Purpose in Writing

Previous Page

Purpose in Writing :

This section ought to be read in conjunction with the section on Tone, as tone and purpose are very much related: one's tone is defined by why one is writing and vice versa.

It's important to know why you're writing. If your purpose in writing is to please your instructor or to get a better grade, that may not be enough. Many instructors devise strategies to persuade their students to write for a larger community — publishing students' best work in a newsletter or online publication, asking students to send their papers to local newspapers, putting their best papers in a collection in the college library — something that allows students to feel that more than one person, sitting alone at the kitchen table, is going to read this bit of writing. Knowing that there is more than one person to please, a public "out there," is a motivation in itself to do well, to communicate clearly. It will help establish, also, that consistent sense of tone that is so important to a paper's success.

Beyond that feeling that there is an audience out there, waiting breathlessly for this paper you're working on, it helps to have a clear sense of what you're trying to do for this audience. Are you trying to entertain them? That is surely a lofty purpose: writing to lighten someone's spirits is not a project to be undertaken lightly. Is your paper a matter of self-expression? Do you have opinions or feelings that you need to share with others? Are you trying to persuade others that you have a view of things that is clear-sighted, useful, and needs to be shared? Or that someone else's position is faulty, muddle-headed, or otherwise wrong? Are you trying to provide an exposition of facts or process or definition that others can take advantage of, or are you trying to persuade them of the rightness of a moral or ethical position? Do you want your audience to read your paper and then act, filled with new energy because of what you've told them? The objectivity, mood, and earnestness of your prose will be determined by this attitude or sense of purpose.

The writing process is normally aided by a sense of pressure. This paper that we're working on is something that has to be written — not just because we must please our writing instructors or because we need a good grade in this course (those pressures have their own sense of emergency) but because there is information or a point of view that we need to share with the reader. Karl Schnapp, an English professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut, calls this sense of pressure exigence.

Exigence consists of the circumstances that necessitate communication. For example, if you fall down the cellar stairs and lie at the bottom screaming for help, then exigence is easy to understand: you have fallen, and you can't get up. Those are "the circumstances that necessitate communication." Here is another example. You buy your Aunt Louise a scanner for her birthday so she can monitor all the emergency and police radio activity in her neighborhood, but she says the programming directions are too complicated and she gives the scanner back to you. When you try to program it for Auntie, you discover she's right. So you write the manufacturer to complain about their programming instructions. Those are "the circumstances that necessitate communication."

In a word, exigence is a problem, a defect, a challenge out there in the real world that compels people to communicate. Sometimes these problems are economic: the shortage of financial aid for students, the lack of money for necessities of life, the unwise manner in which tax dollars are spent by our government. Other times the defects are political: bickering over a recycling program among factions on the city council, a quarrel between members of a union over whether or not to strike. Sometimes the challenges are social: the deportation to immigrants, the treatment of people with racial, ethnic, or physical differences. Sometimes the flaws are personal: the need to vent anger about a casual remark that was taken as an insult, the desire to establish or maintain friendly ties with acquaintances or co-workers or family (please note that not all exigences are negative; in reality, many are positive), the need to relieve feelings of pain caused by the breakdown of a long-term relationship. In all these cases (and many more in our everyday lives), circumstances exist that call out for us to communicate with others. Understanding exigence is essential because without it we cannot effectively determine purpose.

The pressure to write is determined by the relationship between you as writer and the audience you're trying to reach and affect.

English Glossary Index

From Purpose in Writing to HOME PAGE

Follow These Links!