What’s Your Purpose?

Kizz put up a post today in which she ruminates on the idea of positing a purpose.  This resonated with me because, in my line of work, the concept of purpose  and the concise and eloquent expression of it are often at the heart of much of what  I do.

When I talk to my students about purpose, I give a pretty clear and (I think) easy definition of the concept; the purpose of a piece is the reason it exists; what was the author trying to make happen through the creation of this piece?  I teach my kids to make very sharp distinctions about the different aspects of the things we investigate, be they films or poems or novels, speeches, advertisements, or letters;

• plot (or topic) is what happens (or what the piece is about)

• theme is the big idea (or ideas; there are most often more than one)

purpose is what the author wanted to accomplish with the piece.

Theme and topic questions are best answered with nouns – “this story is about friendship” or “that essay is about avian migration patterns and their effect on consumer spending.”  Purpose questions are answered with verbs – the purpose of this piece is to entertain or to inform or to analyze.

Kids find, in pretty short order, that purpose is not only pretty important – it’s what holds much of their writing together, after all – but that it also shows up in a lot of different places.  While some kids revere authorial intention above all else (I’m trying to break them of that, in fact), I will admit that working on discerning an author’s possible motives for writing a piece helps the kids to put that piece into a larger context and perspective; it helps them to get it.  Being able to come up with a possible reason that someone bothered to go through all the trouble of writing – much less of publishing – a piece of work really is an analytical exercise, and while I don’t hold much with the authorial intention angle, I often do ask the students to consider the author’s possible motivations for putting these words down in the way that he or she did.  I find, more than anything else, that getting the students to consider purposes helps them to clarify their own approaches to the material, and helps them to solidify how they think and feel about the piece in the end.

Where the idea of purpose comes up most notably, though, is in every writing exercise that students undertake.  They need to keep purpose in mind when they’re composing a letter, when they’re answering a question (I teach them to look for the verbs used in the questions they’re responding to – the way they “describe” is going to be very different from they way they “define”  or the way they “analyze;” or, at least, it should be), or when they’re composing a story or a poem.  Purpose is the glue that holds the whole thing together; it’s the unifying force of their writing, and when it’s absent, it’s obvious.

It is true that nearly every class I’ve ever taught has identified “organization” as a fundamental weakness in their writing.  They know what they want to say, they complain, but they don’t know how to get there.  That’s because they lack a purpose – they could have all the information at their fingertips, have all the time and resources in the world, but if they don’t have a reason to sit to write, they’ll likely never be satisfied with what they produce.  Try it sometime; before you begin a writing project – a letter to that fabulous restaurant you went to last week, a memo to your office, an email to your best friend about what you saw in the grocery store the other day – really think about what you’re trying to accomplish by sitting down to write; what do you want to happen as a result of your effort?  Once you’ve got a clear purpose in mind, you’ll likely find that the writing is much easier that it would have been without it.  I have multiple purposes for this piece, I think: I want to share my thinking with you (so that I can get your feedback), I want to record my own thinking so I can refer back to it later, and I want to explain the way I think about purpose and its importance in my teaching practice.  All of those things have informed the way that I’ve constructed this piece; how I’ve organized my information, what I’ve chosen to stress (and what I’ve left out altogether), and what voice and tone I’ve taken.  Were my purpose different (say, if I’d had a crappy day and just wanted to vent my shit), I would have put this whole thing together very differently.

Discerning purpose is, at least in the context of a creative exercise, a distinctly meta-cognitive thing; one has to be willing – and able – to investigate one’s motivations in order to be able to articulate a clear (and honest) purpose.  I think that this is one of the reasons that so many people have such a hard time positing purpose; we’re not really practiced in looking closely at how we think, or at what really motivates us. Think about how motivated some of us (ehem.. me!) are to write letters of complaint.  We don’t necessarily want to admit it, but when we write letters to businesses that have given us lousy service, it’s important, I think, to remember that intimidation – whether through righteous indignation or not – really is our purpose.

Not for nothing, but I also think that purpose, more than anything else, is the reason I could never sit to write a novel; I can’t find a purpose to the exercise that works for me and, accordingly, I can’t find enough motivation to string that many words together.  Purpose is a great motivator!

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4 Comments

Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, I love my job, out in the real world, Questions, reading, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching, writing

4 responses to “What’s Your Purpose?

  1. Thanks for this excellent advice. Purpose is incredibly important and without having a clear purpose staying on track with writing is quite difficult.

  2. Improbable Joe

    Yeah. I was talking to my wife the other day about why my writing is more effective than anyone else’s in my classes. Part of it is my ego, because clearly no one can write more betterer than me. Besides that, I’m always trying to tell a story or express a position. That’s “purpose” and it works better than just throwing words at the page and praying that they come together in a meaningful way. Combine that with coherent relative weighting of the importance of your ideas, and you can really express yourself in a competent way.

  3. Just to be clear, I was not talking about finding a purpose for a written essay I was trying to find a purpose for a larger creative project whose circumstances are largely dictated by someone else. Oh, and joking about having a purposeless life, too, since the term “Purpose Statement” sounds extremely militant to me.

  4. CJ, you’re right; having a clear purpose in mind really does put things in perspective.

    Joe, I find that my best writing comes when I know exactly what I want that writing to do.

    Kizz, I know that your conversation was different, but it inspired me to this – I will probably, at another time, write a post about how to find a purpose when the work is assigned; I find I have a lot of trouble with that.

    “Purpose statement” CAN be pretty militant; sometimes, straightforward, unambiguous things do. That, I think, is part of why some people have such a hard time with this sort of thing.

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