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A Process Genre Approach to Writing
Transactional Letters
By James Frith
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What knowledge does a successful writer need?


A writer needs to know who the audience is and what their relationship with them is. This is sometimes called the ‘tenor’ of the communication and will affect the style of writing. Depending on factors such as social dominance and social distance, linguistic choices will be made. These may be grammatical choices, for example the use of the passive, or lexical choices, for example the level of lexical density, the tendency to use low frequency lexical items or the use of a nominalised style (Tribble 1996) in more formal writing. This raises two issues for learners. Firstly, they need to be capable of making a stylistic choice based on the context of the writing. Even assuming that they can do this in their mother tongue, cultural differences may mean that rather different choices would be made in the student’s L1. Students also need to be capable of implementing their choices, thus requiring complex knowledge of language systems.

Richards (1990) states that a good writer will produce ‘reader based prose’, that is, that s/he will produce clear, unambiguous text by considering the reader’s perspective, predicting what questions s/he may ask his/herself as s/he is reading the text and taking into account any shared knowledge. In terms of coherence, this means that there must be an orderly development of ideas, continuity and no irrelevance, appropriate emphasis on ideas and a sense of completeness (Richards 1990). For the learner it can be very problematic to consider the reader’s perspective, particularly when, as is so often the case in the classroom, the reader is not only absent and distant in time and space (Nunan 1991), but does not even exist! This can additionally cause motivational problems.


Richards’ (ibid.) idea of coherence takes us to our next focus; that a writer needs to respect the accepted textual form according to the genre s/he is writing in, sometimes referred to as the ‘mode’. A reader will expect a particular layout and schematic structure of the discourse depending on the context of the communication and a failure on the writer’s part to provide this could lead to an unsuccessful piece of writing (Tribble 1996). Tribble (ibid.) also goes so far as to suggest that the success of the piece of writing relies more on making an appropriate choice here than it does on having a full control of the language system. In the case of transactional letters, a problem-solution pattern of discourse is favoured. This, however, may not be the case in our students’ cultures. Middle Eastern students I have taught seem to have enormous trouble with organisation of ideas and it can sometimes be difficult to persuade students that it is not just the control of the English language system which is important. Spanish students seem to have problems with issues of layout in transactional letters, especially where the norms are only slightly different in Spanish.

While discussing the structure and organisation of a text, it is necessary to mention cohesion. Cohesion can be effected lexically (through reformulation or use of lexical fields or, particularly in speech, through repetition), through conjunction or grammatically (use of pronouns, articles, substitution, tense or ellipsis) (Thornbury 1997). In my experience, students tend to have problems with articles (especially learners whose L1 does not have them), tense agreement, overuse of repetition (acceptable in some languages) and use of conjunctions. This last item is, I feel, inadequately dealt with in coursebooks which tend to overload students with logical connectives of various functions but do not sufficiently explain when or when not to use them at a discourse level.

Finally in this section on ‘what’ a writer is writing, the subject matter, or ‘field’ needs to be referred to. Writers need to have the relevant content knowledge (Tribble 1996). This is rarely a problem for students writing transactional letters in the learning environment where the content is usually provided and/or non-specialist and we can probably assume that in the working environment our students already have this knowledge.

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