is to convey information, usually with the goal of influencing the reader’s future thoughts or actions (that is, the previous genres make either practical or conceptual arguments). In the functional genres, however, the purpose is not only to get the reader to take action, but furthermore to get the reader to take an action that benefits the writer. The application cover letter and the personal statement are common examples: they usually make an argument of their own, but the implied argument is always that the writer is a candidate who is a good fit for a scholarship, academic program, or job, so the stakes for the writing act are very high, and the strategies for carrying out effectively are often sharply different from what we would do in the above genres.



Audiences for functional genres may vary considerably, but they all have one thing in common: they are someone with the power to confer a benefit upon the writer of the document. That means the writer must think carefully about the audience’s potential beliefs, values, and expectations, in order to avoid creating a negative impression. In cases where the writer is applying for some benefit (e.g. a job or scholarship), it is often a good idea to consider what other candidates are likely to say, and to try to avoid overly common statements, in order to “stand out from the crowd.” For example, in applying for social-work-related jobs, scholarships, or programs, almost everybody claims to have “a passion for helping people,” so it is vital for writers to find more distinctive ways to explain how and why they are committed to this profession.

In other functional genres, such as exam essays, the purpose is to evaluate the writer’s grasp of material, so it is important to attend closely to the question, and answer only the question being asked. Unlike other forms of writing, exam essays are usually designed such that there is a limited set of “correct” answers, so it pays to consider the options carefully, and outline, even if there is a limited amount of time. Providing a lengthy “wrong” or “irrelevant” answer to an exam question will incur harsher responses than providing a very brief but correct answer.



Arguments may differ from one functional genre to the next, but the common thread is an implied argument: that the writer is the right candidate. In longer or multi-part genres, it may become important to make this implicit argument explicit, to signify a transition. For instance, in a job application cover letter, we might show the reader that we are shifting from the topic of “teaching experience” to the topic of “research experience” by literally writing, “In addition to my varied experience in the classroom, I have also participated in extensive research on…” and then provide a brief list of topics. Some functional genres prescribe answers to a series of questions, and thereby dictate a structure that all candidates should use, but some simply ask for a personal statement without much further clarification.



Most functional genres will require us to rely for our supporting evidence on elements of our own experience, rather than theoretical texts or empirical data—the only exception might be in applications for very technical positions or programs, or in open-book exams where use of texts is expected. As in many high-stakes writing contexts, we can distinguish ourselves from “the herd” of candidates by offering more specific and more precise examples to support our implicit claim. If, for instance, we are going to claim to possess strong leadership skills, it behooves us to provide at least one concrete, specific example of when we put those skills to use, and how successful we were. The same goes for almost any claim we want to make in this kind of genre.