© 2014 Steve Campsall
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Non-Fiction and Media Texts
Non-fiction texts are everywhere. Some, such as the advertising flyers that drop through our letterboxes daily, often end up flying straight into the nearest recycling bin unread; but others (like the magazine you might have just put down to look at this website), provide you with fun, advice and entertainment; some - like this website - should prove very helpful; and a very few are capable of gaining such close attention that they change minds, even lives. Welcome to the world of non-fiction!
Non-fiction texts form such an important part of our daily lives - some are of little or no value but some can change your life.
Nonfiction texts include newspaper and magazine articles, text books, religious writing, websites, biographies, travel writing, letters, signs, menus, brochures, leaflets... even cereal packets and much, much more. For school exams, you won't be studying cereal packets, however (but make sure you have that extra Weetabix on the day of the exam!).
Unlike the imaginary worlds, situations and characters created for fictional texts, non-fiction texts are based on reality: real people, real things and real events. But... a key understanding is that being based on reality doesn't make these texts necessarily factual or true. Slant and lack of balance are central aspects of many nonfiction texts - they are not often purely informative - they are usually disguised persuasion.
While nonfiction is based on the real world and fiction is based on an imagined world, there are important overlaps, with each genre borrowing elements and techniques from the other. It is this overlap that can make fiction seem more like nonfiction and nonfiction more persuasive than it really should be.
Fiction often borrows from nonfiction to help create a sense of realism and believability, for example by using real place names in which to set its stories; but non-fiction borrows from fiction in much more subtle and important ways - ways that can add greatly to its appeal to an audience and to its persuasiveness. This is done most especially by borrowing from the main story-telling form and structure called narrative; it is through the use of story-telling techniques that allow nonfiction writers to create engaging, absorbing and interesting texts rather than dry informative articles they would otherwise be. 'Narrativised' nonfiction and media texts are everywhere - they work to involve and entertain as well as inform and, most subtly often, persuade.
For example, a newspaper
story often represents real people as 'fictional'-type characters
making them into 'heroes' and 'villains' and, using a narrative
create suspense and tension to make us want to read on to find out
just what does happen next!
Media texts are a sub-category of non-fiction. They include texts such as newspaper and magazine articles and advertising. An important aspect of these texts (and, in fact, many other non-media texts) concerns the audience for which they are written which, because it is always a mass audience, is always composed of individuals completely unknown to the writer. This can be important when you analyse these texts because many address their reader as if he or she were a personal friend - a highly persuasive technique that is, in the circumstances, rather suspect and always worthy of comment.
TIP! Media texts often include images such as photographs and illustrations. Remember that this exam is testing your abilities to analyse and discuss the use and effects of language so it is best to avoid any prolonged discussion of images.
In your exams you will be tested on your ability to analyse, discuss and compare non-fiction or media texts. Usually you will also be asked to compare texts that share a similar theme but which have either a different genre or form or which approach the same theme from different angles.
WHAT ARE THE EXAMINERS LOOKING FOR?
While exam questions vary, the skills you need to write a good answer do not. As with all texts you'll be studying, it comes down to your ability to detect what effects the text is creating on its reader and to work out why these effects were created - that is, the writer's purpose. Remember - with media and non-fiction texts, while your focus (because this is an English exam...) must always be on language choices, you'll also be asked to consider visual aspects too, such as design, layout and use of images).
In the exam, typically, you'll be asked to analyse a pair of texts that share a common theme. This means you'll be "breaking the texts down" into the individual "parts" that you feel the writer has chosen with extra care so as to achieve a particular purpose. Then you'll need to think about the methods the writer has used and how these were intended to affect the text's readers; finally you'll be asked to discuss the results of your analysis as well as compare some aspect of both texts.
There are four useful 'levels' at which you can consider texts:
the text is about
- its subject matter
You need to show you have understood the text's subject matter and content.
You will also need to be able to locate details and discuss aspects of these (this requires an understanding of the text's big picture).
the text has been written for
- its audience
This is very important: you need to consider audience with care as it will help you recognise features of style that you can discuss in your answers.
Writing about audience means recognising and showing how a text has been created to suit a particular kind of reader.
When a writer is asked to write a text, one of the key questions asked is who the text is aimed at. With knowledge of the text's audience, only then will the writer be able to consider the most suitable style of writing to choose - its content, its vocabulary choices and its tone.
Why the text
- its writer's purpose
the text has been made to 'work' for its particular audience and purpose
- the writer's methods and their effects
It most especially means looking closely at the language and layout used in the text.
How is language being used - what effects are being created and for what purpose?
How is the layout helping the text achieve its purpose for its audience?
As well as this, a more subtle consideration that you could give is at the level of context. This means thinking about how the reader or audience will use the text - in what situation and then working out how the text's writer and designer have altered the text to suit this context. For example, a magazine ad will try to prevent the reader quickly flicking through the magazine by trying to arrest their attention. Thus, the ad's designer will try to create something in the ad that will account for the likelihood of the ad being skipped easily in the rush of reading through a magazine - and so on. You might want to think how the writer of a newspaper article takes account of context, too - or the producer of a leaflet.
There are four typical types of exam question you could come across (note that the examples below are not based on any particular nonfiction texts):
Questions that ask you to identify or locate details:
'What types of exercise are discussed in the newspaper article?'
'Identify five advantages and five disadvantages to exercising regularly mentioned in the newspaper article.'
'List five facts and five opinions the writer includes in the newspaper article.'
In this type of question, you are being asked to locate specific named details directly from the text and list them.
Normally one mark will be awarded for each correct point you make.
Unless made obvious within the question, the answer does not need extra explanation or to be written in your own words - a numbered list would make a good answer.
Questions that ask you to explain and summarise:
'What impressions does the article create concerning the need for exercise?'
'How does the writer defend the need for exercise?'
'What are the writer's attitudes towards exercise?'
In this type of question, you need to write a considered personal response and use evidence from the text to support what you say.
This type of question requires a mixture of your own words and quotations from the text.
Marks are awarded more for depth of answers than breadth - you need to show an understanding of how language choices work.
Questions that ask you to discuss the writer's techniques:
'How does the writer try to persuade the reader that exercise is a good thing?'
'What impression of fitness does the writer create?'
'How is the article made convincing?'
In this kind of question, you would need to discuss, for example, the persuasive techniques used by the writer or the way something has been presented in the text.
This means considering aspects of language, style and structure to show how these work for a specific audience and purpose.
This type of question tests your awareness of how language can be used for a specific audience and purpose.
It requires a considered, reflective and insightful response using a mixture of your own words and quotations from the text.
Questions that ask you to compare texts
'Which of the two articles do you consider the most persuasive? '
'Which of the two texts do you find the more interesting and why? '
This type of question needs a close discussion on the two articles.
You will need to comment on aspects of audience, purpose, language and style.
As before, you are being tested on your awareness of how language can be used effectively for a specific audience and purpose.
Again, this type of question expects a considered, reflective and insightful response using your own words with support provided by quotations from the text.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO TO GAIN A HIGH GRADE
As with all texts, non-fiction and media text need the skills of analysis and commentary. In any text, its writer's aim is to create a style that will suit a particular kind of reader or audience to achieve a certain purpose.
The style created will utilise the two aspects language has: its form and its content. These two aspects will be working together to create certain effects on the reader, and, in turn (and accumulating through the structure of the text), these effects, the writer hopes, will achieve the text's purpose.
The purposes of non-fiction texts are various and most often a combination:
HOW TO TACKLE NON-FICTION AND MEDIA TEXTS
It's important to gain an
overview of the texts you are studying. This means working out and mentally summarising the
text's 'big picture'.
Ask yourself how the text's layout and presentation help it in various ways either appeal to its audience or achieve its purpose.
The layout and presentation of a text is a part of its form. Form refers to the way a text looks (or sounds) and helps the content (i.e. meaning) of the text in various ways, perhaps to make the text easier to navigate, or clearer for the reader.
In most non-fiction texts, layout and presentation are
always carefully chosen to aid the audience in following and
understanding the text.
Work out how the text's
allows its detail and information to unfold - and often persuasive - in
used? Are they presented in a way that is balanced
or carefully selected so they are biased?
opinions presented? In persuasion, opinions are
never balanced and are given a sense of authority
and influence. Work out how this is being done. People often say
non-fiction texts should be based on facts; but this can't be so simply
because much in life cannot be condensed to mere facts: most things are a
matter of opinion. It's important, therefore, to be able to
sort out fact from opinion and to be able to
judge how balanced or otherwise the facts and opinions
to see if the text sets out to create an emotional response, often though the use
highest grades, see if you can work out if the text's
conventions create some kind of important response in the audience. Some
genres can be quite powerful in this way. They act to create a mind-set or
guide a response from their audience. The formal headlining and columns of
influential newspapers such as The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The
Times, for example, are instantly recognisable and suggest truthfulness and
trust. Some formal business letters use layouts and letter headings that
instantly seem authoritative and important. Leaflet genres vary - an
information leaflet is easily recognised and instils trust whereas many
sales or promotional leaflets ('flyers') have the opposite effect and end up
quickly in the bin!
Look out for and read a selection of non-fiction and media texts to practise your close-reading skills by...
1. Thinking about how their genre conventions and form act to 'condition' the way you are responding to them.
2. Summarising their subject matter, content, circumstance and their 'story' to gain a sense of the 'big picture'.
3. Considering who the texts are intended for and all that this implies - their target audience.
Audience is a far more important consideration than most people appreciate.
Your aim should be to work out how a writer chooses effective language and 'non-language devices' - often used subtly - to create a style that is suited to a certain type of reader so that purpose of the the text is achieved.
For example, a broadsheet newspaper article might seem rather boring to a fifteen-year-old student (especially if in the exam you comparing it with a leaflet aimed at a younger audience), but it certainly will not have been 'boring' to its intended audience: they expect it to be that way - it is a part of their genre expectations.
Imagine a jazzy-looking broadsheet article that broke all its existing genre conventions; would its reader still trust its content and feel it to be authentic? Would they even bother to read it? You can see how genre, form and audience are always important considerations for you to consider and comment upon.
Try not to fall into the trap of judging an article aimed at a different kind of reader from yourself through teenage eyes; instead, try to 'become the text's reader' when you judge its style and appropriateness.
4. Finally, work out how the text has been styled to create certain effects on its reader and especially how these individual effects accumulate and work as a structure.
Remember that effects have been created by the writer for a purpose - to persuade the reader towards a certain way of thinking (i.e. the writer's way!).
Always try to identify and discuss a text's significant effects, comment on the methods used to create these effects and then identify the purpose intended.
Job done - high grade achieved!
Non-fiction writers can choose from a wide range of methods to create effects that will help them achieve their purpose.
Non-fiction writers use language effectively
They use language that sounds convincing - this is called rhetorical language.
They use language that affects your emotions - this is called emotive language.
The use of the personal pronoun 'you' is called the direct address pronoun: it can be used to add a personal touch and engages the reader; it sounds friendly, inviting and even confiding (e.g. 'Have faith in us; you just know it makes sense').
When used as an inclusive pronoun, 'we' can make the reader seem to be a part of a special group of people (e.g. 'We're all in this together, aren't we?') ; as an exclusive pronoun it can separate groups of people (e.g. 'We're working for a better world. Will you help?').
The use of interesting, short anecdotes adds interest and engages the reader's attention (e.g. 'Let me tell you about John, a poor beggar in Ethiopia...')..
The use of hyperbole can create a persuasive impact (e.g. 'This earth-shattering event will blow your mind away!').
Description creates imagery that can be very engaging and involving, even persuasive. It can be made very vivid and used to create mood and emotion (e.g. 'Like a sliver of shiny steel, the white crescent moon cut a gash in the heavens'). Look for the use of effective metaphors, similes and emotive language.
Facts and opinions are used to support a writer's point of view or argument but you must be able to separate worthwhile from biased facts and facts from factually stated opinions, always recognising how reasonable and effective the evidence really is.
Rhetorical questions imply their own answer engage and help to persuade the reader. They help make a point in a more powerful and emotional way.
Repetition and lists of three can be effective persuasive devices.
Personal viewpoint or 'direct address' (when I... / We... speaks to you... ) can create a friendly tone and involve the reader.
Structure allows an effective build up of a persuasive series of points.
Tone - a formal tone can add authority and sound authentic or sincere; an informal, or even conversational tone can add warmth and fun - it can be very persuasive, too.
Quotations and evidence from expert sources are used to provide support and create added authority.
Sentence style can be varied to add interest - and a very short sentence can add real impact. Can't it?
Captions add meaning and guide the reader to respond in a certain way to an illustration or a photograph.
Non-fiction writers use
Catchy titles capture the reader's attention.
Short paragraphs and sentences are easier to follow and grasp.
Headlines, captions and subheadings add impact and clarity.
White space creates clarity and attractiveness.
Bulleted or numbered lists aid clarity.
Layout can be used to aid understanding and to make the piece more eye-catching.
Formatting: bold, italic and underline can create impact and emphasis.
Type faces - including handwriting style - add impact, trust and interest.
Colour adds eye-appeal, impact and emphasis.
Spot colour catches the eye.
Non-fiction writers use
A logo can create a high level of trust in a product or service, e.g. McDonald's or 'Coke'.
Illustrations and photographs add interest, clarity and emotional impact.
Graphs and charts ease understanding (but can be very selective in what they show).
Maps may be helpful.
Cartoons add humour and attract attention.
IS YOUR ESSAY BASED ON FILM OR TV EXTRACT?
This web page focuses on printed non-fiction and media texts.
If you need help with analysing a film or TV extract, click for free guide.
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EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!
Analysing a Magazine or Newspaper Advertisement
Magazine and newspaper advertisements are one kind of media text that deserve a few extra words, even though all that is said on the rest of this web page is valid.
These days, only a very few ads exist purely to give information; those that do are perhaps ads for a product recall owing to a fault or such like. Most advertisements are produced to try to sell a product or to create an emotional response to a brand name ("Are you a Nike person...?"). Yet only a few do this in an obvious way.
Advertising agencies and their copywriters know that modern audiences are very sophisticated and aware of modern media methods.
SO JUST HOW DO ADS WORK?
There was a time when advertisements were more informative - they informed the public about a product being available, at what price and where. Those days have long gone. Now ads work at a more subtle level of association. The ad works by trying to create an emotional link between a consumer product and an attractive lifestyle. It does this in such a way that members of the target audience are made to feel that if they purchase the product, they will 'buy a way into' an attractive lifestyle.
Ads are short on space and have a lot of work to do if they are to succeed and be persuasive. If they achieve success, it is because they rely on a process called cueing. The cue is usually an image or some language that triggers or signals a pleasant memory, most often of a modern, desired lifestyle.
MESSAGE AND CODE
Ads can be broken down into two parts: a message and a code. The message is simply the offer of a product (or service). The point about the message is that it can be rejected - you don't have to buy the product! So how does an advertiser make it more difficult to reject the message? By associating the message of the product with a code. The code within an ad is far more subtle and persuasive. The code is the highly persuasive 'cued' idea that triggers thoughts of a desirable lifestyle - one that buying the product or service will provide.
Codes operate through the creation of fear.
It might be fear of being old, fear of not being 'cool' , fear of being odd or different, or of being an outsider.
It is this emotional lifestyle code that is so difficult to reject.
The success of the ad depends on how well its creator manages to associate the product's message with the emotionally encoded lifestyle.
You might be able to see that codes operate because they are culturally and ideologically determined. What does this mean? Well, we all share particular ideas called dominant ideologies in our culture or society about what we would most like to be - or, more accurately fear not being; and we have come to believe in our consumer society that a product might help us achieve this more easily. Advertising codes operate insidiously by reminding us of what we absolutely don't want to be: odd, different, 'un-cool'. This is the power of the code.
Always remember that ads are rarely intended to work alone; an ad is usually a part of a larger ‘advertising campaign’ using a mixture of different media forms such as TV, radio, posters and magazine ads.
Each part of the campaign will be coherent and unified: all working together towards a single aim of convincing the potential customer that the product (or service) offered can help achieve a certain attractive lifestyle.
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