Do You Context?

Posted on: July 14, 2010

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Context is a tricky word, because its meaning morphs, depending on the situation. Given this interesting quality, today I thought I’d look at some of the ways we can think of what the word context can mean in writing.

Text Level

When we speak about the text, or copy, in a document, the word context commonly refers to the elements of a sentence (or paragraph) that surround a particular word or phrase and that influence its meaning. So, what precedes and follows a word, sentence or paragraph helps to determine how readers will interpret it.

But as we know, the text lives inside a document, which in turn affects how readers understand the text.

Document Level

At the document level, the writing situation changes. Here, context is broadly understood to mean the relationship of the writer, the audience, the subject, and the purpose of the document.

As writers, we ask ourselves these core communication questions to start to get a handle on the document’s context:

  • What do I know about the subject?
  • What is the purpose of the document?
  • What does my audience know about the subject?
  • What does my audience need to know about the subject, given the purpose of the document?

And just when you think you’ve got it nailed, it’s very useful to get feedback on your document’s game plan from some test users, who should ask themselves: “What do I know about the subject now that I’ve read the document?” And, most important: “What else do I need to know?”

Of course, no document stands alone. Every piece of writing exists in a system, or setting, which helps to shape how the writer approaches the document.

Setting Level

The document itself exists in a context, an environment we can think of as the conditions that govern the document’s function or the setting in which the document is to be used.

Here are some key questions to help define the conditions/setting:

  • Where will the document be used?
  • Is this a print or online document?
  • Is the document flying solo, or is it part of a communications package?
  • Will readers have access to other help resources?

In order to clarify the complexities of the setting-document-text relationships, many writers find it helpful to use a context diagram.

How Context Works: Some Considerations (Involving Basil)

Bet you were wondering why a picture of a basil leaf opens this post.

Because, in making pesto last weekend, I ran into some context questions, which prompted me to write this post.

The pesto recipe I used calls for three cups of snipped fresh basil. Now, I happened to already know that “snipped” in this context generally means to tear each leaf by hand into rather small pieces (or use scissors to mince it).

But what if I hadn’t? Solution: For online publications, define “snipped” in context-sensitive help; in this case, a linked glossary definition or a pop-up. For print publications, use boldface on the word and, in an introductory section about conventions used in the document, tell the readers that a bolded word means the word is defined in a glossary. Another option (for both media) would be to define the audience: level of expertise, experience and knowledge.

On second thought, what if the writer of this recipe actually understood “snipped” to just mean “cut the leaf from the stem”? After all, the recipe says to use a food processor. Why hand mince the leaves if the machine will do that? How could I be fairly certain that my interpretation was probably correct? Answer: I interpreted the statement in the context of previous general knowledge. Still and all, that’s a little dicey. Maybe the author really did mean three cups of whole leaves, with the stems snipped off.

After all, recipes for a given dish can differ wildly, and who knows what the writer’s intent actually is, unless it’s explicitly stated?

Onward. Since this was my first foray into personally making homemade pesto, I didn’t know how many whole leaves to gather. How many cups of whole leaves result in three cups of snipped leaves?

So I experimented and discovered that about four cups of whole leaves very nicely turn into three cups of snipped.

The entire whole-to-snipped dilemma is another lovely opportunity for the writer to supply some context. Why make the cook guess and spend time experimenting?

Another aspect of context would be to tell readers to harvest the basil leaves before the plant flowers. Ah, tips on usage. Now that is helpful. Who wouldn’t want to know that after the plant flowers you will taste a tinge of bitterness in the leaves?

In this next picture, you can see the flower spikes on a basil plant that is just starting to blossom.

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

The recipe does provide substitution suggestions (walnuts or pecans) for the pine nuts, which is terrific contextual information. Pine nuts cause adverse reactions in some people, and others simply prefer another taste.

Another contextual suggestion, again involving usage, concerns storage. The recipe says the pesto can be put in a jar, covered with ¼-inch olive oil, and stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know for how long in each case? When does the pesto go bad? What is the outside “safe” date for each method of storage?

Also of contextual interest to a cook is the best way to store something for ease of future use. Freezing the pesto in a jar means you have to thaw all of it at once. What about including the following alternative: If you intend to store the pesto in the freezer, pour or ladle it into the sections of an ice-cube tray. That way, you can conveniently access exactly the amount of pesto you need for one meal. How cool: little frozen cubes of pesto. Talk about ease of use! Wouldn’t that be nice information to offer to readers in the recipe?

As you see, this simple recipe for pesto (only six ingredients and minimal assembly work) very quickly got more complicated due to issues of context: one question at the level of text (“snipped”), and many more at the levels of document and setting.

Well then, what happens when we write user manuals, hardware assembly instructions, operations guides, policy manuals, and so many other business and technical publications?

Compared to a simple pesto recipe, those and other documents are astonishingly complex in their requirements for suitable contextual information.

We need to pay attention to all levels of context so our readers get what they really need to know in order to get a job done (without tearing their hair out).

If our audience wins, our company wins as well, because there is a bonus benefit for using context well: notice that adding these contextual elements to the pesto recipe would help readers find a lot more meaning in the recipe book. (And, of course, we would add similar contextual information for the other recipes in the book as well.) Think of the marketing opportunities! Think of the increased sales! Think of the expanding market share!

What do you think of my observations about context? What suggestions do you have for dealing with the complexities of context?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas


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