Understanding Your Writing Context

Understanding Your Writing Context
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Many factors influence the kind of document you compose— what you write and how you express your ideas. Your writing context is an essential consideration for effective communication, and taking a few moments to reflect on the situation you find yourself in as a writer can save you time and help you draft more effective documents.

The context in which you need to write or speak—that is to say, the reason you have to communicate in the first place—impacts factors such as the style, formality, organization, formatting, and tone of your speech or document. Should you write an email… or a memo? Send a letter… or a text message? Use sophisticated vocabulary… or conversational language?

RELATED PODCAST: The Importance of Context (TWDP-001)

Understanding the writing context can help you answer those questions—and failing to consider it may lead to awkwardness or misunderstanding.

Context is a fairly broad concept that will be explored over the course of several articles. This post concerns one particular contextual consideration: how the context you find yourself in as a writer dictates what and how you write. It will examine the RAFT model—an acronym for four key factors shaped by the context of a communication—and explore document conventions, house styles, and why you should reflect on your purpose for writing in the first place.

Considering Your Own Writing Situation

Before you begin to outline your document, you should think about the reason you’re writing in the first place and who will be reading it. The answers to these questions will help you decide, among other matters, what kind of style to adopt.

While this might be a simple task in some situations—a legally-binding contract would naturally employ precise, formal language, while a letter to your grandma would likely be more friendly and colloquial—it is often beneficial to consider how best to address an issue. For example, if you have  a customer complaint, there are numerous ways to seek assistance. You might speak with a manager in person, call a customer service agent, write a business letter to the corporate office, or reach out via a tweet or Facebook message.

Which option is best depends entirely upon the circumstances of your situation—and your initial impulse might not be the most effective way to communicate.

Yellow raft carrying eight helmeted, life-jacketed white water rafters in a choppy river

Think of RAFT to recall key elements of context
CC BY 2.0 | Razvan Orendovici

RAFT (Role, Audience, Form, and Topic)

Before you draft your initial notes, think of the acronym RAFT to remember key contextual elements. RAFT stands for Role, Audience, Form, and Topic. A change in any one of these factors can impact numerous writing considerations:

  • Style (formality, vocabulary, sophistication, tone, length)
  • Organization (thesis, transitions, use of lists or bullet statements)
  • Mechanics (spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization)
  • Evidence (supporting arguments, research, citations)

Consider, for instance, a hypothetical writing situation in which you, a wireless customer, were double-charged for cell phone service on your last bill and decide to send a letter to the company to request a correction on your next statement:

ROLE: consumer
AUDIENCE: customer service department
FORM: letter
TOPIC: billing complaints

This would be a developed, formal document following the conventions of a letter: addresses, date, greeting, single-spaced paragraphs, closing, signature, typed name, formal grammar and spelling. However, you might take a more direct approach and reach out through the form of social media rather than a letter:

ROLE: consumer
AUDIENCE: customer service department
FORM: social media post or direct message (DM)
TOPIC: billing complaints

In such a case, the expectations would shift dramatically; the length would be reduced, the formality lessened, and level of detail reduced. Rather than providing details for a resolution, this communication might serve merely to open a conversation in which a resolution could be reached more quickly than with a letter, but over more separate, individual messages.

Document Types

What if it were the role that changed? Perhaps you’re writing not as a customer but as a VP or CEO of the company. In this case, the form—the type of document itself—would likely also have to change as well, since a memo would be more appropriate for an internal communication than a letter. You’d end up with this:

ROLE: upper management
AUDIENCE: customer service department
FORM: memorandum
TOPIC: billing complaints

An email or memorandum might be best for a general office announcement from an administrator to a particular department in an organization, whereas a press release and/or social media might be more appropriate for a corporate announcement to consumers. The writing context—RAFT—can help you select the most appropriate way to present your ideas, and the type of document you choose will dictate the conventions you should adhere to.

Examples of Document Conventions

Memo: a header with To, From, Date, and Subject fields; section headings; initials next to the From field

Formal business report: cover page, table of contents, executive summary, section headings, bibliography

Press release: headline, subhead, intro/lede, source/quotable, boilerplate

The kind of document you select will also shape the formatting and language you use. Academic documents tend to be formatted in double-spaced, indented paragraphs, for example, while business documents typically feature single-spaced paragraphs with no indentation but a space added between paragraphs.

In some cases, you may wish to spread the same message across different media, and you can’t just copy and paste the text from one document into another; you may have to change not only the formatting but also the content itself.

Branding Considerations and House Styles

Different organizations might have their own “house styles” that add additional wrinkles. For instance, here at The Writing Dojo, video and podcast content often incorporates anecdotes and personal narratives to help convey a message, something avoided in these less informal blog entries. Our house style is to permit the use of second-person pronouns in all three content corms, but personal (1st-person) pronouns are eschewed in the articles.

Different blogs may embrace house styles of various levels of formality, perhaps using the objective language of journalism in the case of a news outlet or consisting entirely of subjective personal musings for a product review site. These are decisions impacted by branding more so than document conventions, but nevertheless illustrate another writing context.

What’s Your Purpose?

One last point to ponder as you consider the writing context: what’s your purpose? Most documents are written for one of three main reasons: to inform, entertain, or persuade. Fictional works like novels and short stories are entertaining; a how-to instructional guide or web page about a medical ailment illustrates an informative text, and an advertisement or business letter exemplifies a persuasive writing.

While some documents may demonstrate more than one of these purposes, there is typically one main reason behind the creation of a document. For instance, a commercial may be entertaining, but that is to capture the audience’s interest and attention to facilitate its central purpose of persuading the viewer to purchase a product or service. A web page about your local municipality’s trash pickup schedule may be primarily informative but also encourage you to recycle.

Your purpose can inform your document type and vice versa. A persuasive argument (thesis) is typically what expected from an academic paper; business documents usually inform and/or persuade. Consider what your ultimate goal is and make sure you’re choosing the best format to present your ideas.

Today’s Simple Tip

Take a few moments to consider the context of your writing situation before launching into your document. Your topic/purpose, intended audience, and role as a writer all shape—and are shaped by—the kind of document you write and influence the formality, style, structure, and expectations of your writing.