Some Notes about the Written Environment

As with some earlier comments, what follows is lightly adapted from materials I’d generated for teaching. The institution obliged then-current APA standards, which I retain here. I continue to hope people will find it useful…

The environment in which written communication exists is a complex one, consisting of many parts that connect with one another in myriad ways. No single model can encompass all of the complexities—at least, not and remain a useful model—so that which appears below is necessarily incomplete. It does, however, usefully highlight a number of points that bear in on the kind of writing students in first-year composition classes—and others—are asked to do.

What follows lays out a simple, initial model before proceeding through an early complication thereof and into still more complexity. Reference information concludes.

True even for this.
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A Simple Model

At its simplest, the environment of written communication can be conceived of as containing three elements:

  • Writer
  • Text
  • Reader

That is, there are the writer, the thing written, and the recipient of what is written. It is a sensible model, one easily accessible, and one that fits the dominant motif of triplets that seems to pervade rhetorical study. It is only a starting point, however—and no advancement comes to those who remain at the beginning.

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A First Complication

Experience teaches that matters are not so simple as they might initially appear—and one of the early complications is that things inevitable get in the way. One term that might usefully apply to such things is interference, literally “that carried in amidst” or what intrudes from outside to inhibit or hinder the easy development, transmission, and receipt of the written message.

Interference can apply at all points of juncture. That is, it can come into play wherever any of the parts of the environment of written communication touch. In that sense, it is like friction, in which all mechanical actions lose energy—and interference, indeed, interferes with the message coming to be, getting where it needs to go, and being understood.

The writing model, with the complication of interference introduced, then becomes:

  • Interference
  • Writer
  • Interference
  • Text
  • Interference
  • Reader

While it might seem strange to note interference before the writer, it is often the case that things get in the way before the writer begins to write. Perhaps the writer is hungry or thirsty, tired, or subject to other physical demands. Perhaps the writer is instead distracted by family concerns or other work that needs to be done. Perhaps the writer is experiencing the commonplace of writer’s block, daunted by what writing lore calls “the tyranny of the blank page.”

The last begins to be something that appears between the writer and the text, as well. And there are other such interfering concerns to find. Perhaps the writer seeks to type out a paper, but the keyboard does not work—or a cat walks across it or even sleeps upon it. Perhaps the pen to be used is out of ink, or the pencil’s lead breaks. Perhaps the calligraphy brush sheds its hair, or the paper tears. A cup of coffee overturned certainly keeps writing from occurring as might be desired.

Or perhaps the writer needs to find some particular word, but cannot recall it. Perhaps a turn of phrase reads awkwardly, and staring at it to figure out how it might be fixed stalls the fixture of words to the page. Or some bit of knowledge needs finding—and it eludes or else leads to the research rapture described so convincingly by Pigeon (2013). Or any number of other things could intrude between the writer and the text, no less than in between the world and the writer.

Some of the writer’s concerns will apply to the reader, too. Readers are afflicted by hunger and thirst and lust and fatigue; they are enmeshed in concerns of family and work; they are distracted by other things. Perhaps they lack contextual knowledge to make sense of what is written, whether in being unfamiliar with the intellectual underpinnings of what is written or in not knowing what words are used—and in trying to find out, they fall into their own instantiations of research rapture. Or, again, any number of other things can intrude, coming between the text and the reader.

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More Complexity

Another set of lecture notes forecasts one of the additional complications that can intrude into a model of written communication: varying levels of readership. There are other such concerns, as well, expanding on the writer, the text, and the readership—about which more below.

Such complexity. Much wow.
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A More Complicated Writer

Clearly, without a writer, there will be no text, and so no reader, because nothing to read. Yet the writer is not a unitary entity. As other lecture notes suggest, the writer exists within a network or framework sketched out by demographic factors—and pursuing those leads to an even more complex model of written communication than can be reasonably presented here. But what can be presented here are concerns borrowed from literary study (itself a refinement and extension of writing study, to be sure), namely those of the authorial personal and the narrator.

The authorial persona is that set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors adopted by the writer for the purposes of undertaking the act of writing. The concept emerges from that of performativity, the idea that people take on roles as if acting when doing the various things they do, adapting or attempting to adapt to social situations in conscious or subconscious hopes of navigating them successfully. Plainly, people act differently with different sets of people in different circumstances—and all of those acts are roles played, rather than the real person playing them.

Writing is no different. When they set out to write, writers approach the task with notions about what writing is and what writers are and do, and those notions necessarily constrain them in some ways and focus their attentions in others. What those constraints and foci are depend upon the writer’s background and experience, certainly, and they act as a particular lens or filter through which the writer writes. That they come between the writer and the text may make them appear to be interference, but in that they enable to production of a coherent, cohesive work of writing, they are facilitative rather than interfering.

The narrator is, to make things simple, the voice through which the words are spoken. It is the specific perspective through which the text and its information are presented, and it will emerge from the narrative persona and its consideration of audiences, materials, and circumstances. Discussions of narration typically focus on personal perspective—that is, is the narration first person, giving an embedded account of events, or is it third person, giving a dissociated account—limitation—how much the narrator knows, and how much the narrator shows—and reliability—how much the narrator can be trusted. Scholarly writing typically seeks to deploy a mildly limited reliable narrator—it says what it knows and what it does not know, and it tries to convey its ethos.

Whether scholarly writing adopts first or third person, however, depends on the discipline and purpose. Some fields—typically those in “hard” sciences and areas that emulate them—strive for objectivity and so draft their prose in third person. Others, chiefly among the humanities, work with personal concerns in any event, and they acknowledge that much of their work comes from direct experience—so they make use of first-person perspectives.

One Textual Complexity of Many

Other lecture notes make mention of paratextual concerns. That is, they note, however briefly, that the situation of words conveys meaning no less certainly than do the words themselves. Any number of such concerns can receive attention, and for sound reasons (McLuhan, 1964). A few are likely to attract attention for first-year writers.

One such is medium, the venue through which the text is presented. Whether a text is physical or digital, whether it is a book or magazine, a newspaper or a journal, a blog or a database article, matters in terms of how it will present its ethos—as well as in other ways that can be meaningfully explored elsewhere.

Another is the quality of the page. Whether the text is physical or digital, the quality of the page on which it appears influences its ethos—as well as the access readers have to it. Both impact how its meaning will be received.

Similarly determinative of access are the characteristics of the type. Size, color, font, and other such formatting concerns call attention and dissuade it, bespeak importance and its lack, and even allow those who have visual learning differences such as dyslexia greater or lesser access to the words.

Other visual features such as pictures, diagrams, charts, and graphs also influence what meanings emerge from the text and for whom they do. Their presence or absence, as well as their quality if present, should be considered in addition to the overt information presented.

Complicated Readership

Other lecture notes also, following Johnson-Sheehan (2014), make mention of a four-fold readership: gatekeeper, primary, secondary, and tertiary. The first of these, gatekeepers, introduces several points of complication—in addition to each level of reader imposing its own, as noted above.

Any number of gatekeepers can come between the text and its expected primary and secondary readers, as well as the uncountable tertiary readers that could take a look at the text. One such might be a translator, who work to bring the text from its original language into a target language—and the translator’s background will influence what words and phrases are used to render what, changing the words presented and therefore the text as a whole. Also, the translator will possibly have advisors, whose advice might well also change the words given.

Another gatekeeper, more common than the translator, will be the legal advisors associated with the production of text. The intervention of lawyers is amply attested; little can be added here, save to note that they do come into the matter.

Also more common, and more needed, is the editor of a text. Whether the writer serves to edit her or his own text—and many do—or another editor entirely looks at the piece, someone will (or ought to) look at the text to ensure that it conforms to expected usage standards—whatever those may be.

Additionally, there is the publisher to consider—as well as the publisher’s advisors. They decide what gets out and how, and even self-published works will have such decisions made about them. The decision to permit or bar access is a mighty one, and it must also be considered.

And then, of course, what happens for the primary reader once the gatekeepers have let the text through, as with any other juncture, can interfere.

A Working Model

At the end of such discussion, then, but not at the end of what can be considered, a model of written communication can be looked at thus:

  • Interference
  • Writer
    • Authorial Persona
    • Narrator
  • Interference
  • Text
    • Paratext
      • Medium
      • Page Quality
      • Type Characteristics
      • Other Visuals
  • Interference
  • Gatekeepers
    • Translator
      • Translator’s Advisor/s
    • Legal Advisor/s
    • Editor
    • Publisher
      • Publisher’s Advisor/s
  • Interference
  • Primary Reader
  • Secondary Reader
  • Tertiary Reader

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References

  • Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2014) Technical communication strategies for today (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Pidgeon, S. (2013, January 5). Rapturous research. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/rapturous-research/

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I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written below, and we’ll talk–or send along your kind contribution here!

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