In scientific writing, types or “genres” of documents are often understood as templates for content: forms that theoretically allow the writer to fill in spaces without having to think about the structure. This is a dangerous and simplistic way of thinking about genre, especially in engineering writing. Templates cannot accommodate the demands of different situations, unless they are revised according to those situations [1]. In other words, genre can be thought of as both a type of document and a specific situation [2].

Our pages on the different “genres,” then, do not prescribe a set “format” that you must adhere to, but a generic structure which needs to be adjusted to each context (such as a particular assignment statement, an RFP, or a request from your boss).

Understanding genre well involves the ability to “improvise” based on the situation. But knowing the generic requirements and structure well is important, because the more you are familiar with the possibilities of a certain genre, the more capable you are of improvisation [1]. See our Full Understanding Genre page and Accurate Documentation / Conducting and Understanding Secondary Research in Engineering for more on the underlying rhetorical structure of Engineering documents.

Our pages on “types of documents” provide a good foundation for your improvisation (See Online Handbook / Types of Documents). Avoid using them as templates that you can simply fill in by:

  1. Identifying the purpose of your document, and developing a structure which is best suited to that specific purpose
  2. Analyzing your audience, and developing a structure which best meets their needs
  3. Using informative and specific headings (instead of generic ones like “background”) relevant to your topic
  4. Determining what content is required and allowing content to shape structure

[1] Irish, R., Tiede, K., and Weiss, P. Communication Course Notes. Engineering Communication Program, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, University of Toronto. 2004.
[2] Burnett, R. and McKee, J. Technical Communication. 3rd ed. Toronto: Nelson, 2003.