Let’s Put It in Context

Beatles Revolver AlbumDuring a discussion about music with some students the other day, I admitted I have trouble picking out the words in songs. Voices tend to become instruments. Even after 50 years, I still don’t know the lyrics to most Beatles songs.

“I don’t like the Beatles,” a metal lover said. “They’re too happy.”

Immediately “Eleanor Rigby” popped into my head.

I got to thinking about it later. For someone who has grown up in an environment of heavy metal, electronic technology, and a wide range of musical styles, the Beatles might seem very tame indeed.

Of course, he was viewing them out of context.

If I magically transported him back to 1966 and showed him what life was like 50 years ago, he would understand how really radical the Revolver album was. No one was doing what the Beatles were doing on the scale they were doing it.

How do we put our writing into context for our readers? How do we surround our ideas with the environmental nuances they need for full understanding? How do we pick the words that will give our readers the proper “flavor”?

We all know how context keeps us out of trouble. Here are my suggestions for providing it:

  • It’s all about the audience. Know what your audience doesn’t know and provide the information they need.
  • The audience doesn’t need to know everything. Just provide what is needed for understanding. If you try to cram all the information down your readers’ throats, they’ll gag on it.
  • Try to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. I was a little shocked at the term “too happy” for the Beatles, but once I looked at it from my student’s perspective, it made sense. Changing your perspective helps you understand your audience.
  • Use relevant vocabulary. You wouldn’t use Elizabethan English for dialog among inner city youths or Ebonics for a business presentation. Sometimes it is hard to know what words are best. The slightest shade of meaning can affect how the reader views things. That’s part of revision and the struggle to be a good writer.
  • Use words to paint a mental picture. We’re visual animals, even more so now that we can’t escape visual technologies. It is important to use description and examples to help illustrate ideas, to connect with the reader.

Sometimes, especially in everyday business writing, we forget how important context is to good communication.  We can avoid misunderstanding by providing a mental setting for our ideas.


Weekend Wrinkle: That’s Not Normal!

Re-posted from “The Word Tweaker’s Tipsheet.”

Curtis trotted into the house, dropped his backpack at the back door, and charged into the kitchen. He was starving after a busy but productive day at school.

On the counter, sitting in the middle of a plate, was a big chocolate chip cookie, his favorite. Next to it was a note: “Went to the store. Be right back. Mom.”

Curtis smiled. The crease along the middle of the cookie meant it was homemade.

“Yum!” he thought as he reached for his treat.

When his fingers were an inch from his cookie, an eye opened up in the middle of it! Curtis froze in disbelief. The green, watery eye in the cookie considered Curtis calmly. Then it blinked.Eye in Chocolate Chip Cookie

 Almost on its own, Curtis’s body turned and flew to the door. He tripped over his backpack, picked himself up, and ran screaming into the street.

The best horror stories are the ones that take something totally innocuous and turn it into something surreal.

Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, like things to be “normal.” They don’t like things challenging their expectations – except when they want to be entertained.

As we head toward Halloween, we expect the unusual, even crave it. We seek out the abnormal – in carefully controlled and choreographed circumstances, of course.

Writers often think outside the norm. They look at things and can see the unexpected or unusual. They put these different perspectives before the public and help change the way people look at life. Sometimes it’s temporary, but the best writers will show us a different side of things that stays with us, sometimes haunts us.

Writers should pat themselves on the back. The world needs their differentness; it keeps us honest.

Just think of that the next time you reach for a chocolate chip cookie!