When I was studying for my master’s degree in English, I took classes on peer editing and writing pedagogy to prepare me for a part-time job as graduate assistant of the university writing center.
One of the first concepts I learned was about the “discourse community.” While this isn’t a common phrase in day-to-day life, each one of us is part of at least one discourse community. For example, if you belong to an orchestra, there are certain terms that you and your colleagues understand that the audience doesn’t—as well as a variety of stereotypes and expectations. (For example, it’s well known among orchestras that the conductor should never look at the trombone section. If you want to know why, ask Google.)
Whenever you become involved in any hobby or profession, a certain language and shared knowledge comes into play, whether you’re a cyclist, a quilter, or craft beer connoisseur.
And the same is true of writers.
Writers are often told to read, read, read in their genre. This is partly because through reading you begin to better see and experience what good writing is (assuming that what you read reflects the quality you want to emulate). Furthermore, by reading, you begin to understand what’s been done before, what isn’t done, and what the expectations are of the readership and community you hope to be a part of.
But there’s yet another benefit that comes into play.
When you want to get published, this knowledge becomes a distinguishing strength when you approach agents, editors, or publishers with your work. Industry professionals can tell right away if you’re someone who has written one book and read virtually nothing because you’ll fail to speak the same language or demonstrate the same knowledge as someone else who’s experienced in a particular discourse (or genre, if you prefer). Reading and knowing about other authors or trends in your community gives you awareness of how your work fits into the landscape. It also helps you avoid using the same, possibly boring tropes the agent/editor has seen before. You know what it means when agents say they’re looking for something fresh, but also the same!
Writers who have been active for years in reading in their genre can easily reference other works in their pitches and conversations with agents/editors, plus they can pinpoint how their style is similar to or different from other authors. They know what stands out about their work and where it follows conventions. They can have a conversation with another author, agent, or editor about the exciting works in the field, and what they like and don’t like about current trends.
And this is what it means to be part of a discourse community: it makes it possible to strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before, but immediately have common ground and shared langauge that informs how you talk about a book or a project. That’s why people who aren’t part of the community stand out; it’s hard to conceal it when you have little or no awareness of what’s getting published and talked about in the community.
For those who may not be satisfied with their career progress or pace of publication, you can make up for some of that disappointment by learning everything you can about the genre and community you want to be a part of. It will help you have deeper and more meaningful conversations with other writers and professionals more experienced than you, and demonstrate a seriousness of intent—that you’re not in this for just the one book you have to sell, but you’re in it because it’s a community you plan to be a part of for many years to come.
Let us know in the comments: How do you stay engaged with what’s happening in your genre?