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What Is Context?
The definition of context is the setting within which a work of writing is situated. Context provides meaning and clarity to the intended message. Context clues in a literary work create a relationship between the writer and reader, giving a deeper understanding of the intent and direction of the writing. Literary context is background information or circumstances you provide to inform why something is taking place; context can also be the backstory of a character, provided to inform their behavior and personality.
4 Types of Context in Writing
There are multiple types of context in writing that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the material. Here are a few examples:
- Historical context: Providing the time period and its current events can inform the general mood of the era, setting the stage for the tone of your piece of writing and creating an understanding of the society at the time. Historical context can inform the atmosphere for your audience, giving them context for how people felt and behaved during that period in history, the clothing styles of the time, or even the specific word choice (like slang) that was used in that era.
- Physical context: The attributes of a place can also inform how a plot unfolds or how characters develop. The physical environment you establish for your writing will influence how certain characters act and how the audience understands them. A couple breaking up at a football game will be a much different scene than them breaking up during a movie. A story about characters escaping a natural disaster in New York City will have a different setup than if they were escaping one in Wisconsin. Your environment can dictate how a plot unfolds, but it’s important to provide readers with enough detail for them to understand why.
- Cultural context: Beliefs, religion, marriage, food, and clothing, are all elements of cultural context that sometimes need to be provided in order to fully understand an author’s story. For example, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club includes social context with the writer’s experience, providing background information to those who are unfamiliar with the traditions of Chinese-American culture, which is integral in the reader's understanding of this family’s traditions and beliefs. Without expressing the fears or expectations embedded in the culture you’re writing about, a divide is created with those unfamiliar, forming a gap between the reader and writer and potentially losing your audience.
- Situational context: Situational context is why something is happening based on the event itself. For instance, someone on a first date might be more nervous than they would be when out with a friend—or a family may act more aggressively towards one another when they’re playing a board game than when they’re having a legitimate disagreement. With situational context, the audience is able to understand how the circumstances of the event occurring affect those involved.
Why Is Context Important in Writing?
The role of context is to bridge the gap between authors and their audiences, strengthening readers’ comprehension and preventing miscommunication of the writer’s intent. It’s not enough to know that a particular event is occurring—readers also need context to know why. For example, the themes of William Golding's Lord of the Flies—in which a group of boys is stranded on a deserted island, becoming increasingly violent as they grow fearful of a dangerous creature—makes more sense within the context of the author's experiences in World War II.
3 Tips for Providing Context in Your Writing
All writing needs context in order to cement a reader’s understanding of the text and strengthen communication. Here are a few tips when including your own context:
- Get creative. When you include context, you want readers to understand where you (or your characters) are coming from. This information doesn’t have to be a straight summary—context can take the form of anecdotes, memories, life experiences, or relationships. Find creative ways to weave context into your writing in order to increase comprehension of your text.
- Remember your audience. Context is important when considering who your story is for. If your target audience is first-grade students, your contextual references should be ones that make sense and are relatable to that age group. Think about who your story is aimed towards, and consider how your language can increase the relevance of your writing and strengthen your audience’s understanding.
- Be mindful of overloading. Exposition in the beginning part of the story is how many writers provide context, but too much can slow down the pacing, muddy the overall message, or distract from the intended meaning. Heavy exposition (both in fiction and non-fiction) can lose your readers in extraneous details, many of which will not be remembered when it comes time to the main story. Include only what is necessary to understand the setting, premise, and characters, and trust your audience to put together the rest.
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