There are hundreds of genres in the world today—and the list is growing. No single writing course, and no single instructor, can prepare students for every genre, situation, and challenge they will face as writers.

And yet, as the range of genres students are expected to write multiplies (from traditional print essays to multimedia genres to workplace writing), we have found that most textbooks have responded by providing lists of more and more genres to cover in class.

Simply adding to the list of genres does not prepare students for the moment when they must write a genre that they have never encountered before. Nor does the “more genres” approach help students to recognize the differences between genres when they are written for different disciplines or different audiences. Yet every year there are new editions and new textbooks that continue to expand upon what’s expected from students—and from our teaching.

The world doesn’t need another writing guide; it needs a better writing guide.

While most textbooks teach students how to write, our book teaches students how writing works by taking a problem-solving approach to writing. Most college writing guides on the market today are primarily descriptive—listing the qualities of “universally good” writing—or prescriptive—telling students how to write particular genres. How Writing Works takes a new approach to genre pedagogy. In the pages of this book, we help students figure out a new genre for themselves, by asking students to figure out how the genre works:

  • “What is it?”

  • “Who reads it?”

  • “What’s it for?”

By helping students discover how writing works, our book teaches students how to engage effectively with any writing situation they may encounter at school, at home, or at work.

The main purpose of How Writing Works is to prepare students to tackle these challenges, by helping them develop a set of transferable skills and intellectual habits that can be applied to any new writing situation. Our innovative Genre Toolkit, discussed in Part 1, provides students with a strategy to use in any writing situation:

  • First, determine how the genre works, through careful study and analysis; and
  • Second, make that genre work for you in any specific rhetorical situation.

This problem-solving paradigm has many benefits for both teachers and students.

First, in teaching problem-solving to students, this book is much more student-centered than other textbooks. Students are taught to discover, on their own, how to identify, understand, and write unfamiliar genres. This approach makes the book immediately relevant to students’ work in future courses and keeps students engaged.

Second, this unique problem-solving approach teaches three habits of mind that are essential for success beyond the composition classroom: (1) self-reliance (by teaching students how to solve writing challenges); (2) self-efficacy (by showing students their own successes with their writing); and (3) self-confidence (by helping students build trust in their own judgment of a rhetorical situation).

Third, this problem-solving paradigm helps instructors achieve the ultimate goal of transfer—that is, helping students take what they’ve learned in composition and use it in other courses in college. The skills we teach aren’t limited at all to any discipline or field. Instead, we offer skills that students can use to understand how writing works when students enter a new discipline: students learn to discover what genres are used in the new discipline and how readers and writers use those genres to generate new information and share ideas.

Depending on the situation, there are thousands of different ways to write effectively. Teachers don’t—and can’t—teach students all of these different ways. We don’t have the time, and in the end, it wouldn’t serve our students well. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. There are thousands of different genres and writing situations. But it is our hope that students will only need this one writing guide.

Part 1, The Genre Toolkit: The Process of Discovery

How Writing Works begins with the Genre Toolkit, a flexible set of strategies that students can apply to any writing situation. Instead of a descriptive (“good writing looks like this”) or prescriptive (“use these generic conventions”) approach, we use a discovery approach. The toolkit helps students identify a genre’s structure, purpose, content, style, and audience.

By using the toolkit, students will develop problem-solving habits of mind for future writing situations—identifying what genre to use, how that genre works, and how to use that genre to meet their rhetorical goals.

At the core of the toolkit are three simple questions:

  • “What is it?”

  • “Who reads it?”

  • “What’s it for?”

These three questions guide students through the project chapters that follow.

Part 2, The Projects: Writing from Classrooms to Careers and Communities

The second part of How Writing Works, the projects chapters, include traditional academic genres that students are likely to encounter in college, such as analyses, essays, and research papers. However, these chapters also include genres drawn from different professions and community situations, such as factsheets, program profiles, and business letters. From these projects, writing instructors can select the genres that will best fit their classrooms and students.

Each project chapter focuses on a genre “family,” such as analyses, reports, or reviews. For example, the “analysis” genre chapter includes rhetorical analysis, literary analysis, scene analysis (for a film), and so on. Grouping these analysis genres together shows students how the individual genres share a fundamental purpose—analyses break down something complex into its parts or functions—even as the individual genres may differ in content, form, and audience. In doing so, this genre family approach provides students with techniques they may use to examine other kinds of analyses in the future.

At the start of each chapter, we explain where students are likely to encounter these genres, both in college and in future professions. For example, at the beginning of the reviews chapter, we note that a student might write a film review for a film course in college, or a performance review as a manager for a company. After this brief introduction, each project chapter offers several examples of genres within that family, leading students through a series of examples.

Student and Professional Examples

To make the connections between college writing and workplace or community writing even clearer, we have included examples in every project chapter drawn from students and from professional writers, placing the examples side by side for comparison. For example, in the chapter on argument genres, students will read platform speeches given by a candidate for President of the United States of America alongside a speech by a candidate for college student body president.

Individual, Team, and Multimedia Projects

In college, students write assignments in a variety of ways—as individuals and in teams, in traditional print format, and in many multimedia formats. By writing in these different settings, students learn how to problem-solve at different levels—how to manage a large project in a group, how to tackle a writing project independently or collaboratively, and how to address rhetorical challenges of visual, aural, and oral communication. Therefore, in the project chapters, we have provided projects to suit all of these writing situations. We designed some projects for the individual writer, some for groups, some for traditional writing formats, and some for multimedia formats. This variety of assignments will suit a variety of learning styles and a variety of teaching styles.

Part 3, Processes: Projects Modeled from Start to Finish

Rather than teaching a single, monolithic writing process, How Writing Works helps students develop writing processes that work for them. Throughout the book, we include case studies of writing processes used by different students. We also use extended student examples in Part 3 and Part 4 (described later) to show how two students worked on major writing projects from start to finish. Students can follow each project and see how elements of a writing process can work for different students in different situations.

In Part 3, we examine elements of writing processes that students can use flexibly, providing options rather than prescriptions. To show how different students use different writing processes, we model one student’s rhetorical analysis assignment alongside another student’s research article that he published in an undergraduate journal. From developing a topic to prewriting, to organization and style, Part 3 guides student writers through the myriad ways that a new writer develops a writing process.

Part 4, Research: Connecting Research to Genre

Part 4 pays special attention to research. In particular, Part 4 connects research to genres, noting that the kind of research you do for a project depends in part on the genre you are writing. Connecting genre to research serves two main purposes: (1) we help students consider how genres provide resources for writers to join a conversation about a topic, and (2) we stress the importance of using research as invention, not just as confirmation of already-held opinions.

To illustrate the elements of a research process, from exploring existing research to integrating and citing sources, we show how one student composed a rhetorical analysis assignment that involved close analysis of texts and research in articles, books, and online.

Part 5, Getting It Out There: Presentation, Publication, and Design

Finally, with the rise of digital publishing, service learning, e-portfolios, and similar initiatives, student writing is increasingly expected to do something in the world, not just end up in a pile on a desk. Therefore, with Part 5, we demonstrate how students can get their work “out there”—how they can publish and present their work. Students who work through the process of publishing their work will be better poised for the assignments they will face in college classes and for the realities of the “knowledge economy,” which values communication and presentation skills.

Part 5 demonstrates how one student revised his rhetorical analysis into a visual document to illustrate the different rhetorical choices involved in visual composing, and we emphasize how students can proactively get their work out into the world via conferences, traditional academic publications, and online tools.

Teaching Support

We designed How Writing Works to support how teachers work. We’ve taught at a variety of institutions ourselves, so we know how important it is for a textbook to be flexible enough to suit different courses, programs, and institutional settings. You can choose assignments that reflect the goals, interests, and needs of your students. The problem-solving approach in How Writing Works applies equally well to workplace writing, academic essays, or research genres. While we offer plenty of examples in the textbook and the optional reader, you can also select examples from those genres to reflect your students’ interests, current issues in your community, and trends in academic research.

Multiple Teaching Approaches

Composition instructors and programs differ widely in approach. Some prefer a process approach, where the emphasis is on developing skills in pre-writing, drafting, revising, and editing. Others prefer a genre-based approach, where students focus on examining and writing a range of documents. Still others might focus on academic writing, on research, or on rhetorical modes. The flexible organization of How Writing Works means that this book can be adapted to any of these approaches. In the Instructor’s Manual, you will find sample syllabi and course schedules for a variety of teaching approaches, including those listed here. And with the Annotated Instructor’s Edition, newer faculty can immediately teach and easily prepare various lessons directly from the book itself. Additional instructor resources and online materials for student assessment and self-study are also available through our Companion Website.

Integrated Assignments

It can be difficult for students to compose a major writing project if we don’t offer them milestones along the way. In each project chapter, you will find several assignments that belong to a genre “family.” Each assignment in a chapter builds on the previous one, so that you can construct a series of small assignments that build to a major chapter project.

The next-to-last section of each project chapter models how one student approached the final chapter project, a tool that you can use to demonstrate to your students the processes and strategies that they can use to complete a major writing project.

Integration with WPA Outcomes

How Writing Works reflects the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition. (In the Instructor’s Manual, there is further detail about how each chapter of How Writing Works integrates with the WPA outcomes.)

Outcome How Writing Works Examples
Rhetorical Knowledge How Writing Works builds rhetorical knowledge by helping students to develop transferable skills and habits. Through practice, we stress the consideration of audience, purpose, rhetorical situation, and style. We believe genre offers a powerful tool with which to develop rhetorical knowledge, because genres epitomize rhetorical situations. By studying a genre, you study its purpose, its audience, the role it creates for the author, and the way that it leads to certain kinds of arguments and appeals. Chapters 1–3 develop awareness of purpose, audience, and rhetorical situation.

Chapters 5–14 demonstrate how specific genres shape reading and writing and help students learn to compose different genres.

Chapter 21 devotes attention to style, including voice, tone, and level of formality.

Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing Critical thinking, reading, and writing form the bedrock of How Writing Works. Our approach guides students through analysis and inquiry into written genres, encouraging students through a process of critical discovery of a genre’s conventions. Students then implement what they have discovered when they, in turn, compose the genre themselves. Chapters 7, 8, and 30 emphasize the use of reading and writing for inquiry, learning, and communicating.

Chapters 23–30 teach students to locate, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize research material.

Processes How Writing Works not only demonstrates the variety of actions that go into producing a document, but it also models those processes using student examples. Students can see firsthand how other students have tackled complex writing projects by drawing on the actions and techniques given in the text. Chapters 4, 15–22, and 30 emphasize elements of writing as a process, including generating ideas, revising, editing, proofreading, and collaboration.

Multimedia exercises throughout Chapters 5–14 and Chapter 30 emphasize using technologies to address different audiences.

Knowledge of Conventions Throughout How Writing Works, you will find not only examples of written genres in different disciplines, but also examples of how writing processes and strategies can differ across fields. We draw on our own experience as faculty who teach writing in the sciences and writing in law, as well as our research into the wide range of genres assigned in colleges and written across different professions. Chapters 1–4 and 5–14 stress developing critical skills in identifying common formats and conventions for genres.

Chapters 27–28 address appropriate documentation in MLA and APA formats.

Composing in Digital Environments In addition to multimedia project options in Part 2, we pay attention to digital composing environments and publishing options in Parts 3, 4, and 5. For example, we demonstrate how students can use electronic tools to manage their research and writing process, and we offer a rhetorical model to help students identify the affordances and constraints of digital publishing formats. Chapters 17, 24, 29, and 30 address the use of digital technologies for research, writing, and presenting information, including the use of scholarly databases and electronic tools for drafting, reviewing, revising, editing, and sharing texts.

Integration with the WPA Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing

How Writing Works supports development of “Habits of Mind,” which were collaboratively developed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), The National Writing Project (NWP), and the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA). As the CWPA explains on their website, “Habits of mind refers to ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines. The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing” (

Here is a list of the eight habits of mind alongside an explanation of how How Writing Works specifically encourages these habits. (In the Instructor’s Manual, there is further detail about how each chapter of How Writing Works integrates with the Habits of Mind.)

“Habit of Mind” How Writing Works Examples
Curiosity—the desire to know more about the world By using a problem-solving approach, we encourage students (1) to discover new genres and learn how they work; (2) to discover how disciplines form; and (3) to learn how genres and disciplines work together to create knowledge in the world. Chapters 1–4 outline a Genre Toolkit that develops curiosity. Rather than presenting guidelines first, How Writing Works presents problems or questions, encouraging students to develop their own strategies for understanding genres and rhetorical situations.
Openness—the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world Our research chapters stress the importance of identifying a conversation and researching an issue before staking a claim. By staying open to what others are saying about a topic, students can develop stronger arguments and exercise critical thinking about their existing opinions. How Writing Works also stresses the value of collaboration in all stages of the writing process, including listening to the advice and opinions of others. Part 3 models one student’s writing process, including multiple writing strategies and attempts at solving problems.

Part 4 models how one student worked through a research project, trying out multiple research strategies and weighing different expert opinions before making his own claims.

Engagement—a sense of investment and involvement in learning How Writing Works shows students how written genres are used in different disciplines to make connections and build new knowledge. The research chapters, especially, show students how to extend existing research, rather than simply summarizing it. Part 3 shows how one student joined a scholarly conversation by researching and writing an article for a scholarly journal in law.

Part 4 shows how one student wrote a rhetorical analysis for a class in rhetoric and writing studies by extending claims made in a journal article he found in an undergraduate research journal.

Creativity—the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas How Writing Works introduces students to a variety of research and composing methods, from interviews and field work to traditional library research. It also offers students multiple ways of presenting their ideas, orally and visually, as well as in traditional print form. Part 5 shows how one student reworked his research paper into a factsheet, drawing on strategies of layout, design, and visual rhetoric.
Persistence—the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects By modeling student writing projects from start to finish, each project chapter in How Writing Works demonstrates how persistence with a topic, genre, and task pays off. In Chapters 4–15, students see how individual students worked through each writing project.

Parts 3 and 4 model two student writing projects in greater detail, showing how two students worked through a complex writing task, taking advantage of peer and instructor responses, multiple writing techniques, and library resources.

Responsibility—the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others How Writing Works encourages responsibility by positioning students as active learners of new genres, equipping them with the skills they need to solve problems on their own and with the help of others. Furthermore, the teamwork assignments encourage responsibility for others. Each project chapter (Chapters 5–14) models how one student used problem-solving skills to tackle an assignment. Each project chapter also includes at least one team-based assignment.

Part 3 of How Writing Works emphasizes research as a matter of joining a community, which includes crediting others with appropriate attribution

Flexibility—the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands How Writing Works provides a set of tools or skills that can be applied to different genres, disciplines, and writing situations, helping students to recognize how conventions differ based on the context. Part 1 offers a flexible Toolkit for understanding any genre and any writing situation, and for identifying the differences between them.

Parts 2, 3, and 4 model multiple writing processes for different assignments and situations.

Metacognition—the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge How Writing Works builds metacognition skills by encouraging students to think about writing at an abstract level, and then to apply abstract concepts to their own writing experiences and to new written genres. Students learn awareness of genre, discourse communities, and rhetorical situations that they can use to reflect on past writing experiences and apply to new situations. Part 1 develops a set of metacognitive skills in the form of the Genre Toolkit.

Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 extend that toolkit, offering extended examples and additional tools students can use to understand genres, discourse communities, and rhetorical situations, and to learn how writing produces knowledge in those contexts.