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September 2016

How EUPARS works for 21st Century Writing

EUPARS — a Heuristic for Identifying the Genres We Use in Digital Media

September 23, 2016

Let me begin this with a horror story. Beginning in 1997, I ran tests using my graduate students as subjects. The thing my graduate students had in common is they were all working professional writers. They included managing editors, copy editors, documentation specialists, web managers, and UX specialists (among other things). So when I was asking one of these students a question, an experienced professional writer answered. The question I asked them was, “look at these four Web pages and tell me what is wrong with them.”

The participants evaluated a very simple collection of four Web pages containing several egregious writing errors. In the tests, with more than 100 of these writers over the years, only three times did any professional writers recognize that any of the pages had any writing problems. Two who did notice a problem, were unable to explain why it was a problem. So over a period of 10 years only one writer was able to identify a problem on one page and explain what the problem was. With the exception of these three people, 100% of the professionals I tested were unable to both identify simple but highly visible writing problems and explain them.

(See two  of the pages here and here.)

99.9% Failure Rate

Think about that! Virtually 100% failure rate over 10 years.  The big question is, “How is it possible for such big problems to be invisible to professional writers?” The answer becomes easy with just a little background.

Suppose you get a love note. . . You will read it through filters that are different from what you would use on a technical report or resume. The filters you use are based on the fact that you recognize the genre of the text.

Now suppose you are looking at the following description on the Internet . . .

  • Students thinking about majoring in English inevitably confront the question: “What are you going to do with an English major?” Contrary to popular belief, however, career opportunities for English majors are quite favorable because English majors are adaptable. . . . . English majors have found job opportunities in financial institutions, insurance companies, federal and state government agencies, the hospitality industry, universities, museums, and service organizations. They are employed as personnel and planning directors, administrative associates, marketing directors, technical librarians, wage and salary representatives, service correspondents, claims adjustors, and insurance agents. The English major is also an excellent undergraduate major for those who wish to enter law, medical, or dental school; complete post-graduate work in literature, film, creative writing or library science; or enter sales, management, and marketing programs in large organizations  http://imrl.org/techcomm/undergrad/careers.htm

How do you know whether the content is doing what it is supposed to do? In fact, you cannot know. We cannot accurately evaluate a text until we know what it is supposed to do and to whom. In other words, we need to know its genre. In the case of the professional writers above, they thought the genre was “webpage.” To know what the above paragraph is supposed to do, we need to know the exigencies, urgency, purpose, and audience (EUPA. . .) of a text. That information gives us the text’s appropriate rhetorical stance, and structure (. . . RS). If we know the EUPA of the text above, we immediately know the rhetorical stance is completely wrong.

Where the Pros Went Wrong

The pros examined the pages based on the medium (webpage). The medium (e.g., codex, novel, short story, flyer, letter) says nothing about the text’s purpose, while the genre (e.g., Bible, cyberpunk, noir detective story, sales brochure) says a great deal. Digitally speaking, menu, email, webpage, say less about the content than “link to checkout,” “ E-proposal,” “E-job application,” “Web-based catalog page.” Knowing the genre can’t tell you everything you need to know about a piece of text, but it does tell you a lot that you can’t know without recognizing the genre.

Applying EUPARS (pronounced “You parse”) to the Text

“EUPARS” is the acronym for combining the Exigency, Urgency, Purpose, Audience, Rhetorical stance, Structure of a text to identify its genre. If we use EUPARS to look at the Careers page in question, we can immediately show what is wrong with it.

Exigency

The exigency is the pressure that forces an element of communication into existence. In the case above, as professors, we are required to have strong, robust instructional departments, usually in a constant state of growth. More students means more money for new teachers. Too few students can get an instructional program cut and the faculty (even tenured faculty) let go. The exigency for the paragraph above is the need to have a healthy and growing tech comm. program.

Urgency of this text

This is an important text. Failing to meet the demands of the exigency might mean life and death for the tech comm. program.

Purpose

Purpose does two things. It lets us know what the text is supposed to do, and it always leads to identification of the audience (In this case, the purpose is to encourage sophomores to select technical communication for their major).

Audience

The audiences are usually complicated. In this case, it is a mix of disillusioned engineering majors, creative writers wanting a major that provides a living, computer nerds who can write, IT students who want to be more on the artistic side of the process of Web design . . . and similar people. NOTE: If you look at the careers page now, you should immediately see what is wrong with it. It is touting the benefits of jobs a LITERATURE major might strive for. Professional writers do not have the generalized skills of lit majors . . . they have specialized skills and do specialized jobs that are completely different from the ones mentioned in the text. You do not have to go any further to know that the copy is completely inappropriate. Not only will the jobs mentioned in the careers page not attract students, they might even repel them. Yet, not one of the professional writers tested ever saw that!

The Second Example Page

One writer complained that the sentences were too long on the second example, and he was right, but that was a symptom and not the problem with the page. Originally, the page was written for Northwest Accreditation – a bunch of full professors. Long sentences are no problem for them. In fact, they would have considered short choppy sentences an indication of not knowing the audience. The problem with the page was that after Northwest Accreditation, the page was repurposed – used to recruit sophomores. Again, identifying the exigency, urgency, purpose, and audience for the page shows what is wrong with the text. You don’t even have to look at the rhetorical stance or structure to know that the page is being used on the wrong audience.

So Why Is This Important?

In a traditional writing environment, you can pretty much assume the document you are reading is a single genre that you can identify as you read the document.
The Internet is a pastiche of genres cut and pasted from one page to another. Often these genres are chopped into bits and reused for purposes they were never designed for. If a novel is a steak, a webpage is a salad made up of dozens of different genres. When you can no longer identify all the different genres, you can no longer evaluate the quality of a given page.

Successfully Evaluating Content in a Webpage

As I have said, to successfully evaluate content on a website, you must know what the genres are, but one webpage might have as many as a dozen genres. Each genre has to be identified and evaluated separately. Without doing that, there is no way you can know whether the genres are working the way you want them to.

Exigency — Students often Confuse “Exigency,” with “Purpose.”

“Why is this needed?” sounds a lot like “What is this supposed to do?” But they are actually different, and knowing the difference is important. In this context “exigency” is the force that demands one or more communications.

Imagine you are running a food service, and you discover that you have shipped packets of frozen food containing metal splinters from a defective machine. That is an exigency that will require a variety of communications (each with a different purpose). At the very least you will need to recall the food packets, warn potential customers not to buy the packages, send out press releases to defuse the negative press you can expect, send out apologies, etc.

Alternatively, a large manufacturer may be planning to move from a five day to a four day work week. This will demand a completely different collection of communications. They may be as complicated as a study of traffic changes that result from the move, or as simple as floating the idea at the water fountain, but communication is required.

Exigencies often demand a variety of communications but don’t need to.

As you can see exigencies often demand a variety of communications. On the other hand, one simple exigency is the pregnant silence we sometimes find in conversations. That silence is an exigency that will usually force someone to say something . . . anything . . . often something silly.

In short, whenever we do anything, something makes us do that. That is the exigency. When we say something, write something, tag a building or railroad car — communicate in any way – exigency makes us do that.

Urgency Will Be different from Doc to Doc

With “urgency” we switch from general to particular. “Exigency” applies to all of the documents it demands, while “urgency” applies to specific documents.

If we look at the urgencies of different communications, we can easily see that they vary wildly, even different communications under a common exigency. In the “splinters” example above, it is critical that all shipments be immediately stopped, all shipped packets be returned, and that potential customers immediately be warned not to consume that food. On the other hand, a public apology might be crafted for a couple of weeks before being released, and even then it might just be posted on the company website.

The same conditions apply to the idea of moving from a five to a four day work week. The most urgent thing might simply be opening communications with employees to determine how they will be impacted.

Part of urgency is “importance”

Part of the urgency of a communication is its importance. Conversation over breakfast might be so casual that by noon we might have forgotten what we talked about. On the other hand, if we are selling a new camera, getting an ad right is more important than getting the ad out right now.