Choices: The Ingredients of Texts
When examining a text, we would like to look for those elements, obviously,
that control the meaning of a text. But what are they?
Choice: PhotographyWe can find a useful analogy between photography and texts. Photography seems
objective. Photographs record "what's there," and nothing more. Or so it
In fact, all photographers make choices that affect the final
photograph. Anyone taking a picture must select
Finally, photographers must choose how to process the film and develop
subsequent prints—factors that further affect the clarity and impact of the
- the situation—where to be, and when
- the camera and lens—whether to view a wide or narrow angle, with or without
filters that adjust the color balance or image
- the film—whether to use black and white or color film, slide, print or digital
film, and the sensitivity of the film to low light (ASA rating)
- the settings—the effects of the lens opening (f-stop) and exposure time
(shutter speed) on the sharpness and clarity of the image
- the shot—where to aim, what to focus on, and when to click the shutter
A single photograph can only depict one portion of a particular scene at a
particular instant as seen from a particular perspective. Every photograph
presents a subjective view of the world. This is not to say that photographs
do not have value. Clearly they do. While the selection may be subjective,
the image may indeed provide an objective account of that portion off reality.
Yet the choices outlined above ultimately control any meaning a viewer might
find in the final print. Photographs don't lie, as the saying goes, but they
do offer only select testimony.
Choice: TextsAs with photography, all written expression involves choices. Imagine you are
seated before a blank page. What choices must be made?
For openers you
have to say something. Whether you start with an observation, a statement of
belief, or simply a thought, you have to say something. We'll call that content.
Having decided on something to say, you have to decide how to phrase your
remark. What words will you use? Different terminology, after all, can change
the meaning of a remark. Will you claim someone cheated, bent the rules, or
committed a crime? Will you refer to President Bill Clinton, William Jefferson
Clinton, or Monika's Bill? We'll call that a choice of language.
Finally, you cannot simply rattle off disconnected remarks. (Well, you could,
but they would have little meaning!) The remarks must be related to one
another, from sentence to sentence and within the discussion as a whole. We'll
call that structure,Critical readers are consciously aware ofthe choice ofcontentThey look at the content, at the evidence marshaled for an
argument, the illustrations used to explain ideas, and the details presented
within a description. That
uniqueness is defined by choices of content, language and structure.
. They distinguish between assertions of
fact, opinion, and belief. They are aware whether evidence consists of
references to published data, anecdotes, or speculation, and they evaluate
the persuasiveness of a text accordingly.Critical readers are aware ofhowlanguageis being used. They notice
whether a text refers to
someone as a "bean counter" (no
respect) or "an academic statistician" (suggesting professionalism), whether
is said to have "asserted a claim" (with confidence, and
no need for proof) or "floated a
claim" (without backing, as a trial balloon).
And they draw inferences from the choice of language they
observe. Critical readers
are aware ofthestructureof a discussion, both in terms of the movement
of ideas from beginning to end and in terms of the relationship of ideas
throughout the discussion. They
distinguish between assertions offered as reason or conclusion, cause or
effect, evidence or illustration.
They recognize patterns of contrast and distinguish whether
contrasting ideas are shown to be dissimilar, competing, or contradictory.
All authors confront three areas of choice:
Choices must be made in each of these areas, and each choice contributes to the
thought of the text as a whole.
- the choice of content
- the choice of language
- the choice of structure
Note that we do not list elements such as tone, style, perspective, purpose,
and message. While these are all useful perspectives for discussing texts,
they are all based on, and reflect, the choice of content, language, and
Implications For ReadingTo non-critical readers, texts provide facts. Knowledge comes from memorizing
the statements within a text. To the critical reader, any single text provides
but one portrayal of the facts, one individual's “take” on the subject. The
content of a text reflects what an author takes as “the facts of the matter.”
By examining these choices, readers recognize not only what a text says, but
also how the text portrays the subject matter.
The first step in an analysis
of a text, then, must be to look at the content, at the evidence marshaled for
an argument, the illustrations used to explain ideas, and the details presented
within a description. Not that any particular author/text is necessarily
wrong. We simply recognize the degree to which each and every text is the
unique creation of a unique author. That uniqueness is defined by choices of
content, language and structure.
Critical reading thus relies on an analysis of choices of content, language,
These web pages examine each of the three areas of choice. They
considers their effect on the meaning, and how readers might identify and
respond to them.
- Critical readers are consciously aware of the act of choice underlying the
content. They distinguish between assertions of fact, opinion, and belief.
They are aware whether evidence consists of references to published data,
anecdotes, or speculation, and they evaluate the persuasiveness of a text
- Critical readers are aware of how language is being used. They notice whether
a text refers to someone as a bean counter (no respect) or an academic
statistician (suggesting professionalism), whether some is said to have
asserted a claim (with confidence, and no need for proof) or floated a claim
(without backing, as a trial balloon). And they draw inferences from the
choice of language they observe.
- Critical readers are aware of the structure of a discussion, both in terms of
the movement of ideas from beginning to end and in terms of the relationship of
ideas throughout the discussion. They distinguish between assertions offered
as reason or conclusion, cause or effect, evidence or illustration. They
recognize patterns of contrast and distinguish whether contrasting ideas are
shown to be dissimilar, competing, or contradictory.
Implications For WritingYour first step as a writer is to generate some content, to put forth
assumptions, evidence, and arguments that you can then defend and from which
you can draw conclusions.
Having generated some initial discussion, the task as editor is then to adjust
the discussion to assure that it presents a coherent, consistent, and
As we shall see in Chapter Twelve, what we take as evidence lies at the basis
of all argument, and shapes and predetermines the outcome of an argument.
Writing is ultimately concerned with
We may initially write in an unstructured manner, concerned simply with getting
some ideas on the page rather than in creating a finished document right off
the bat. Revision and editing then focuses on two concerns:
- what we say (content),
- how we say it (language), and
- the flow from one assertion to another, how ideas connect to one another to
convey broader meaning (structure).
To ensure a coherent flow of ideas, we must focus on the three areas of choice:
- correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation
- ensuring a coherent flow of ideas.
We edit to assure the content and language and structure. An increased
awareness of the impact of choices of content, language, and structure can help
students develop habits of rewriting and revision.
- providing appropriate and sufficient arguments and examples?
- choosing terms that are precise, appropriate, and persuasive?
- making clear the transitions from one thought to another and assured the
overall logic of the presentation