The Writing Context
Writing does not occur in a vacuum. All writing occurs in
a context formed by the writer's purpose, reader's needs and
expectations, discipline or discourse community, and nature
of the document. To understand your audience, consider your
readers' perceptual world.
The term "perceptual world" refers to the way people perceive
events and information, the way they respond to what they
see, hear, and experience. Political pollsters and marketing
executives study the perceptual worlds of voters and consumers.
Lawyers hire jury experts who study how jurors will respond
to potential testimony.
The perceptual world is often represented as a circle or
pie chart consisting of several slices because all of these
factors act simultaneously and automatically. Differences
in perceptual worlds explain why people react differently
to the same movie or why one person laughs at a joke another
finds offensive and other thinks is inane.
Elements of the Perceptual World
- past experiences -- people tend to evaluate
new experiences based on previous experience. A labor union
with a long history of conflict and bitter strikes will
view a management proposal differently than one with a record
of cordial contract negotiations. Your attitudes toward
the opposite sex, jobs, banks, car dealers are all shaped
in part by your personal experiences.
- age -- obviously teenagers have different
interests, values, and concerns than their parents and grandparents.
All of us are shaped by generational experiences. People
who came of age in the 1960s respond differently than those
who lived through the Depression and World War II.
- status -- people who have a lot invested
in existing programs, institutions, and society have more
to lose than those with little investment at risk. An eighteen
year old is less concerned about changes in Social Security
payments than a sixty-four year old anticipating receiving
a check in a few months.
- reference groups -- all of us respect
the opinions of others, especially if we have trouble making
a decision on our own. A doctor unsure of prescribing a
new drug may defer to the opinion of the AMA. In making
a decision about buying a new car, you might ask advice
from your mechanic and a cousin who sells cars.
- education -- people interpret events
and ideas in terms of their knowledge base. The more educated
a person is, the more comparisons he or she can make to
analyze a new experience or situation. Many people have
specialized training in examining data, interpreting statistics,
and making evaluations of proposed ideas.
- occupation -- career experiences provide
people with distinct ways of looking at the world. Defense
attorneys and police officers have different views of the
justice system. A fast food operator and a gourmet resaurateur
have different views of customer service. But a Broadway
choreographer and an NFL coach might have strikingly similar
attitudes toward leadership and teamwork.
- social norms -- people have varying attitudes
toward social behavior. Attitudes toward spending money,
drinking, gambling, jobs, serving in the military, and sexual
behavior greatly influence the way people respond to ideas
- values -- religious beliefs, political
philosophies, and membership in professional and social
organizations influence people's attitudes and responses.
- gender -- men and women view certain
issues differently based on their socialization, common
experiences, and biology. More women than men might be expected
to show an interest in childcare.
- culture -- the collective experience,
shared values, artistic expression, and social prominence
of Jews, the Irish, African Americans, and Japanese Americans
have created cultural differences in the way people view
government policies, American institutions, and corporations.
- roles -- the responsibilities people
bear in society greatly influence their thinking. Parents
have added concerns than their friends without children.
In planning to persuade your readers, consider their perceptual
world -- how will they respond to your ideas? What examples
or evidence will influence them? What emotional appeal will
work? Which historical references will they understand? What
comments should you avoid?
In looking at the perceptual world of your readers, avoid
biased judgements or basing conclusions on stereotypes. Not
all African Americans think alike. Not all business executives
oppose labor unions. Not all rock musicians tolerate drug
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Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark