Saturday, June 27, 2009

The context of a document (1)

Providing context is an often-neglected part of writing. As we write and edit a document, we tend to concentrate almost all our attention on finishing the document and almost none on providing the context.

But context is crucially important: it helps your prospective readers decide whether to read or skip your document and it helps your readers better understand the content of your document.

When a prospective reader encounters your document, he wants to know the answers to several questions; for example:

Is this for me? That is, what type of reader is this document for?

What will I gain by reading this?

Is this document too elementary for me, just right for me, or too advanced for me?

What background knowledge, if any, do I need to have in order to understand the content in this document?

How does this document relate to other documents? What other documents, if any, should I read first? Is the document part of a series or collection?

Readers don’t ask these questions out loud. They may not even ask them consciously. But they do ask them, and look for the answers.

Careful writers and editors provide those answers. That is why, for example, a research paper usually begins with an abstract; a non-fiction book usually begins with an introduction; the dust jacket of a Michael Connelly novel prominently displays the name(s) of the Connelly hero(es) the novel is about; a press release includes a headline and sometimes a subhead; and most Web sites have an “about” page.

Unfortunately, many writers do a poor job of providing context – especially when writing for the Web. To illustrate how badly we often fail at providing context on the Web, I’ll show you an example, just as I encountered it and reacted to it.


While doing research on verb forms, I landed on this page. From the logo in the top left corner of the page, I could see that I was on a page of Entrepreneur magazine. The page included an article that had appeared in a journal called Language, Learning & Technology. The title of the article, “Focus-on-form through collaborative scaffolding in expert-to-novice online interaction,” had a distinctly academic tone to it.

The first sentence of the article, even more laden with jargon than the title, confirmed that the article was indeed academic:

“The following discussion highlights the amount of scaffolding, the use of L1, the role of the expert that affected how the learners socially co-constructed L2 knowledge with their expert partners during synchronous CMC.”

I glanced again at the top left corner of the page. Yes, this article was appearing in Entrepreneur. But why? What could this academic, technical research have to do with entrepreneurship?

Then I looked at the line of small type above the article:

Home > Business Journals > Language, Learning & Technology

I clicked on “Business Journals” and landed on a page that introduced Entrepreneur’s database of business and trade journals. The introduction said:

“Browse our database of over 200 business and trade journals. Find up-to-date, industry-specific information on a broad range of business issues and news events.”

So, the article on “focus-on-form through collaborative scaffolding” appears on Entrepreneur’s Web site because Language, Learning & Technology, the whole journal, is on Entrepreneur’s Web site. But that still doesn’t explain how this journal would interest entrepreneurs. The journal does not seem to cover business issues or news events at all.

I scrolled down to the L page and found the listing for Language, Learning & Technology. In a Category column, the listing said, “Computers and office automation industries.”

I surfed around until I found an “about” page for the journal. Here it is. It says the journal “seeks to disseminate research … on issues related to technology and language education.”

It is possible that there are entrepreneurs who develop or market language-education technology (or would like to do so in the future) and feel the need to keep up with the kinds of research that the journal publishes. But, from working with hundreds of entrepreneurs, I know that this possibility is extremely unlikely. Most entrepreneurs are too busy to read articles in Entrepreneur, let alone articles in arcane trade journals.

I didn’t find any further context, so I made a guess:

Entrepreneur wanted to provide a helpful database of publications that may interest entrepreneurs. (I applaud this.)

Entrepreneur wanted its database to be wide-ranging. (I applaud this, too.)

But Entrepreneur’s database is so wide that it inevitably includes some arcane journals. Language, Learning & Technology is one of them.

Of course, I could be wrong. I often am. But I was forced to make a guess because neither Entrepreneur nor Language, Learning & Technology provided the context I needed. (If either did in fact provide the context, I did not find it.)

The Takeaway: Take responsibility for providing the context of the documents you write or edit. Don’t make readers guess the context; they are likely to guess wrong. Take some time to imagine the context questions your target readers may silently ask when they encounter your document. Answer those questions clearly and candidly. From decades of experience, I assure you that this effort will pay off, by gaining you more readers and preventing time-wasting confusion.

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