What is Context in Writing?

Jeremy Cook, Amanda Carlisle
  • Author
    Jeremy Cook

    Jeremy taught elementary school for 18 years in in the United States and in Switzerland. He has a Masters in Education from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He's taught grades 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8. His strength is in educational content writing and technology in the classroom

  • Instructor
    Amanda Carlisle

    Amanda teaches high school and college English. She has a bachelor's degree in literature and a master's in English.

What is context in writing? What is the context of a story? Learn the context definition and context meaning, and see context examples and types of context. Updated: 07/09/2021

What is Context in Writing?

Context in writing is the type of setting in which a piece of writing in written and often provides clarity for the message that the writing is intending to convey. It is used to help inform the reader as to why a writer has written a piece of writing. The use of context in writing is vital to making sure that a written piece can connect with the readers with whom it's intended to connect. Some pieces of writing have obvious contexts and others need analysis and comprehension strategies to glean the true context. Either way, context is a central building block for writers and cannot be taken lightly while producing any type of written work.

Etymology and History

The word context traces back to the fifth century and has its origins in the Latin language. The word is derived from the Latin word contextus which translates to joining or combining together. The idea of joining together in literature can be seen as the overall context of the book joining together the characters, settings and ideas in the book. When context is used in reference to writing, there are other words that are synonyms that can help to better understand what context means. The following is a list of words that have similar meanings to the word context.

  • background
  • setting
  • framework
  • backdrop
  • contexture
  • situation

What is Context?

Context helps readers understand what they otherwise wouldn't be able to comprehend. It is a much-needed assistant, helping readers define unknown words and make sense of outside information.

In writing, it is often necessary to provide new words, concepts and information to help develop a thought. For example, maybe you need to include a fact to support your claim or a quote to better illustrate your analysis of a literary work. Whenever you use a fact or quote from another source, it is important that you tell the reader a bit about that information first. This is what we mean by context. You need to literally surround that piece of information with text that illuminates its meaning and relevancy. That is why context, when broken down, literally means 'with text.' It helps readers understand that which otherwise, they wouldn't be able to comprehend.

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Context: Role and Function

Context is very important to writing because it functions as a gateway or a conduit that connects the author to the reader. Proper context helps expand the themes in the story and gives the reader a deeper insight into the mind of the writer and the reasons why the writer chose to write the piece the way they did. The role that context plays in writing becomes very important and proper care must be taken to ensure it is being handled properly. The role that context plays is based on the considerations that are taken by the author with regards to how they wish the story to be received. Sometimes the author is focused on the reader and other times they are focused on their own experiences. So what kinds of roles do context play and what considerations are made because of the role?

Writer's Experience

When a writer influences a storyline through their own experience or point of view, the role of context is to bring the reader into the mind of the writer and let them connect with what the writer has already seen. This type of context requires some potential background knowledge from the reader. An example of this contextual role would be the influence of World War II had on C.S Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia stories. When the readers knows the context of the war with regards to the stories, it helps to better connect the reader to the ideas that Lewis was trying to portray.

C.S Lewis used the context his personal experiences during World War II to shape the characters and storylines in his famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Chronicle of Narnia

Reader's Experience

When a writer decides to write based on the context of their intended audience, then the role of context is quite different. Instead of the reader being connected to the story through the experiences of the writer, the writer becomes connected to the readers by understanding the context they experience. An example of this type of contextual role can be seen in many young adult books. Almost all books written for young adults are written by adults, but the authors try to write from the perspective of a teenager. A book that highlights this example is a book called A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher. The author is an adult writing from the perspective of a young boy in a post-apocalyptic world.

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Types of Context

Rhetorical Context

Rhetorical context is the most basic of the four types described in the lesson. Rhetorical context is the considerations made with regards to following:

  • Purpose of the writing - Why is the piece being written? This essentially boils down to author's purpose.
  • Audience - Who is the piece of writing for? The intended audience is a big part of rhetorical context and shapes the piece.
  • Subject matter - What is the piece about? The subject of the writing is another key to developing the piece.

An example of rhetorical writing would be a doctor writing a paper about his findings on a disease. The doctor's purpose is to inform their readers who they know are going to be other doctors because the subject matter is medical.

Historical Context

Historical context centers around providing historical information about a given time period or historical event. Authors can write about the way people of a time period felt, acted, spoke, and dressed to help the readers better understand the underlying motivations of characters and the interactions of the different plot lines throughout the work. It gives readers an insight into the culture of the time and lets them feel how it was to live in their shoes.

  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a novel written by author John Boyne and takes place at Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. The power of the novel and its story come from its historical context and the horrors of the treatment of Jews during World War II.

The concentration camp at Auschwitz is often used for cultural context with stories written about the Holocaust.

Auschwitz

Context in Action

Including context means providing the reader with the situation, a background picture of where the piece of information came from and what or who is involved. If you are writing a book review and you need to include an excerpt from the text, then you'll need to tell the reader a) the situation, b) the setting and c) the speaker (if applicable) at the time of the quote.

Here is a quote from William Golding's Lord of the Flies: 'Maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).

As a reader, this excerpt makes little sense. Who is the 'he?' Who is the 'beast?' Why is 'he' wondering about the 'beast?' Is he afraid? Intrigued? Making a joke? Without context, we have no idea. Here is the same quote, but this time with context - the situation, setting and speaker - clearly identified:

While stranded on a deserted island, a group of boys believe there is a dangerous creature lurking in the underbrush; Simon is the first to identify this menace, suggesting to the boys that 'maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).

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Video Transcript

What is Context?

Context helps readers understand what they otherwise wouldn't be able to comprehend. It is a much-needed assistant, helping readers define unknown words and make sense of outside information.

In writing, it is often necessary to provide new words, concepts and information to help develop a thought. For example, maybe you need to include a fact to support your claim or a quote to better illustrate your analysis of a literary work. Whenever you use a fact or quote from another source, it is important that you tell the reader a bit about that information first. This is what we mean by context. You need to literally surround that piece of information with text that illuminates its meaning and relevancy. That is why context, when broken down, literally means 'with text.' It helps readers understand that which otherwise, they wouldn't be able to comprehend.

Context in Action

Including context means providing the reader with the situation, a background picture of where the piece of information came from and what or who is involved. If you are writing a book review and you need to include an excerpt from the text, then you'll need to tell the reader a) the situation, b) the setting and c) the speaker (if applicable) at the time of the quote.

Here is a quote from William Golding's Lord of the Flies: 'Maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).

As a reader, this excerpt makes little sense. Who is the 'he?' Who is the 'beast?' Why is 'he' wondering about the 'beast?' Is he afraid? Intrigued? Making a joke? Without context, we have no idea. Here is the same quote, but this time with context - the situation, setting and speaker - clearly identified:

While stranded on a deserted island, a group of boys believe there is a dangerous creature lurking in the underbrush; Simon is the first to identify this menace, suggesting to the boys that 'maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a context?

Context in the setting, environment or period which writing is built on. An example of context would be the novel Lord of the Flies, which has a strong physical context of a deserted island and the need for survival.

What is context in writing?

Context in writing is the setting or backdrop in which the story is written. The context could be historical, physical, cultural or rhetorical.

What's another word for context?

There are many synonyms of the word context, but the most direct synonyms are background, setting, framework, backdrop, contexture, situation

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