If you’re like most people, when I ask you to define CONTENT in a piece of writing, you’d say it’s the information, the facts, the details, the data conveyed in the writing. That’s what almost everyone believes, and everyone is about 25% correct.
CONTENT is better thought of as one of seven systems operating in any piece of writing. CONTENT is a system with four main components. Knowing these four components will help you generate CONTENT that’s more useful to your reader. Here’s how….
To put this explanation of CONTENT into its proper context, I must quickly explain two simple ideas.
CONTENT IS THE FIRST ELEMENT IN THE HOCs & LOCs PARADIGM
First, it’s important to understand that any piece of writing (information delivery system) delivers its information through seven dimensions (I call them 7 systems) that act simultaneously to deliver information to the reader. I call these seven dimensions the HOCs & LOCs (Higher Order Concerns and Lower Order Concerns).
As a reader reads any piece of writing, print or electronic, the reader is trying to absorb the CONTENT. The CONTENT is supported by how it is presented: the ORGANIZATION, the DOCUMENT DESIGN, the PARAGRAPHS, the SENTENCES, the WORD CHOICES, and the MECHANICS.
So it’s essential that you see that CONTENT is just one dimension (or system) within the HOCs & LOCs:
- DOCUMENT DESIGN
- word choices
WRITING IS ACTUALLY A CONVERSATION WITH THE READER
Second, it’s imperative to realize that writing is NOT one-way communication, as it’s widely described in college writing classes. When information travels in only one direction, you have TRANSMISSION, not COMMUNICATION.
Shannon and Weaver’s Transmission Model of Communication explains transmission, not communication. It says transmission occurs when a SENDER transmits “information” (actually they were working with radio signals) to a RECEIVER. This transmission, they explained, must travel through the NOISE in the system. According to this very familiar model, transmission is successful when the RECEIVER decodes what the SENDER encoded.
That’s perfectly fine for radio signals, for transmission. But this model was not meant to apply to language that conveys meaning, as Shannon and Weaver explain in their important book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. As I said, the Transmission Model of Communication was meant to apply only to radio waves.
Human communication is better modeled as a simple conversation.
At their core, human conversations are built around a loose string of questions and answers. Between two (or more) people having a conversation, QUESTIONS GENERATE TOPICS (How was your weekend? When do we get paid? How was your date? What’s wrong with my husband/wife? Etc., etc.). These questions, which pop up from time to time as we talk to each other, fuel the conversation. Once a question is asked, an answer follows.
That conversation will die out if no other follow-up questions are asked. If follow-up questions are asked, the conversation continues in more detail:
- How was your date?
- It was okay.
- So…what happened???
- Well, first we went to this food truck where they had fish tacos that were supposed to be the best ever…they were kind of soggy and way too aggressive with the heat…then we went to this movie…it was okay…kind of a dude flick…then she/he took me home.
- Was that it?
And so the conversation goes.
QUESTIONS GENERATE TOPICS and answers follow. QUESTIONS are the manifestation of our INTEREST. When the questions die out, our interest has died out. And soon the conversation ends. If somebody continues talking and you’re not asking the occasional question…that’s called a lecture. Good luck!
CONTENT IS A 4-PART SYSTEM THAT GENERATES THE CONVERSATION GOING ON IN THE PIECE OF WRITING
Now that we understand that CONTENT is just one part of the 7 systems that help deliver information when we write, and we understand that “writing” is actually a conversation, we can better appreciate the four components that make up CONTENT.
The system we call CONTENT has four working parts:
1. THE ISSUE: I use the word ISSUE to define the common ground between the writer and the reader. The ISSUE is why the writer is writing and why the reader keeps reading. If the reader is not interested in the ISSUE, then she/he will hit DELETE in a flash. The ISSUE is the first component of CONTENT.
2. THE READER’S QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ISSUE: If the reader is truly interested in the ISSUE in a piece of writing, the reader will have a number of questions about that ISSUE. (Remember, questions are the manifestation of our interest...AND QUESTIONS GENERATE TOPICS.) Sometimes the reader knows all the important questions to ask about the ISSUE in question. But sometimes, the reader doesn’t know all the right questions to ask. This is where the writer’s expertise/research are vital. As an expert, a writer knows all the important questions that the reader should ask. Without knowing the set of real reader-questions, the writer can’t generate useful CONTENT for the reader—who wants, above all, to have her questions answered. The READER'S BIG QUESTIONS about the ISSUE in question are the second component of CONTENT.
3. THE BIG ANSWERS TO THE READER’S QUESTIONS: Once the writer knows the set of important reader-questions about the ISSUE in question, the writer must answer them as clearly and concisely as possible. These answers can come from the writer’s experience, expertise, or research. When the writer answers questions the reader really does care about, the reader will skip ahead or terminate his/her reading—hit DELETE. When the writer fails to address questions that the reader has about the ISSUE in question, the reader is not satisfied with the reading experience. The ANSWERS TO THOSE BIG READER-QUESTIONS about the ISSUE in question are the third component of CONTENT.
4. FURTHER SUPPORT FOR THE BIG ANSWERS: When a writer answers one of the reader’s questions (about the ISSUE in question), the reader may have follow-up questions. These follow-up questions help support/explain/clarify/illustrate the bigger answer. In the brief conversation above, the big question was, “How was your date?” The answer was very brief, “It was okay.” This answer didn’t fully satisfy the listener. So the listener asked a couple of follow-up questions. The answers to these follow-up questions provided support/details that further developed the big answer. Once writers know the reader’s BIG questions and answers them, it’s very common that the big answer will generate smaller questions, depending on how complex the ISSUE is. The writing is complete when all the reader’s questions have been answered. The SUPPORT FOR THE BIG ANSWERS is the fourth component of CONTENT. (In long, complex reports, the CONTENT can be set up with a list of researchable questions. In the process of researching those questions, inevitably further questions arise. The smarter we get about an ISSUE the better able we are to ask more intelligent questions.)
THINKING OF CONTENT AS A CONVERSATION ALLOWS WRITERS TO PROVIDE MORE USEFUL INFORMATION
As I’ve said and written 10,000 times, “writing” is 90% about the CONTENT and only 10% about the PRESENTATION—from the reader’s point of view. (Yes, that 10% is crucial—like the cargo ship that carries valuable cargo to its destination.) Here’s a quick way to think about what makes writing successful.
Imagine two circles. The first circle is all the ANSWERS (about a given ISSUE) in a piece of writing. The second circle is all the reader's QUESTIONS about that ISSUE. To the extent these two circles overlap, the writing is successful (in terms of CONTENT).
That’s a high standard with which you can measure any piece of writing. Have a look at a few email you’ve received. Think about all the information provided. Then think about all the information you truly cared about. How did the email do? Did it give you more information than you really wanted, less information? How did that make you feel? What about this very blog post???
The extent to which a piece of writing provides truly USEFUL CONTENT to the reader defines its success (at least 90% of its success—yes, the information still must be presented clearly). Without useful CONTENT, the presentation is…well, USELESS.
Your reader’s level of interest will remain high through your document to the extent that it’s delivering useful information. Many people think you have to have a big, impressive vocabulary to keep the reader’s interest high. But that’s just not true. What’s most impressive to readers is when the writing is about an ISSUE the reader is truly interested in and answers all the reader’s questions about that ISSUE. That’s what keeps readers engaged…not a stilted style.
See if this way of thinking about CONTENT doesn’t help you create stronger documents (as well as help you evaluate the success of any piece of writing). Your reader will thank you.
Email me if you have questions: Harvey@QCGwrite.com.
Download our FREE 200-page ebook (lots of pictures), Mindful Writing at Work (http://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work). It presents very practical critical-thinking concepts and writing techniques.
If you teach writing, ask for a free examination copy of our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing (http://qcgwrite.com/mww), which received a nice review from Daniel Pink, among others. The students who’ve used the book have offered wonderful reviews we’re proud to have received. See the student gallery for some of their comments (http://qcgwrite.com/studentgallery/).
As always, my goal is to put the WRITING back into so-called “business writing,” “technical writing,” “academic writing,” or whatever colleges want to call it. It’s also to make people realize that WRITING is just as much about the CONTENT as the PRESENTATION…from the reader’s point of view, content is always far more important than the presentation…the precious cargo more important than the vehicle that carries it…the love and spirit more important than the body. You get the idea!
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