Professor of Journalism
Florida A&M University
copyright © 1994, 1996
1. 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. "Here are more details in a story you are already familiar with." Or, "This commentary interprets recent events in the Middle East."
Tuning (accommodation)--changes the way reader knows something. Asks reader to recall a pattern and modify it. "The story has changed."
Restructuring--adds a new way of knowing. Asks reader to learn, remember, and use a new way of organizing knowledge. "This story requires a new way of thinking."
Dissonance--challeges reader's view. Asks reader to recall a familiar pattern and accept an inexplicable instance that does not fit that pattern. "What happened is clear, but we do not know what it means."
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. The vast bulk of all communication consists of confirmation; it is the background of the "familiar" against which the "new" stands out. For any story to communicate what is "new," it must first confirm a the knowledge shared between writer and reader. If too much is new, or too little is confirmed, the communication can become overly complex.
Much entertainment seems to be based on a formula of challenging shared assumptions, then, in the end, confirming them.
There may be other important patterns, perhaps including: "We don't know quite what is happening. This is an exploratory look."
For more, see "The Effects of New Knowledge" Use "Back" on your browser to return to this point.
2. Assume and encourage a strategic reader
who chooses what, when, and how to read, reads interpretively, and interprets
the article as an organized whole. Don't try to lure, trick, seduce, manipulate,
or control your reader. Clearly show readers how your work will be interesting
to them, without tricks, and leave them free to choose whether to read,
and how deeply.
The worst thing you can do is lure readers into an article and have them resent the time they spent on it. If you do not have anything to say that will be intrinsically interesting to a particular audience, write for somebody else. Honor Thy Reader.
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.
3. Signal the organization of your text: Write prose that makes its structure clear, signals that structure consistently, and encourages readers to learn a strategy for processing articles structured in such a manner.
When you are using a structure already familiar to readers (e.g., problem-solution, how-to), make that fact clear from the beginning. Similarly, make clear when you are taking a familiar pattern an modifying it, and when your are asking readers to follow an uncommon or new type of organization.
What is signaled: type of article, purpose, target audience, basic points and their relation to one another, section-by-section organization, organization of sentences and paragraphs.
4. Clearly identify what audience this article is for. 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. Layout, headlines, subheads, pull quotes, and graphics will help with this.
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. Anticipate that readers may enter your story at several different points and must then find their way to its main points. Plan for this by designing different entry-points, through the use of subtitles, pull quotes, picture captions, infographics, and the like. Make the entry points real, not tricks to lure readers.
Allow readers the freedom to decide how much time to spend on your work. Help them make that decision. And, if they only want to skim, embed markers that help them skim. Use conventional signals (such as topic sentences) to identify the topics readers may be skimming for. Consider using an index, or at least a list of key terms. Unless your work is highly complex, specialized, and must be read from the first word from the last, write to facilitate different types of reading.
As a small 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. Write for that audience, not for some generic stylebook.
7. Model, encourage, and reward thinking. Model and facilitate cognitive strategies such as categorizing, connecting ideas, evaluating evidence, clarifying, problem-solving, reflecting, analyzing, synthesizing.
Every writer is in the business of training future customers--readers--who not only want to read quality work, but who have the skills to do so. Readers learn to read better by reading good writing. Provide it.
8. Make your subject clear. Announce the article's categories of concern, using headlines, subheads, sidebars, boxes, frames, infographics, or other devices.
9. Use advance organizers (e.g., summaries or opening questions) and other devices to focus attention, give an overview, and define context (including graphic devices such as subtitles and pull quotes).
10. Address misunderstandings that might arise from readers interpreting your article in an inappropriate context. (Establish context, clarify confusable terms, places, names, or events.) Anticipate misunderstandings that might arise from readers interpreting the article in an inappropriate context (clarify confusable terms, places, names, or events).
11. Make your important points clear. Help readers distinguish between information which should merely be noted and information which deserves to be thought through, digested, and remembered. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 meaningfully integrated into the reader's knowledge structure and can be recalled when needed.
14. 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.
But this cannot be an empty promise. Once you create this gap, you have
to fill it.
15. The search for meaning motivates reading. Meaning rewards reading. Therefore, do not just present information, make it meaningful. (Note: such a generalization clearly does not apply to writing for humor or entertainment.)
Information becomes meaningful when it is richly interconnected with what the reader previously knew, and when the reader can access it as needed.
16. 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.
17. Digests--Provide summaries, digests, or commentaries to which the readers can compare their evolving syntheses.
18. 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.
19. Meaning--Mirror and support readers' efforts to make meaning in their own lives.
20. 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).
21. 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.
22. 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. Cultivate your readership beyond its narrow interests: Cultivate a citizenry and a core of common culture.
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