Dr. Judith M. Newman

Understanding Readers

There are three important aspects of reading which writers must keep in mind:

  • The Reading Process
  • Interpretive Community
  • Intertextuality

The Reading Process

Reading is a complex constructive process involving both visual and non-visual information—what's in front of the eyes and what's behind them. The essential skill all competent readers learn is to depend on their eyes as little as possible. Of course, your eyes have a role to play in reading, but visual information is not enough in itself. You bring to any encounter with written text your understanding of the particular language a text is written in, both word meanings and its grammatical structure, as well as as your familiarity with the subject matter, your experience with reading, and especially what you know about reading different kinds of writing.

Because reading is inherently dependent on what readers know, there can be no "literal" meaning of any text—there will be as many meanings as there are readers; no one of them is literal. When a group of readers has common knowledge, their interpretations of a particular text will converge, but there is no guarantee that all readers will construct the same meaning.

Interpretive Community

What's important for technical writers to judge is the breadth of knowledge about the subject their readers are likely to have. If the audience is large, it's unrealistic to expect all of your readers to come to your text with the same background. Realize there are likely to be gaps; do your best to anticipate them.

What works in your favour is the interpretive community—the potential shared meaning of a group of professional readers. Your sense of what your interpretive community is likely to know allows you to make some assumptions as you write.

But remember, there is no guarantee any particular reader shares your interpretive community. There is no way you can write a text that makes a particular interpretation a certainty! So try out your writing on both naive and expert readers.


What's in any particular text itself can only hint at the inferential meaning a reader is invited to make. To participate fully in reading any text requires a sense of intertextuality. Readers relate the current piece they're reading to other texts they've read on the same subject, as well as connecting information from things they've read on related subjects.

Readers must be familiar in advance not only with the general content, but have some particular background knowledge of the specific domain of the text. This is a key aspect of the transactional nature of reading along with technical, cultural, and linguistic contexts and the more widely read the audience, the more likely they will make sense of your writing—although not necessarily the sense you intend them to make.

To the extent that the writer and reader share such contexts, there will be convergence of interpretation. Texts are not transparent; they don't directly reveal their meaning. Readers construct meaning based on a large number of factors. Writers have to remember reading is a process of making inferences.