In individual cells, transcription is a random process obeying single-molecule kinetics. Often, it occurs in a bursty, intermittent manner. The frequency and size of these bursts affect the magnitude of temporal fluctuations in messenger RNA and protein content within a cell, creating variation or “noise” in gene expression. It is still unclear to what degree transcriptional kinetics are specific to each gene and determined by its promoter sequence. Alternative scenarios have been proposed, in which the kinetics of transcription are governed by cellular constraints and follow universal rules across the genome. Evidence from genome-wide noise studies and from systematic perturbations of promoter sequences suggest that both scenarios—namely gene-specific versus genome-wide regulation of transcription kinetics—may be present to different degrees in bacteria, yeast, and animal cells.