Write for the Strategic Reader
Assume a reader who chooses what to read, how to read, and reads the article interpretively as an organized whole.
by Gerald Grow
In the early 1990s, I studied how to write better by studying how people understand what they read. This effort is detailed in a conference paper, Serving the Strategic Reader: Cognitive Reading Theory and its Implications for the Teaching of Writing (about 7500 words), available here.
The basic theme I developed can be stated this way:
- The world is not given: we interpret, construct, even imagine it.
- We use knowledge to recall some things verbatim, reconstruct the gist of other things, and infer other things we never literally learned.
- In addition, we use knowledge to guide our perceptions, strategies, and comprehension of new experiences and information.
- People seek information in order to create mental constructs, to confirm those mental constructs, and to modify those constructs so that they fit more closely with experience.
In a nutshell: Cognition is an active, recursive, integrated process by which we continuously model the world and continuously modify the model.
Readers are selective, active, and strategic. They understand what they read in terms of what they already know — and what they read may modify what they know.
Readers activate strategies for managing their approach to a text, along with schemas for interpreting it. Readers may modify the strategy of reading and shift the context of interpretation as they go.
New information becomes meaningful only as it is interconnected with meaningful patterns that the reader already knows.
When new information is interconnected with the old in meaningful patterns, it becomes knowledge–and it can then be recalled, applied, reasoned with, extended by inference, and used to filter new perceptions.
Readers do not “receive” information. They approach knowledge in the context of the entire world of their experience, and they turn away with that world confirmed, modified, extended, or challenged.
Vocabulary — so essential to reading — comes from a knowledge of how the world works, not from what words mean.
What follows is the the writing advice that came out of that study. Out of place, some of it may seem cryptic. So, if you want more, refer to the full paper cited above (where you will also find a reference list).
Signal the organization of your text
1. Write an article that makes its structure clear, signals that structure consistently, and encourages readers to learn a strategy for processing articles structured in such a manner.
What is signaled: type of article, section-by-section organization, organization of sentences and paragraphs.
Signal the learning-purpose of your article
2. Signal how you think this article relates to what readers already know. Indicate what you think will be the relation between this article and the reader’s existing schemas, to further prepare reader to construct meaning from the article:
Accretion (assimilation) — adds new content to a pattern the reader already knows. Asks the reader to recall a known pattern and learn a new instance of it.
Tuning (accommodation)–changes the way reader knows something. Asks reader to recall a pattern and modify it.
Restructuring–adds a new way of knowing. Asks reader to learn, remember, and use a new way of organizing knowledge.
Dissonance–challeges reader’s view. Asks reader to recall a familiar pattern and accept an inexplicable instance that does not fit that pattern.
Confirmation–confirms reader’s knowledge. Asks reader to recall a pattern and recognize that it has been validated. Sometimes the pattern undergoes an apparent challenge before finally being confirmed. (Entertainment is based on confirmation.)
(There may be others.)
Write for the strategic reader
3. Clearly identify what audience this article is for. Layout, headlines, subheads, pull quotes, and graphics should accomplish this. Your immediate signals (title, subtitle, opening, tone) should enable readers to decide whether to skip this article, skim it, or settle down to read it with care.
4. Assume and encourage a strategic reader who chooses what, when, and how to read, reads interpretively, and interprets the article as an organized whole. Honor thy reader.
5. Write not only for those who read in a continuous manner, but also for those who scan, sample, and read in a recursive and non-linear manner. For example, first references to all names that appear later in the article might be put in bold, so strategic readers who begin in the middle of the article can quickly understand who is being quoted.
6. Write to be decoded by standard cognitive strategies familiar to readers. Note that this advice reverses the usual approach– to “write clearly and simply” — by shifting attention from the writing to the reading. What is “clear and simple” depends on who the audience is.
7. Model and facilitate cognitive strategies such as categorizing, connecting ideas, evaluating evidence, clarifying, problem-solving, reflecting, analyzing, synthesizing.
8. Reward the reader who uses metacognitive strategies, by helping that reader decide what to read, find key words or summaries and identify the structure and context of the article before reading it. One of the major roles of layout is to facilitate such metacognitive processing.
9. Model and encourage thinking. (Critical, analytical, creative, interpersonal, spatial, etc.)
10. Use advance organizers (e.g., summaries or opening questions) and other devices to focus attention, give an overview, and define context (including graphic devices).
11. Address misunderstandings that might arise from readers interpreting your article in an inappropriate context. (Establish context, clarify confusable terms, places, names, or events.)
12. Make your subject clear. Announce the article’s categories of concern, using headlines, subheads, sidebars, boxes, frames, infographics, or other devices.
13. Without doing all of it for them, assist readers in abstracting the gist of the article. Help them distinguish levels of importance (or levels of detail), distinguish important from less-important information, and locate information that is relevant to their perspectives.
14. Anticipate misunderstandings that might arise from readers interpreting the article in an inappropriate context (perhaps by clarifying confusable terms, places, names, or events).
15. Help readers distinguish between information which should merely be noted and information which deserves to be thought through, digested, and remembered.
Activate the reader
16. Set the stage and prime your reader. Establish the context for the information in the article and encourage readers to activate their schemas which provide background knowledge, relevant vocabulary, and strategies of interpretation. Graphics and layout are major tools for activating schemas–including such devices as subheads, pull-quotes, and context-setting sidebars.
17. Help readers connect and elaborate. Through such devices as transitions and paragraph labels, clearly indicate how different parts of the writing connect with one another. Also give the reader ways to increase the connections between the new and the known, so the new becomes integrated into the reader’s knowledge structure.
Create cognitive motivation
18. Create a gap and fill it. Help readers identify a gap (between what they know and what they want to know, or between the way they imagine something and how it actually is) and create a spark of motivation to fill that gap.
19. Make the information meaningful (instead of just presenting information). Information becomes meaningful when it is richly interconnected with what the reader previously knew, and when the reader can access it as needed.
Promote synthesis, meaning, values, and culture
20. Post-processing–Try to make up for the lack of interaction with readers by simulating feedback, interaction, and post-processing. Post-processing includes such activities as discussion, summarization, self-testing, thinking things over, reacting, reaching a different conclusion, and making a synthesis.
21. Digests–Provide regular summaries, digests, or commentaries to which the readers can compare their evolving syntheses.
22. Interactive synthesis–Write in a manner that invites interaction. For example, make your biases clear so readers can compensate for them or argue with them.
23. Meaning–Regularly write articles that attempt to come to terms with recent news and create meaning from it. Mirror and support readers’ efforts to make meaning in their own lives.
24. Models–Regularly feature individuals and groups who are themselves active, strategic interpreters and creators of our shared world (in contrast to focusing primarily on victims).
25. Values–Identify and promote essential values. Identify value conflicts, maintain and renew a vocabulary for discussing values, and where appropriate, present information in relation to values.
26. Shared Schemas–Encourage a common interpretive pool of shared schemas by the way each article creates, activates, services, modifies, and refers to the shared interpretive schemas of the readership. In this way, cultivate a citizenry and a core of common culture.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net