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Old February 24th, 2014 #1
Alex Linder
Join Date: Nov 2003
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Alex Linder
Default On Writing: Give Context

On Writing

Give the Reader the Best Contexting You Can Provide

By Alex Linder [index]

February 24, 2014

In this thread in this new column I am going to give examples of excellence in writing, along with explanations.

We'll begin with this, from the opening page of Clinton Rossiter's The First American Revolution (1953), p.3:

In the year 1765 there lived along the American seaboard 1,450,000 white and 400,000 Negro subjects of King George III of England. The area of settlement stretched from the Penobscot to the Altamaha and extended inland, by no means solidly, to the Appalachian barrier. Within this area flourished thirteen separate political communities, subject immediately or ultimately to the authority of the Crown, but enjoying in fact large powers of self-government. Life was predominantly rural, the economy agrarian, religion Protestant, descent English, and politics the concern of men of property.
Boom! In a nutshell. If you don't understand why this is excellent...let me explain, long-windedly. Writers must know everything. Not possible. The more a writer knows, the better - for the reader. Men, lands, situations, psychologies, it all plays in. To what? What he can bring to bear on the page. What he can drawn from in trying to explain something to the reader.

But even if the writer doesn't know everything, even if he knows very little, at least he knows, or can reasonably speculate, on what he doesn't know. At least...and here's the pitch...he can give the true and accurate context. That is what Rossiter does excellently above. In one short paragraph, you have the American scene just prior to the political revolution. You have in a nutshell what you're dealing with. That is what a writer is supposed to do, but so often these days fails to do.

Giving the reader context ought to be pretty close job #1, even for newspaper reporters. Now, they are of course concerned with the five Ws - who, what, when, where, how - but the minute that is done, what else have these folk to do other than place them in context?

Say we're reporting on a fire in the mountains ringing L.A. What does context mean here? It means we research and talk to experts to establish:

- what is a typical fire season/fire in this area/in the West in general
- where/why this fire might be unusual or usual

Say we're doing a story on crime in Chicago. What does context mean here?

It means, locating this specific spate of, say, weekend shootings within a greater city (Chicago), state (Illinois) and national context.

- there are X murders per year. Here's a graph showing average annual murders in Chicago dating back to 1900 or 1950. Show the race of the perpetrators. Show the race of the victims. Show the interracial stats (if the media weren't controlled to exclude these because they speak against forced race-mixing the controlled media universally promote).

The writer's job in this kind of fact-based, analytical reporting-analysis is to give the reader everything he needs to gain a true picture of what's going on, so that he can understand it. The reporter's first duty may be to get the facts right, so that his every assertion may be relied on; but his second duty is to fit the facts into a meaningful and non-distortive context. What the controlled media ordinarily do is present a selection of the facts, and very little context, and a context that, whenever the story bridges on matters political, is distorted in line with an undeniable and absolutely predictable agenda.

It cannot be overemphasized, when you are the writer, you are the man. You are like a man taking a girl on a date. You are responsible for planning it, for seeing that she is well situated and enjoys herself. That's not a perfect analogy, but it's close enough. You don't make the reader-girl wonder wtf is going on, or if this guy knows what he's doing, you giver her everything she needs to know to make sense of the situation and draw her own judgments.

Most problems with writings are simply the same problems we see in people off the page: they live in their own little heads. I'm not even talking about selfishness, though it can be that, I'm talking about simply unawareness, proceeding from a number of sources, of what the other guy needs to understand in order to cooperate with one. On the page, this ego-obliviousness, or trapped-in-selfness, results in people writing things that aren't clear to outsiders. These writers aren't able to grasp that other people aren't in their head and won't know what they are talking about. An effective writer will instinctively understand where his reader is, educationwise and mentally, and with what sort of material he needs to prepare him so that he can easily grasp the story. He won't just plop down a bunch of context-free impressions and expect the reader to make a satisfying meal out of the mess.

Writing is not just teaching, educating, explaining, it's also guiding. Show respect for the reader always by giving him the context he needs to evaluate the precise information you're disseminating or the report you're making.

When we read the Rossiter start above, we say to ourselves, as reader, " I can settle in...I've got the big picture firmly in head: a couple million people, 3/4 white, mostly English, rural, etc., slowly trickling through to the west." That is firm social-geographical basis for the political story about to unfold.

Always give the reader the context he needs to make sense of the story. Disconnected bits of factual flotsam + ideological assumptions never fully articulation let alone examined is a bread made of sawdust: not nutritious at all.

Context exercises:

- describe the earth to someone trying to understand it

- there has been a serious decline in honeybee populations in North America. If you were tasked with writing a story on this, what kind of different contextual factors would you bring out to ensure the reader had the best, fullest, understanding of the phenomenon - even if the precise cause of the decline of the populations weren't known?

- there's been a rise in murders in a city near you. The city is now majority black where in 1960 it was mostly white. Again, if you're trying to give your reader the best overall sense of what is going on, how would you go about doing that? which facts or factors would you adduce, assuming you had no motive other than diffusing enlightenment (true understanding)?
That will do for our first lesson. As with our language series, this will become a regular column.

You're the writer? You're the man. Lead. Dominate. Entertain. Educate. Wow. Make effective and enjoyable and educational communication happen - it's all in your hands. Bring the reader to intellectual orgasm, or if you can't do that, at least make what you're saying so brilliantly sunny the reader can see exactly where you're wrong, or what you're missing, even if you can't yourself. For that's the final fact: none of us can see everything. But at the very least, we can know what we need to get the job done, and supply as much of it as we can, given our limited understandings.

Alway have respect for the reader, and this means, in part, giving the reader the means to make sense of the specifics, which in many or even most cases will be new or foreign to him.

The only thing left to say is that even if you're not a writer, the lesson above applies to everyone, because we all must communicate continually with the outside world. If you find yourself frequently being misunderstood, it is very often because of your own assumptions. You are in your head, assuming other people know what you are talking about or referring to when in fact they don't. Be the unusual man: think about things from the other guy's perspective: what does he need from you? This will pull you out of yourself (which has the side effect, oddly enough, of making you happier) and make you far more effective as a communicator, as you will be more observant and become more observant through practice. Notice this, too. The #1 fear most people have is public speaking? Why? Because everyone is looking at them. They are self-conscious. Getting through this, which is merely a matter of publicly speaking a few times for most people, allows you to get to where you lose your focus on yourself (which is all self-consciousness is, even when it seems to come from the outside) and to focus on what the audience needs from you, and how to put it in the best form. You can see what I mean here: all these things show angles on the same common problem. Getting stuff out of our heads and putting it under the table under bright light so that we and the other guy can clearly see what we are talking about, and have the same basic picture in our heads. That is successfully contexted communication. You will hear that writing is self-expression, but that is quite wrong. Of course it is, inevitably, as we are all different, but writing is not onanism; there are other people involved, and their needs should come ahead of the writer's, for he is writing for them. He may write in the style he prefers, so that he will reach those who are more naturally of his mental bent, but no matter which particular style he follows or naturally expresses, the need to ask the basic questions and prepare the basic setting in which the communication plays out are always there, waiting to be met, by successful writers, or ignored, by defective expressivists, to be redundant. The world doesn't need more ee cummings; one is rather enough. Still another angle on or example of the same basic problem is the grammatical failure known as unclear antecedent. That's a pronoun such as it or they where no noun has been used. Now often enough the reader may get the gist, but often enough he can't. Either way it's a mistake. "Is what's clear in my head clear to the reader?" Ask yourself this repeatedly. Read what you've written. Can an average reader make sense of it? If not, then you must clarify. Put yourself in the innocent reader's chair, and what you need to know will guide you to both the things you need to say and the best way to say them.

Set your reader up for success by constructing for him the context he needs to understand (and then evaluate) the information you provide. That is one of your principal duties as a writer.

Last edited by Alex Linder; February 24th, 2014 at 06:06 AM.