In some ways, writers’ and readers’ interactions with each other are like conversations at a party. You’ve probably wandered around a party, listening in briefly on conversations until you find one you want to join. What you hear in a conversation is filtered through your interests and experiences. And what you say is shaped by a particular purpose (to entertain or inform someone, to ask a question, or perhaps to interest someone in getting together with you at a later time). If you’re like most people, you try to avoid repeating things that have already been said and you try to stay on the subject. To do this, you listen to a conversation before adding to it.
This is one of the ways in which writing is most like a conversation. Just as you do at a party, you want to listen (or read) long enough to you know what’s been said, what people are discussing at the moment, and what they might welcome as a relevant contribution. In other words, you want to be accountable to what’s been going on before you add to the conversation.
In addition, members of a conversation typically try to create responses that offer something of value to their readers — something new or interesting, something that helps move the conversation forward. Your decisions about what you might add to a conversation will be based not only on what you’ve listened to — or, in the case of writing, what you’ve read — but also on your understanding of the needs, interests, values, and beliefs of other members of the conversation.
For these reasons, the relationships between readers and writers can become quite complex. Just as writers compose documents for a wide range of purposes, readers read for a variety of reasons. The degree to which writers can accomplish their purposes depends in large part on the extent to which their document can influence readers to behave or think in certain ways. The degree to which readers find a document useful depends on the extent to which it is consistent with their interests and needs. The document, as a result, becomes the key point of contact between readers and writers – who might live in different times, be separated by thousands of miles, and/or bring radically different experiences to their writing and reading of the document.