Understanding Writing Situations

The Role of Context in Shaping Purpose and Constructing Meaning

At best, any model of a writing situation will be inexact. The value of the model discussed in this guide, however, lies not in its attempt to be exact, but in its attempt to call writers' and readers' attention to the factors that can shape their interactions with texts - and, through texts, with each other. Of critical importance in this model is the role played by context-physical, social, and cultural-in shaping the decisions writers make as they compose a text and that readers make as they construct meaning from a text. For writers, context shapes -- some might argue that it actually causes -- the purposes for writing. Moreover, context affects the opportunities, requirements, and limitations that affect the choices writers make as they compose their documents. For readers, context shapes their attempt to construct meaning as they read. Physical context can enhance or diminish their ability to read the document. Social context can affect the extent to which writers and readers share common experiences and expectations about a text. Cultural context will affect the fundamental assumptions, beliefs, and aspirations that they bring to the reading of a text.

It might be tempting to consider the elements of this model -- purposes, influences, representations of readers and writers, and the various levels of context -- as relatively distinct. But the most effective use of this model of writing as a social activity lies in recognizing that these elements are intimately related with each other. As you consider the role that text plays in the attempts of writers and readers to create shared meaning through text, remember that no single element of the model can stand completely separate from the others.

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