Determining Your Purpose


Every paragraph, poem, and page–in fact, every word that’s written is written for some reason. Some of the reasons are bad: to convince someone of a lie, for example. Some are only mediocre, such as getting a good, or at least passing, grade on a composition course. Those of us who write for a living never put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard without having a particular purpose in mind for doing so. The most pressing reason may be to meet a deadline, but beyond that– Do we want to make readers laugh? Make them cry? Make them mad? Make them think? The purpose a writer has will affect the way the writer writes.

Who's your audience, and what do you want to do for them?
Who’s your audience, and what do you want to do for them?

You may not write for a living, but your compositions will be more satisfying to work on if you have some purpose in mind besides “finish or flunk.” Let’s say, for example, that you’re interested in entering an essay contest. Essays can be any length, about anything, in any style, so the first step is to focus. After deciding your topic (see last month’s tip, “The Thesis is the Thing”), the next important decision is your purpose. And that’s all tied up with the reader: what effect do you want to have on that amorphous person? And what’s the meaning of “amorphous”?

Your main purpose may be to entertain, to convince, or to inform, but you might have a secondary purpose as well. For example, I write a regular column for World, a Christian news magazine. My primary purpose is to make the reader think, but some issues are more emotional than others and I’d be gratified if I can make the reader feel something, too. Many informative essays, such as you might find in a travel or hobby magazine, can also make the reader laugh. An essay intended to persuade readers of a particular position can also include plenty of facts to inform them as well.

A writer who can write in different genres, for different reasons, to provoke different responses, has the flexibility of a Pilates instructor. To develop your flexibility, try these two exercises.

Write an opening paragraph based on a one of the following sentences, then rewrite it to reflect a change in purpose. The first paragraph will be an advertisement, the second a political commentary, the third a serious short story.

Here’s an example, based on this famous sentence:

These are the times that try men’s souls.



These are the times that try men’s soles. Aren’t you ready for a pair of Nikes?



“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine. He was considering the dark days of the American Revolution, but the words could apply to the national scene today. With killer hurricanes, city-wide flooding, scandalous accusations and vicious political battles, how might old Tom Paine bolster our spirits?



These are the times that try men’s souls, thought Brent as he punched the button to open the garage door. Mr. Amos had read that in American History class, and it stuck. Nothing tried Brent’s soul more than being grounded, only two months after getting his driver’s license, for breaking curfew one night. One freakin’ night! He kicked the front left tire of his dad’s Ranger, and suddenly noticed that the old man had left the keys in the front seat.


Now pick one of these sentences and try it yourself.

Don’t touch that remote!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I love to see the sweet gum tree in our yard turn every shade of yellow and orange at once.


Or, choose an object in your house and write three opening paragraphs about it, as in

  • a humorous article,
  • an informative essay,
  • a letter to the editor.

The object should be a little unusual, but not totally bizarre, such as an antique urn, a souvenir plate from the Fiji islands, or a large bird cage containing a talking macaw