Yesterday was a big day. It was the second day of my church's semiannual general conference (held virtually, of course). One of the most eagerly awaited parts of these conferences is the announcement of new temples to be constructed. This usually happens in the last talk given by the president of the Church, currently President Russell M. Nelson.
Yesterday, eight new temples were announced. Temples bring great blessings to the Church members who live near them, so I'm always happy to hear about new temples. But the last two announcements hit me particularly hard.
First, President Nelson announced a temple to be built in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
I gasped in disbelief and joy.
Then, with tears in his eyes and a break in his voice, President Nelson announced a temple to be built in Shanghai, China.
I cried, too.
So what does all this have to do with writing?
If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember that a few months ago, we talked about the three goals of writing. We want readers to know something, feel something, and do something about our topic. To accomplish any of those goals, we have to give our readers context.
Part of the reason these announcements moved me so much is the context for that news.
First, let's look at the Dubai announcement. My grandparents lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from before I was born until I was in high school (nineteen years total). Because Grandmother and Grandfather spent many of those years as Church leaders for much of the Middle East, including Dubai, I grew up well aware of the severe restrictions imposed on the Church in that part of the world. I knew this temple would mean so much to my family and to the Church members in that region. And apparently this temple is being built by invitation! The UAE does tend to be more liberal than other countries in the Middle East, but still—who would've ever thought?
Now let's look at the Shanghai announcement. You probably know about the restrictions on religious freedom in China, so I won't go through them here. Suffice it to say that things are even tougher there for people of faith than they are in the Middle East. I'd thought it wouldn't be until far in the future that the Church could send missionaries to parts of China other than Hong Kong. Usually missionaries come first, and then a temple is built years later. But missionaries still aren't allowed in mainland China. So to have a temple there . . . it's beyond anything I could've dreamed of. I'm so, so happy for the Church members there.
To add more context, this announcement was even more special because of the person who delivered it. Before he began serving full-time in the Church, President Nelson was a renowned heart surgeon. That expertise, plus his fluency in Mandarin, led him to cultivate warm relationships with people in China. (You can read the whole story here.) Furthermore, President Nelson has been an important Church leader since before I was born. I've grown up listening to and being blessed by his teachings.
You know the feeling when a close friend or relative tells you about something wonderful happening to them? An engagement, a long-awaited pregnancy, an award, or something else that not only makes you happy but that you know is even more special to that person?
That's how I felt when I heard this wonderful news from a man whom I've loved and respected all my life and who I know has a deep love for China and its people.
Whatever the topic you're writing about, context makes a big difference in how well readers will understand your message (i.e., whether they'll end up knowing something about your topic) and therefore how receptive they'll be to it (i.e., whether they'll feel and do something about the topic). If readers don't understand what you're trying to say, they'll likely get confused or even frustrated and may stop reading—the exact opposites of what you want them to feel and do!
For example, imagine you're writing a nonfiction article that tries to persuade readers to change certain habits to reduce their carbon footprints. Some readers will respond to general context and reasoning, such as if you explain how global warming melts polar ice caps and raises ocean levels. However, many readers need more-specific context to persuade them to act. They might think, "So what if the oceans rise? I don't live near the coast, so that doesn't affect me." To reach these people, you'll probably need to give context that relates to their everyday lives. You could explain how global warming affects daily temperatures and how individual efforts make a difference in reducing the effects of global warming.
As another example, imagine you're writing a novel in which your protagonist steals from a poor family to survive. Many readers will lose respect for a character who effectively kicks people while they're down, and some people may even take this as a reason to stop reading. To avoid this reaction, you'll need to provide context for your protagonist's behavior. Show what she's been through that would drive her to this action, how she feels about it, how she commits the theft (does she wait until the family is sleeping, rob them at gunpoint, or what?), and so on. You probably won't provide all this information at once—that'd be an info dump, which we should avoid—but it needs to be present in the story.
To end on a humorous note, this Studio C sketch teaches an important lesson about context. 😂
(Thanks to Clay Banks for sharing their work on Unsplash.)