Part 2: Two Rules Worth Breaking
The Writer’s Boot Camp
As writers, whether developing characters and plot or creating a marketing brochure, the most important thing we can do is ask questions. The first and most important question is why? Why are you writing? What is driving you? Why now?
The answers help us to understand and clearly identify our purpose – which, in turn, helps us with almost every aspect of the writing process.
When we talk about the writer’s purpose, we mean your personal goals – what you hope to gain from writing – as well as your goals for your readers. Let’s begin with you. Do you hope to: learn something new? Express an opinion? Convince readers to do something? Create a work of art? What are your goals for your readers? Do you want to inform? Entertain? Persuade readers to think, feel or act a certain way?
Identifying what you want to accomplish, for yourself and your readers, helps you:
1) choose a mode of discourse;
2) determine how to organize and develop your piece;
3) decide what types of evidence to use;
4) make choices regarding tone and style.
Mode of Discourse
There are four basic modes of discourse: exposition, persuasion, narration & description.
Exposition: informs the reader, conveys information
Persuasion: uses rhetoric to convince readers to think, feel or act a certain way
Narration: tells a story, using drama and suspense to heighten tension
Description: uses sensory detail to provide information about a person, place or thing
Suppose your goal is to persuade your audience to vote for a certain politician. Using the standard mode of discourse for this purpose – persuasion – you’d state your reasons, backing each with supporting evidence.
Usually, though, writers have more than one purpose. Suppose, for example, you want to convince your audience to a particular point of view, and you also want entertain them. Writers and filmmakers often use storytelling as a means of persuasion.
When we tell a story, we rely primarily on narration, but we also include description. For marketing copy, a writer might use all four modes of discourse – exposition, to provide information about the product; persuasion to sell a product or promote brand; narration or storytelling, to make the story stick; and description to provide sensory details about the product.
Organization & Development
Having a clear understanding of purpose also helps you to organize and develop your piece. To persuade a sympathetic audience-say, to convince an audience of liberals to vote for the liberal democratic candidate-it’s usually safe to approach the subject directly. Tell readers upfront that you hope they’ll vote for John or Jane Doe, then tell them why you need their vote, and then finish your piece with a rousing call to action.
Suppose, instead, you’re addressing a reading audience of independents or moderate republicans. With a hostile audience it’s usually best to go in through the back door. Lay out all the reasons we need a leader like Jane or John Doe, reminding readers of the benefits, what they stand to gain if he or she were elected. Only after you’ve persuaded them, convinced them that Ms. or Mr. Doe is a leader they can trust, can you ask for their vote.
Evidence & Supporting Detail
Identifying your goals, knowing your audience and what you hope to accomplish also helps you determine the type and amount of detail you’ll need to illustrate and support your points. If, in your story, you hope to shed light on a particular issue, you’ll need to select details that bring your point forward.
Say, for example, you’re telling a story – true or fictional – about a young mother who dies of cancer. The woman has three young children. During a routine blood count, or CBC, her physician discovers a problem; she soon learns that she has advanced stage 4 cancer. Three weeks later, she passes away. While readers want to know what happened, they also want to know what you’ve learned. What is your purpose? Why are you telling this story?
If your purpose is to warn them about this particular type of cancer, you’ll need to provide medical details, evidence that shows the importance of screening, for instance. If your purpose is to promote hospice care, you might begin the same story shortly before the young mother passes away, recap her brief illness, show her grief-stricken family, and then focus on the compassionate care offered by the hospice team. Or maybe you want to show the bravery of the young husband, facing the death of his beloved wife; for this story, perhaps you focus on his protectiveness toward their children. The point is, by changing the key details or focusing on different events, a single narrative can accomplish many different goals.
Tone and Style
Finally, identifying your purpose helps with decisions on tone, diction and style. How do you want your readers to perceive you? Do you hope to be considered authoritative? Or friendly? How much distance do you want between you and your readers? If your purpose were to inform people of a newly discovered disease or deadly bacteria and impose a quarantine, you’d want to sound authoritative, and you’d probably take a stance that put some degree of distance between you and your audience – as might, for instance, the Surgeon General or some other high level physician. To do this, you’d write objectively, with formality in language, style and tone.
Convincing teens not to smoke would necessitate an entirely different approach – more casual, with the informal diction that appeals to this audience. Understanding and identifying purpose helps you select and focus your topic, identify the needs and concerns of your readers, and choose how to put your article or story together.
Next time you’re wondering how or where to begin, or you’re struggling with process, stop for a minute – and ask yourself why?
How do you go about identifying and defining your purpose?