In our last article, we defined what context is and looked at some reasons why it is important. As writers, context can mean the difference between whether our readers are able to understand what we have written or whether they will be confused.
Now we are going to look at some of the different elements that are part of the context of a written work, and how each of these can affect the reader’s ability to understand it.
Genre refers to the category or style of a written work. Is it a fairy tale, a romantic poem, a memoir? Is it a news article or an opinion piece? Is it a cover letter written by a university applicant, or an angry rant on social media?
It isn’t possible to list every genre here. Just keep in mind that readers have different expectations based on genre. For example, incomplete sentences are okay–and even expected–if you are writing a resume or CV, but not if you are writing an essay for your college English class.
Time is an element of context that can be confusing if it isn’t written clearly. Did an event happen in the past? Is it happening now? Will it take place at some point in the future? When was this work written/published? Are there words or references to outdated practices that a reader in 2023 might have difficulty understanding?
Many of the context-related writing problems we see at TextRanch are due to inadequate wording about time. Sometimes this is because the verb tense is incorrect, but it also occurs when a sentence is missing words or phrases such as “tonight” or “last week” or “during the third quarter of 2015”.
Similar to time, it is also important to be clear about where an event is happening. Did your electricity go out at the office, or while you were working from home? Are you conducting research at a university lab or out in the field? Are you writing a text where you are describing events at two different locations? If so, how do you move your readers from Place A to Place B?
The intended audience
Who is reading your text? Are they familiar with your topic, or do you need to explain certain terms and details to them? For example, a book about polar bears that is aimed at ten-year-olds will read a lot differently than a research article about polar bears that appears in a climate science journal.
The people who work in your office will probably understand special internal terms you use, but if you’re writing to someone outside of your office (e.g., a customer, a third-party company, etc.), you may need to alter or explain the terms you use.
The author’s personal or professional background
Let’s say a TextRanch customer submits a business email where they use the word “python”. If the context indicates that the customer is concerned about invasive species in the Everglades, then “python” probably refers to a large snake. However, if the context is related to computer programming, then “python” most likely refers to the computer programming language. If this is the case, then the TextRanch editor would need to change “python” to “Python”, since names of languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) are capitalized.
As our world grows more connected, we are more likely to find ourselves communicating with people from different cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds. Even if we are writing to each other in the same language (in this case, English), we might not always be familiar with the context surrounding certain events or situations.
Culture also includes pop culture–movies, TV programs, music, video games, sports, bestselling books, etc. Imagine getting a text from a friend that includes lines from a movie you’ve never seen because you grew up in a different country. You can read the words, but the meaning is lost on you because you are not familiar with the context.
Regional language differences
John wore a vest to the office.
In the U.S., a vest is a sleeveless garment worn over a shirt. Sometimes a vest is part of a three-piece suit (with the other two pieces being trousers and a jacket). In the U.K., however, a vest is worn under one’s clothing; it is what Americans would call an “undershirt”. Which one of these did John wear to the office? Without context, we don’t know.
Regional language differences like the above example are why we ask our TextRanch customers to specify U.S. English or U.K. English when they submit a text.
The wealthy suburbs in Oakland County flipped from red to blue in the 2022 midterms.
The above sentence would make no sense to someone who doesn’t follow U.S. politics. It wouldn’t even make sense to an American in the 1990s, because the media didn’t start using the same color coded electoral maps (red for Republicans, blue for Democrats) until the 2000 presidential election. Thus, this is an example of how politics can be part of the context of a written work. It also shows how context is constantly shifting.
As a writer, what does all of this mean for you?
If you have written an email, an essay, a story, or anything else, take a step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Consider how different elements of context might factor into how well your readers will be able to understand what you have written. You may have to make some adjustments, or include a note explaining the context.
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