1 Writing Purposefully
Kate Mele, PhD
Typically, rhetorical purpose is defined by three infinitives: “to inform, to persuade, and to entertain.” But we can refine those as we consider what we want to say about the problem at hand. For instance, our purpose may be to report, to inquire, to evaluate, or to offer a solution. As you work through the course, you are sure to come up with other infinitives to describe your purpose more accurately. The point is, though, that before we begin a first draft we need to ask ourselves what do I want to do and for whom? The text is not simply a collection of curated quotes and facts, but a means to an end—to get our audience on board with what we’ve discovered about the problem we’re investigating—and that’s why our purpose needs to be clear in our own minds and in the minds of our readers.
You can see it’s hard to separate purpose from audience—because we need to recognize that our text exists for our readers. If they miss the intent of what we’ve written, they are likely to dismiss our ideas. So, before I talk about writing to a purpose, I’ll say a bit more about the audience because an audience affects our purpose.
We can imagine a target audience. Those readers are the initial recipients of the message. But there are secondary and tertiary readers to be aware of, too. Think of it this way. I write an email to my supervisor that identifies a potentially damaging clientele problem. And let’s say I have an easy-going, joking kind of relationship with my supervisor so I write the email informally and with a humorous tone he will appreciate. My supervisor takes my point and forwards the email on to his supervisor, who forwards it to a vice president. The VP glances at the message and wonders why it even landed in her inbox. In other words, by the time the vice president receives my email, the intent of the message has been lost. Why? Because the humor (directed to one reader) suggests the problem is not a serious one (to another reader).
That brings me back to purpose. What do I want to have happen? Sometimes, our purpose is assigned—by a professor or someone to whom we report. Other times, we arrive at our own purpose. A question might come to mind when we are doing academic reading, so we follow the thread of what others have written about the question until we know we want to contribute a new perspective on the idea. Or in our communities, we might observe certain inequities, so we dig into their root causes and research what others have done to create or solve the problem. In our workplace, we might notice something is not as operational as it could be, and we want to know why and what might be done to change the situation. In effect, we go through a process of inquiry to find out what we want to have happen, in other words, to clarify our purpose.
In my example above, I wanted the company to know the problem I have identified is significant. But before I arrived at that specific purpose, I had to figure out what made the problem big enough that my supervisor and his supervisor needed to pay attention. I had to do some reading, gather some data, play out some scenarios, crunch some numbers. Once I got a handle on the problem, I saw it was a serious one, and, just as important, I realized it was beyond my scope to solve. So, my purpose became to alert the company leaders to a significant problem. All of a sudden—when I thought about who has the power to make the appropriate change—the way I described my purpose became more precise and well-defined. I clarified for myself that my purpose was not to solve a company problem but to alert company leaders.
The writer’s purpose, in conjunction with the audience, impacts every part of the text. The infinitive (i.e., to alert) sets the trajectory. What follows the infinitive (i.e., the company leaders need to know there is a significant problem) connects the purpose to the audience. In other words, to make a full statement of purpose I have to say my intent is to alert the company leaders that there is a significant problem. Once I have this statement fully in place, I can make rhetorical decisions about the types of evidence that will create a convincing case, the genre that best delivers the message, and a style and tone that reaches beyond any personal relationship I may have with the initial recipient of the message.
In essence, a writer’s purpose is a GPS. Once we have clarified our intent, we can set that purpose as the final destination. There may be times in the writing process when we will have to re-route ourselves because we have gone off purpose, but keeping our intent in mind we will find our way back to what we want to accomplish. Ultimately, if the writer follows out the logic of her purpose with the right kinds of evidence, reasoning, genre, and tone, the text will carry weight because the message is clear.