Identify the circumstances surrounding the writing project. What is going on in the world at large that relates to how you develop and present your project?

Context refers to the occasion, or situation, that informs the reader about why a document was written and how it was written. The way writers shape their texts is dramatically influenced by their context. Writers decide how to shape their sentences by considering their contexts.

For example, the 9/11 terrorist attack on America changed the context for discussions on terrorism. When Americans talk about terrorism post-9/11, they understand the borders of America are threatened, that terrorism can occur in our homes.

Contexts are sometimes described as formal, semi-formal, or informal. Alternatively, contexts for written documents can be described as school-based projects or work-based projects.

Why Is Context Important?

The context for each document strongly affects how you research your topic, how you organize your context, and what media you employ to deliver your message.

Content/Research

What does your reader know about the topic? Will original research be necessary? Will traditional research suffice? Will your audience be persuaded by personal knowledge? Will they require facts and figures?

For example, if you were writing a report on the possibility that Iraq is amassing weapons of mass destruction and your audience were members of the United Nations, you would want to firmly ground your argument in research.

Media/Design

Should the work be published online or transmitted as a printed report? What colors or pictures are appropriate?

Grammar, Mechanics, Usage

The way you structure your sentences is influenced by how formal or informal your context is. Email, for example, tends to be informal. Lots of emoticons and abbreviated expressions can be used. In contrast, an end-of-the-semester research report may require formal diction.

Context Analysis Questions

  • What is going on in the world of the readers that will influence the readers' thoughts and feelings about the document?
  • Does the intellectual content of the document rest on the shoulders of other authors? Will your readers expect you to mention particular scholars or researchers who did the original, ground-breaking work on the subject you are exploring?
  • What background information can you assume your reader is already familiar with?