What is your purpose here? by Francis Moi Moi

posted Oct 24, 2017, 10:08 AM by Writing Center
Try to resist any existential crises the words purpose and meaning may elicit. Though I have set out to write on the notion of purpose—and I will suggest a need to know your own inside and out—I am concerning myself with a writer’s purpose—your purpose as writers. Now, what I have been noticing recently, in having to discuss purpose so often with student writers, in both my writing consultations and my composition course, is a startling trend of loose, vague, and muddled purposes. (Think fortune cookies—just general and riddled enough to work for anyone in any circumstance.) However, I have to insist that we dig in deep here and turn up more specific purposes; they not only improve the quality of our writing, but I believe they make writing easier.

As I have been thinking on this subject, I am sympathetic as to why we may take this question of purpose for granted. Perhaps we don’t feel the need to give our papers any existential meaning because they have none beyond the fact that they were assigned to us to write. Also, a purpose for a written work has everything to do with the intended audience, and that readership is as limited as it is obvious—our instructor who assigned the paper. However, we do ourselves a disservice in assuming this most insipid of purposes. When we conflate our purpose as students with our purpose as writers, the result is a paper with no more life to it than to get a passable grade. So, when a paper flatlines, we ramble, repeat, over-generalize, state the obvious, and error on the side of coverage in a desperate attempt to make a word count. Similar to the aimless meanderings one might characterize of a life with no definite purpose—offering little by means of insight and interconnectedness—so, too, is the life of a paper with no purpose.   

How I have come to recognize this, and the frustration it causes, is in discussing a student writer’s thesis. The thesis reveals to a reader the point of the paper—the paper’s purpose. A purpose is always an action: to inform or to persuade, to clarify or to suggest. If your purpose isn’t a verb, some action word that tells the reader what you’re doing, chances are you might not have a clear enough idea of what you are doing. A critical self-awareness of our purpose for writing the paper is somewhat preventative of the confusion and frustration during the drafting process that we are now seeking to remedy at the Writing Center.  When student writers come with concerns of focus, clarity, and structure, my first questions are, “Where is your thesis, and what does it say?” More often than not, thirty minutes of ironing out a thesis and understanding what we want to tell our readers—and why—clears the air. With the given scope of our purpose, what we need to address comes into focus.  The logic behind our claim is revealed and lends itself to particularly advantageous structures because of the nature of its specific needs.  This leads us to re-appropriate what has already been written in haste, without a set purpose.

I suggest that we take our purposes seriously and know them inside and out if not for your paper’s sake for your own to save you from the desperate panic that awaits aimless wanders. So, really consider what you want to tell your readers and why.