In writing, context refers to information that helps readers accurately interpret the meaning of a text. Context can take many forms, including background information or details about the circumstances, environment, or timeframe in which a work takes place. The defining characteristic of context is that it helps to clarify the meaning of a work of writing.
There are several types of context, including cultural, historical, physical, and rhetorical.
Culture refers to the traditions, beliefs, customs, and way of life specific to a particular group of people. Culture can be associated with a specific nationality, race, geographic area, or religion, just to name a few examples. Having insight into the culture of the characters in a novel or other work of writing provides important insights relevant to interpreting the story or situation. For example:
- A book or story about growing up will be very different if the main character’s culture is one that values independence and making one’s own way in the world as opposed to one in which young people are expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents.
- A news story written by a reporter in a country that values free and unbiased journalism where the legal structure guarantees freedom of the press is likely to be very different from one in which the government controls the news media or journalists can be punished for speaking out about certain issues.
Historical context refers to what was going on in the world during the timeframe in which a work is set or was written. It involves factors like economic conditions, societal norms of the day, major events, technological advancements, etc. For example:
- A research paper or book written about the possibility and potential impact of pandemics after the Covid-19 pandemic is over will have a very different historical context than works on the same topic created during an earlier time.
- If you are studying the impact of war on families, knowing when a source was written is relevant to interpreting the information provided. The perspective of a book or article written in the World War II era (1939 - 1945) will be very different from one written during or shortly after Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991).
Physical context refers to the setting in which a work of writing takes place. It is the physical environment in which the story, or an event within the story, occurs.
- A book about surviving on your own in a huge, densely populated city will be very different from a book on the same topic that is set in a remote rural location.
- A romance novel that focuses on a relationship that develops between college students who attend school together has a very different physical context than one in which partners who live in different cities meet online and maintain a long distance relationship
The rhetorical context refers to the circumstances under which a particular piece of writing is created. It includes factors such as who the author is, the purpose of or occasion for the writing, and its intended audience. For example:
- The rhetorical context of a work created for a class assignment that will likely only be read by the writer’s teacher is very different from an editorial opinion piece on an issue the author is passionate about that will be published to a broad audience via a news outlet.
- A press release written by a company’s marketing or public relations department has a very different rhetorical context than a product review written by an independent reviewer who is not being paid by the company that manufactures or sells the product.
Context adds richness to a work of literature and helps to truly engage readers in the text. Context is important to writers and readers alike. It is essential to accurately conveying (writers) and understanding (readers) the meaning of a work of writing.
- When writers include contextual information, they are providing details that make it easier for readers to process and accurately interpret the text.
- When readers consider factors relevant to the context of the work, whether or not such factors are specifically stated, they are able to look at the text through the lens of a relevant perspective.
Without context, a book, essay, or other text doesn’t provide the reader with a framework for interpreting the concepts or ideas presented in the work.
While context may not be directly woven into the dialogue of a story, it is the backdrop over which the story takes place. Whether you’re reading or writing a work of literature, a research paper, an essay, or a fact-based work of nonfiction, don’t overlook the importance of context. When an author’s words are considered out of context, misunderstanding is likely to be the result. Now that you are knowledgeable about context, discover other concepts that help convey meaning in writing, such as connotation, symbolism, and syntax.