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Writing in Context

Writing in Context

Author: Martina Shabram

In this lesson, students will learn about writing in context.

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Source: [image of graduation cap, public domain,] [image of necktie, public domain, [image of mail symbol, public domain,] [Image of Little Red Riding Hood, public domain,]

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Hello, students. My name is Dr. Martina Shabram. And I will be your instructor for today's lesson. I am genuinely excited to teach you these concepts. So let's get started.

This course will cover some of my favorite topics, the essential skills of English writing. Our goal is to work together to get comfortable with these tools so that later we can stick them together, like blocks, to build paragraphs and essays.

This course covers grammar, sentence structure, and paragraphs, which makes up Unit One. Later, in Unit 2, you'll get the chance to put your new skills to work and craft your own essays. So today let's start at the start and think carefully about context, that is, what the purpose or audience of each piece of writing is.

We're going to start off by thinking about the similarities and differences of three kinds of writing; academic, personal, and professional. That way we can become more effective writers across these three kinds of writing.

So consider the audience in each of these settings and what they'll expect. Academic writing is meant for an academic audience, expecting detailed, factual information. Because of these expectations, academic writing is going to use a more elevated, or technical, vocabulary. It often requires a more complex sentence structure and will generally incorporate facts, figures, and research.

Professional writing, on the other hand, is meant for use in a business setting. For this reason, while such writing will likely be similar to academic, it will also likely use simpler sentence structures, swap complex vocabulary for more conversational words, and may rely on industry jargon.

Think about the difference between a research paper you might write for a class and a sales pitch you might give at work. In the paper you might refer to personal computing devices, such as laptops, whereas in your sales pitch you might just be able to reference a MacBook and expect that your audience will know what that means.

Both kinds of writing need correct grammar and sentence structures, no missing commas or sentence fragments here. But because an academic text is meant to present data, it will probably try to remain neutral about the facts, whereas a professional text might not.

In these ways you can see that both academic and professional writing tends to be more formal. In contrast, personal writing is more casual. Think again about the purpose. Personal writing is for-- you guessed it-- a personal audience. So consider the difference in the way you'd write a letter to, say, the president or your boss or even a professor versus your mom or your friends.

Personal writing can use slang and can play fast and loose with grammar and sentence structure without a problem. While academic and professional writing probably won't include a lot of emotion and feeling, personal writing can be emotionally driven or may attempt to convey feeling and tone. Personal writing can even use contractions, which are when two or three words are shoved together to make one shorter word, with an apostrophe representing the letters that got cut, like when you write "can't" instead of "cannot."

In short, the purpose of formal writing isn't focused on the author at all, whereas informal writing may be entirely focused on the author, him or herself. So you want to always consider the purpose of the piece of writing and what your audience is. That way you can select the appropriate tone, type of language, and word choice. Let's practice.

Here we have some pairs of words and phrases. Each way means the same thing but has a different vocabulary, tone, or structure. So which one is formal? And which are casual? The vocabulary, or choice of words, can tell us a lot.

Bucks. That's slang. Whereas dollars is not. But the sentence structure can also be revealed. He's gotta get, uses slang and isn't a technically correct sentence, whereas he has to be at school, is a correct, full sentence. Even the tone, which is the way a word or phrase conveys an author's emotions, can tell us which is formal and which informal. Made a gaff, is a slangy phrase. And it's also a little cheeky. Whereas misspoke is both technically correct and neutral.

So if we wanted to be playful, we'd use, the politician made a gaff. And if we wanted to be neutral we'd say, the politician misspoke. And hey, what if we wanted to convey how angry we are at the situation? Well, then we might say, the politician made a grave error in his speech. See how different tones imply different levels of formality and even different meanings?

So what's the big difference, then, between formal and informal? Well, formal is neutral in its emotional tone. It won't include the author by saying things like, I think. And it will make use of a more polished and complex vocabulary and sentence structure. In formal writing, we'll be more emotional in tone, can refer to the author, and uses whatever vocabulary, including slang, that it wants.

Of course, formal and informal writing are used alongside each other all the time. Just think about the last time you listened to the news. You certainly heard both formal and informal kinds of writing mixed together.

So now we know about the main types and tones of writing. But what about the modes? Whether you're writing for an academic or business audience, there's a big difference between trying to convince someone of something and just trying to provide someone with information. So let's think about the different modes of writing.

Now, modes of writing can also be called modes of discourse. And that refers to the different types of writing which have different purposes. This can include the descriptive mode, the narrative mode, the informative mode, and the argumentative mode.

So to illustrate the specifics of each mode, let's use an actual illustration. Let's consider the story of Little Red Riding Hood. What if I wanted to tell the whole story? Well then I'd be using the narrative mode. Now, what if while I'm telling the story, using that narrative mode, I want to describe the wolf. Well then I've used the descriptive mode.

So what if I'm explaining details about Little Red Riding Hood's cloak, and I want to outline facts I've researched about cloaks in literature? Well then I'd be using the informative mode.

Finally, if I want to convince my readers that the true hero of the story is Red? Then I need to use the argumentative mode. When I'm in the argumentative mode, it's like I'm in a debate, presenting the argument from my side and supporting my claims with reasoning, logical explanations, and even researched information.

So regardless of whether our writing is formal or informal, whether we're using academic, professional, or personal types of writing, we're going to be deploying some, or even all, of these four modes. So what might writing about Little Red look like?

In this first sentence, what modes am I using and what type of writing do you think this is? What about this sentence? As you can now tell, a piece of professional writing can include, say, the descriptive mode and a piece of personal writing can be in the argumentative mode. These types and modes can work together in any piece of writing depending, again, on the context and purpose of that text.

So what have we learned today? We learned about the different types of writing; academic, professional, and personal. We explored the differences in formal and informal writing. And we practiced the four modes of writing; narrative, informative, descriptive, and argumentative.

Well students, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Thank you.

Terms to Know
Argumentative Mode

Takes a clear position on a debatable question and backs up claims with evidence and reasoning.

Descriptive Mode

Provides details concerning a specific person, place, or thing.

Informative Mode

Writing designed to inform, describe, or explain.


Refers to the different types of writing which have different purposes. Includes the descriptive mode, narrative mode, informative mode and argumentative mode.

Narrative Mode

Writing that is driven by a story.