Purpose

Your explicit or stated reason for writing is your purpose: Why are you writing in the first place? What do you hope your words will accomplish? In college, the general purpose is usually specified by the assignment: to explain, report, analyze, argue, interpret, reflect, and so on. Most papers will include secondary purposes as well; for example, an effective argument paper may also need explaining, defining, describing, and narrating to help advance the argument. If you know why you are writing, your writing is bound to be clearer than if you don't. This doesn't mean you need to know exactly what your paper will say, how it will be shaped, or how it will conclude, but it does mean that when you sit down to write it helps to know why you are doing so.

The rhetorical purpose of most writing is persuasive: you want to make your reader believe that what you say is true. However, different kinds of writing convey truth in different ways. If your purpose is to explain, report, define, or describe, then your language is most effective when it is clear, direct, unbiased, and neutral in tone. However, if your intention is to argue or interpret, then your language may need to be different. If you know your purpose but are not sure which form, style, or tone best suits it, study the published writing of professionals and examine how they choose language to create one or another effect.

College writing is usually done in response to specific instructor as-signments—which implies that your instructor has a purpose in asking you to write. If you want your writing to be strong and effective, you need to find a valid purpose of your own for writing. In other words, you need to make it worth your while to invest a portion of your life in thinking about, researching, and writing this particular paper. So, within the limits of the assignment, select the aspect which most genuinely interests you, the aspect that will make you grow and change in directions you want to change in. For example, if you are asked to select an author to review or critique, select one you care about; if asked to research an issue, select one about which you have concerns, not necessarily the first that comes to mind. If neither author nor research issue comes to mind, do enough preliminary reading and research to allow you to choose well, or to allow your interest to kick in and let the topic choose you. Go with your interest and curiosity. Avoid selecting a topic just because it's easy, handy, or comfortable. Once you purposefully select a topic, you begin to take over and own the assignment and increase your chances of writing well about it.

As I've just implied, part of the purpose includes the subject and topic. The subject is the general area that you're interested in learning more about. For example, all of these would be considered subjects: American literature, American literature in the 1920s, New York City authors, the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer, Cane. Even though the subject Cane (the title of a collection of short stories by Jean Toomer) is far more specific than the subject American literature, it's still only a subject until you decide what about Cane you want to explore and write about—until you decide upon your topic in relation to Cane: perhaps a difficulty in one particular story in the collection, a theme running through several stories, or its relationship to other Harlem Renaissance works.

The general subject of a college paper could be a concept, event, text, experiment, period, place, or person that you need to identify, define, explain, illustrate, and perhaps reference—in a logical order, conventionally and correctly (see Chapter Fifteen, "Writing Alternate Style,"for exceptions). Many college papers ask that you treat the assigned subject as thoroughly as possible, privileging facts, citing sources, and downplaying your writer's presence.

Learn your subject well before you write about it; if you can't, learn it while you write. In either case, learn it. To my own students I say: plan to become the most knowledgeable person in class on this subject; know it backward and forward. Above all else, know it well beyond common knowledge, hearsay, and cliché. If it's a concept like postmodern, know the definition, the explanations, the rationales, the antecedents, and the references, so you can explain and use the term correctly. If it's an event such as the Crimean War, know the causes, outcomes, dates, geography, and the major players. If it's a text, know author(s), title, date of publication, genre, table of contents, themes, and perhaps the historical, cultural, social, and political contexts surrounding its publication. Then write about a specific topic within this subject area that you are now somewhat of an expert on. The following suggestions will help you think about your purpose for writing:

• Attend closely to the subject words of your assignments. If limited to the Harlem Renaissance, make sure you know what that literary period is, who belonged to it, and the titles of their books.

• Attend closely to the direction words of all your assignments. Be aware that being asked to argue or interpret is different from being asked to define or explain—though, to argue or interpret well may also require some defining or explaining along the way.

• Notice the subjects to which your mind turns when jogging, driving, biking, working out, walking, or just relaxing. Will any of your assignments let you explore one of them further?

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