(This post takes 15 minutes to read.)


What came first, the thought or the need to think it?

While you wonder about this question, let me continue…I’ll soon tell my answer and why I think this riddle should matter to writers and writing teachers.

In the “Faculty Robing Room” yesterday at my college’s 150th-anniversary winter graduation ceremonies, I chatted with some colleagues—smart, excellent writers/writing teachers—about whether students in a freshman writing class produce in their writing assignments imaginative, energetic content.

“No, not so much”…their answer didn’t surprise me. What did make me gasp a little was how they conceived of CONTENT.

Like most people, they seem to think CONTENT is “what is said (written),” “what is stated,” the assertions, information, facts, details, etc. “Good content” is easy to recognize, we assume. It’s likely to be entertaining, like the “content” in Montaigne’s essays:

· "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself."

· "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."

· “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

And one my students easily identify with: “I quote others only the better to express myself.”

This is the visible part of content. It’s no wonder most think of it only in such terms as “entertaining” or “dull.” But this conception doesn’t acknowledge the all-important invisible half of CONTENT. The inability to see the invisible half of CONTENT can plague writers and writing teachers….

The word content comes from the Latin continēre, to contain, literally to hold. It means everything that is inside a container. So what’s inside the container (on the page/screen) is the visible half of content.

But how did the container, and what’s in the container, come to be there? What came first, the thought or the need to think it?

The answer to that question involves the invisible half of CONTENT, like dark matter in the rhetorical universe.

To SEE what’s invisible, what caused the container and whatever we put into the container to be inside the container, we need to step back, think about the dynamics of human communication at a basic level.


Too many of us have been sold on the idea that “communication” is defined by the Transmission Model of Communication (TMC), which reveals that communication occurs when a SENDER encodes information and transmits it to a RECEIVER, who then decodes it. If the RECEIVER decodes the same information as the SENDER encoded, this transmission (and thus this communication) is said to be successful. However, the TMC does state that various forces can impede the transmission; these forces are called NOISE in the system. SENDER -> n -> o -> i -> s -> e -> RECEIVER

How simple. How elegant. How wrong…for human communication.

This model, from the Bell Labs in 1949, was described by Shannon and Weaver. Their book, which details this actually very complex model, is called The Mathematical Theory of Communication 


But, as they say in their book, this model of communication was never intended to apply to any language that conveys meaning.

They were describing the process of transmitting radio signals from a transmitting station to a receiving station. Its simplicity, no doubt, contributed to its adoption by many who teach communication and writing, and write books about how to write/communicate better…it seems to pop on page 8 in all these books.

Many have critiqued this model as it might apply to human communication (http://www.sltinfo.com/problems-with-the-encode-decode-model/).

As the above cite points out, “one of the main criticisms of the encode-decode model is that it is typically presented as a linear, one-way process. It suggests a clear-cut start and finish to the communication process in which the roles of sender/encoder and receiver/decoder are clearly appointed. In reality, these roles continually alternate. In an effort to rectify this deficiency, Osgood and Schramm (Schramm, 1954) extended the model to emphasize the circular nature of human communication, in which the roles of sender/encoder and receiver/decoder interchange.”

Not only did Osgood/Schramm interchange the roles of SENDER and RECEIVER, they drew feedback loops trying to make the TMC work for humans.

Unfortunately, their model keeps the designations SENDER and RECEIVER. The SENDER is the one in charge. The RECEIVER is allowed to respond in this model, but never becomes the SENDER, or, better yet, the TERMINATOR…as in, “not interested—hit DELETE!” This is the Receiver’s superpower.

A simpler and more elegant model of human communication is simply a conversation, a word that literally means going back and forth (or taking turns). But to understand why a conversation better models human communication, we must realize what makes conversations go.


YOU: Hey, what’s up?

ME: Nothing much. How ‘bout you?

YOU: I’m good.

See what happened during that conversation? You asked a question, to which I responded and in return asked you a question.

Here’s another version of that conversation with different information:

YOU: Man, I feel like crap!

ME: Bad night?

YOU: Nah…I think I got the bug.

ME: Dude, stay away from me. I can’t afford to get sick right now.

You began with a statement instead of a question. But your statement elicited a question from me, and then the conversation continued. When statements are made, in a conversation, that don’t respond to any question that was actually asked, we can be sure the question lies beneath the statement.

Here’s another look at the deep structure of that last exchange. I’ve put the unstated, underlying questions in parentheses:

YOU: (You wanna know how I feel?) Man, I feel like crap!

ME: Bad night?

YOU: Nah…I think I got the bug.

ME: (You wanna know my reaction to what you just said?) Dude, ….

Conversations are an exchange of information, but they are responsive; they move back and forth between the people talking, supported by periodic questions, either stated or assumed.


When we’re interested in something, we ask questions about it.

Conversations die when the questions run out…when interest dissolves. Without questions, the CONTENT in a conversation is uncontained…because the listener’s questions contain the content; or, said another way, the speaker’s information is contained within the actual or underlying questions. Without questions, the speaker is merely “transmitting” information; “communication” may be happening at the very most basic level: the sounds are heard. But mere transmission is never true communication. Communication can’t happen until questions and answers come together…a con-vers-ation.

Greek and Roman rhetoricians had a name for this process. They called it “stasis.” http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Canons/Invention/Stasis.htm

When stasis is reached, the information going out matches the questions coming in. This defines what happens in a conversation, as well as in “good” writing.

To be effective as communication, writing must simulate a conversation on the screen/page.

Some have called writing “one-way communication.” But that’s a contradiction in terms. One-way communication is impossible. When information travels in one direction only, that’s transmission. Only when information is met with a question does it turn into communication, an exchange of questions and answers.

Mere TRANSMISSION lies at the heart of much bad writing.

Student writing for a writing class—the student essay—often lacks effective CONTENT because there’s no real person at the other end who has genuine interest in (questions about) the topic(s). In fact, topics are no more than answers to questions. But somebody has to be interested in the question before the answer can be truly meaningful, as in useful.

In writing classes, it’s true, we discuss the concept of “audience” and “purpose.” But how often is there a real flesh-and-blood audience for what students write? Usually there’s a phantom suggestion of some amorphous group of ghosts who might, in the right circumstances, be interested in the writing the student does…or not. AND, of course, there’s the teacher who reads to grade, because she/he gets paid to do that. So what’s the real purpose? Students earn a grade. Teachers get paid.

To be fair, sometimes we ask students to write about specific questions to see if they’ve grasped certain important ideas. Such writing is true conversation. The flesh-and-blood reader, who, in this case, happens to be the teacher, is genuinely interested in the student’s answers to the questions posed. Communication can happen.

But so much of student writing is make-believe. There can be no real CONTENT because there is no real reader with real questions to contain that content. Don’t blame students for poor content. Blame the assignment.

But what about Montaigne? His essays are entertaining, and he’s writing, so he claimed, “to record some traits of my character and of my humours." Why can’t students approach his eloquence? Isn’t that what most writing instruction aims to do?

We could debate whether “the essay” is the best way to teach students to communicate clearly. I don’t think so. (http://qcgwrite.com/blog/2016/11/21/why-essays-are-a-bad-way-to-teach-writingand-what-is-a-good-way)

It’s a genre better left to advanced writing classes. Beginning writing students should learn to discover a real ISSUE, figure out the real reader’s questions about the issue in question, do the necessary research to find the answers, and communicate that information in a clear and orderly fashion…something they’ll need to do in the rest of their classes and then later at work.

So what comes first, the thought or the need to think it? I’d say the thought meets the need, just as an answer must meet a question. How can students have real content if there is no real ISSUE and no real questions?

Before I end, I want to consider two more issues: 1) can content be separated from style (form)? and 2) what is the content in a painting or other work of art?

If you’ve read my blog, you know I obsess over just a few ideas about writing, which I relentlessly apply to any analysis of writing. One of my tediously recurring ideas about writing is that any document has 7 systems that work separately and together to deliver meaningful information to the reader (the too often invisible presence responsible for the questions that must be addressed).

I call these systems the HOCs and LOCs (higher and lower order concerns). From top to bottom, they are 1) content, 2) organization, 3) document design, 4) paragraphs, 5) sentences, 6) word choices, and 7) mechanics.

I teach my writing students concepts and techniques to manage each of these seven systems.

When I’ve presented this idea to writing teachers, I’m sometimes met by an argument against the separateness of these systems. A common complaint is that changing a word changes the entire content…so how can content be separate from word choice?

Here’s a quick example. If I write, “I will go to the store for you,” I have created specific content. But If I change just one word, notice how the content seems to change: “I won’t go to the store for you.” If content is separate from word choice, why does changing just one word change the content? In fact, in this case it creates another statement whose meaning is diametrically opposed to the first statement: I WILL GO…I WON’T GO.

I’d argue that CONTENT has 4 parts. The first part is the ISSUE (an area of shared interest between a writer and reader—it’s the reason the writer is writing and the reader is reading). The second part is all the questions the reader needs to know about the ISSUE in question. The third part is the answers to these questions. The fourth part is any information needed to support those answers (which turns out to be just smaller questions/answers).

Here, the ISSUE is that I needed to know if you’ll go to the store for me, the question is simply, “Will you go to the store for me?” Obviously what changes is the answer—yes/no.

In both cases, the ISSUE and question remain the same. The answer and support (if any) has changed. So has the CONTENT changed? I’d say yes and no. But the content inherent in each of these opposite answers is far more similar than it would appear on the surface, when we acknowledge the invisible aspects of CONTENT—the ISSUE and the subsequent reader-questions about it.

In considering the content in a student essay, I’m interested to know what ISSUE the essay targets and what real reader-questions the essay addresses. This gives me a much richer idea of the content than just looking at the answers…at how imaginative and eloquent my students are.

What if the answers given by one student, for whom English is a second or third language, are poorly phrased but wonderful in terms of how they address the questions and give support for those answers? What if the answers given by another student, who happens to be an English major, miss the questions and give no support, but are beautifully written? I’d judge the content first by the questions addressed. The first student has much better content…much poorer style.

Failure to address the right questions should be disqualifying. No matter how beautifully an essay might be written, failing to address the right reader-questions renders that beautiful style inconsequential to a real reader who needs those questions answered.

So it’s important for writers and teachers of writing to be mindful of the invisible aspects of CONTENT—the ISSUE and real reader-questions that require the need for answers. First there is the need for a thought, then there is the thought.

Compelling CONTENT requires a compelling ISSUE, the right set of reader-questions to get at the ISSUE, and appropriate and complete answers.

But what is the CONTENT in a painting or work of art?

I was recently at a beautiful exhibit of Matisse and Diebenkorn. https://artbma.org/exhibitions/matisse-diebenkorn.  As I sat in one of the gallery rooms taking in the big canvasses, I wondered about their content. Every speck of paint and brush stroke was obviously the content, and, at the same time, the style. But what about the ISSUE and reader-questions? What about those invisible aspects of CONTENT?

These paintings were clearly compositions, essays in fact. I doubt they were created for no audience. In this exhibit, the paintings were often paired, a canvas by Matisse and a parallel canvas by Diebenkorn, who was greatly influenced by the work of the famous impressionist.

In one set, maybe the ISSUE was how to render a figure sitting in a chair, or how to render the light falling on a figure sitting in a chair. For the artist, I’m sure there are almost endless questions to address in this situation. And the two paintings gave similar but different answers. You wouldn’t go far wrong if you said the content in both paintings was the same (or nearly so). However, the styles of the two painters were quite different, but similar enough to make it possible to notice the influence of one on the other.

I could imagine a similar content in two paintings with different styles. I can differentiate between content and style. Everything I can see in the painting is the style and the content. But what I can’t see, the invisible “problem” the artist addresses, allows me to define content—the container—and style—the presentation—differently.

Maybe we could borrow from Aristotle, who named two kinds of writing: writing to inform and writing to delight/entertain. I could imagine a technical drawing of an engine that was meant to show a mechanic how the parts fit together—drawing to inform. I could imagine a drawing by Matisse or Diebenkorn meant to describe a figure sitting in a chair for our aesthetic pleasure—drawing to delight.

It may be easier to separate content and style when the intent is to inform than it is when the intent is to delight. In a work of art, the medium matters as much or more than the subject matter. The medium itself is evocative, thoughtful, emotional whether the subject matter is a beautiful person, a pair of worn-out boots, or an abstraction. The ISSUE and questions behind the work of art are perhaps less obvious to the “reader,” though they may be fairly specific to the artist and to other artists. In an informative drawing/piece of writing, the ISSUE and questions behind the work are quite obvious…the subject matter (answer) is actually much more important than the medium/style.

Can we blame students or other writers for bad CONTENT? Not until we see clearly the invisible half…what ISSUE have they focused on? and what specific real reader-questions need to be answered?

If the ISSUE and questions are feeble, made up, arbitrary, addressed to no real reader…how can the answers be anything else? And who gets to say if they’re “bad”? Only the real reader who really cares about the ISSUE in question!

If writing teachers are disappointed by the content in student writing, the teachers should find richer situations for the writers to write about—richer in the sense that the student is interested in the ISSUE and there’s a real reader also interested with real questions that need to be answered.

Vision,” according to Jonathan Swift, “is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” So maybe “content” (what somebody needs to see) is the art of making the visible even more visible.