The Secret Element to Good Writing Most Writers Forget About - Craft Your Content
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The Secret Element to Good Writing Most Writers Forget About

When, where, and how will an audience read your content?

You might be an engaging writer with a valuable message, but your writing will miss the mark if you fail to consider the context in which readers find it.

Context isn’t a new concept in good writing, but it’s probably never been more important than it is with digital media.

Most of us fail to consider everything readers might do while they read: interact with tweets, read text messages, toggle to some assignment for work ….

Did you just cringe imagining your readers so torn? That’s why you have to understand context—and write with it in mind.

Why Context Matters

Everything that surrounds your writing—in the digital and physical worlds—and everything that happens before, after, and while an audience reads it affects what it means to them.

Bloggers, for example, know our readers have short attention spans and a lot of other things competing for their time when they choose to click into a post.

We have to write something that hits the mark in that context. That’s why we use explanatory headlines, white space, bullet points, sub-heads, and bold text to write scannable articles.

A dense blog post with long paragraphs, wordy sentences, and an elusive headline asks a reader to commit to reading an article from start to finish without knowing the point. You might prefer this behavior, but it ignores the reader’s goal.

The reader wants to consume as much useful information as possible, so they click over, scan, and evaluate before committing (or moving on).

To earn that commitment, write useful content—and make it easy to evaluate. That achieves your goal of engaging your readership and the reader’s goal of learning something useful.

How To Determine Context

Know your reader—what, where, when, and how they’ll come across your content—to get the context better.

Unlike other elements of your writing—the content, angle, voice, or structure—context is mostly out of your control. It’s everything that surrounds your writing when your audience reads it.

That makes it impossible to predict exactly, but you can make some educated guesses. You know, for example, what it’s like to come across an article shared on Facebook or Twitter. You know your state of mind when you open an email newsletter or download an e-book.

Knowing your reader is your best tool for understanding the context of your writing.

To imagine when, where, and how the audience will consume your content, answer these questions about them:

  • Who are they? Describe your reader’s basic demographics—age, gender, location. Each characteristic impacts how they find and engage with content. A younger audience is more likely to read on mobile devices, for example.
  • What do they do? Think about their jobs, careers, hobbies, volunteer activities, families, and social lives. These impact when and why they spend time reading. Parents might read late at night, while avid travelers probably read during flights, and busy execs could read on the treadmill.
  • What do they know? Note your reader’s relationship to and understanding of your subject. Whether they’re amateurs or experts, supporters or opponents, will determine their mindset as they approach your writing.
  • What do they want from you? This is their goal, what they hope to get out of reading the piece. Knowing this will help you understand their state of mind while reading: Do they expect to take action immediately, make a five-year plan, or just be inspired?
  • Where do they hang out (online)? You’ll reach your audience where they are (e.g., Facebook), so consider what’s going on there (e.g., puppy videos) before they come across your writing.

Knowing your reader lets you know how they’ll approach your writing—which lets you write for the greatest impact.

Elements of Context to Consider

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To get the full picture of how your readers may consume your content, consider these three elements of context: format, time, and history.

Context is more than a physical or digital location.

Think about the way it’s talked about in relation to (er, in the context of …) news coverage. For a full picture, news consumers need to understand:

  • What happened before and after a story
  • What the writer has said before
  • What the paper has published before

These intangibles, along with tangibles like design and location, affect what a reader gets out of a story.

As you write, consider three categories of context that’ll affect your reader’s experience with your piece: format, time, and history.

Format and Method of Distribution

How you write and share a piece has the most obvious effect on the reader experience. Think about the effect of publishing a story on Slate versus HuffPost, for example, based on what readers expect from those publications.

The same goes for the medium you’ll use to publish in. Will you share your ideas in a blog post, a tweet, or an e-book? Will you promote them on Facebook, guest posts, or display ads? The digital space your writing lives in sets an inevitable tone—tweets are usually casual, while e-books approach a subject with slightly more gravity. So choose the medium thoughtfully.

Time of Day, Week, and Year

Your audience will perceive your writing differently depending on when they read it.

This could be affected by something as trivial as whether they read it before or after breakfast. More important might be whether you publish a blog post on Monday morning or Friday afternoon. Guess when readers are most likely to engage? Yeah, we’re all kind of tapped out at the end of the week.

Similar trends affect how readers engage with certain topics throughout the year. An e-book about healthy eating will do best in January, when readers set New Year’s resolutions. It’ll probably be ignored in December during the holidays.

Historical, Social, and Political Climate

As with considering what’s happened before a news story runs, these things out of your control will still affect your reader’s reaction to your writing.

What feels like an innocent mention of a piece of legislation in a nonpartisan story, for example, will likely trigger a partisan reaction in this polarized political climate. You can only claim neutrality to a point; you’re responsible for understanding what your writing means to your audience in context.

Depending on your story or message, elements like politics, relevant social issues, and your reader’s economic history will have a greater or smaller effect.

How To Write for Context

It’s important to keep your readers in mind when writing for context to effectively get your message across.

You don’t have much control over when, where, or how a reader comes to your writing, but you can control what you write. Consider the most likely context, and write for it to give your writing the best chance at success.

Here’s how:

  • Consider your reader’s goal. Writing’s most important purpose is to help the audience achieve some goal, whether that’s a life-altering milestone or just entertainment. Your goals—like pageviews, sales, or engagement—should never eclipse this purpose.
  • Format for context first, and shape your story for the format. Purists might hate this tip, but I promise you can craft a compelling story in any format. And you must: If your format doesn’t meet the reader’s needs, they won’t read it.
  • Reach your reader where they are … If your audience studies your topic through blog posts, your brand shouldn’t hinge on a textbook. If they’re most active on Instagram, don’t waste your energy promoting on Twitter.
  • … and write with that setting in mind. Based on the likely place(s) your writing will reach the reader, in what state of mind will they approach it? What else will be happening around your writing? If your best chance of reaching the reader is through Facebook, write a headline that grabs their split attention and blog post copy that’s easy to digest.
  • Publish when your reader needs it most. When in the day, week, or year is your reader most focused on their goal? When will they most eagerly engage with your content?
  • Adjust your tone and voice. Take your responsibility seriously, and consider how your words will land with a reader based on the historical, social, and political climate. Temper your attitude and how much of your personality you convey (e.g., through word choice and sentence structure) to send the right message.

To Get Your Message Across, Always Consider Context

When you understand your audience and their goals, you can write to help achieve them in the right context by adjusting the things you can control: format, tone, and voice. This will ultimately help you share your story or message with the people who need it—when they need it.

Knowing how to determine context, and the elements of it to consider, helps you write engaging content your readers will understand and love.

About the Author Dana Sitar

Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for online audiences and digital media since 2011. She’s an editor at The Penny Hoarder, a columnist for Inc. and a freelancer with bylines including Slate, the New York Times and HuffPost. Her free mini ebook, How to Write Anything (Well) gives you the tools you need to understand who your readers (really) are and what it takes to share your message or story with the people who need it.

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