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