The Real Purpose of Your Writing (Hint: It’s Not About Book Sales)
Knowing why you’re writing what you are sounds obviously fundamental, doesn’t it? If you don’t have a reason, what makes you put words on the page and share it with anyone?
This question seems so easy a lot of writers skip it.
You’re told you should have a blog, so you write posts. Your competitor has success with a book, so you pitch publishers. You need a new stream of income, so you create an online course.
Besides checking boxes in some entrepreneurship to-do list (pst, that’s not real), do you know what any of these creations are supposed to achieve?
A fundamental principle of good writing, the rhetorical situation, calls this the “rhetorical purpose” for your writing.
What Is Rhetorical Purpose?
Most simply, the purpose is the goal of your writing. But that doesn’t mean book sales or pageviews. The rhetorical purpose is the deeper goal; what do you expect this piece of writing to achieve?
Potential purposes are endless, but common rhetorical purposes include:
To connect: The core purpose of your writing might be to interact with the audience. This is usually the case when you write a letter, email or text, for example.
To inform: Information is the purpose of the content on this blog. When you want to instruct without guiding someone’s opinion, your purpose is to inform or educate.
To influence: If you write to make an argument or persuade your reader to believe something, you’re writing to influence. This is also the purpose if you write to inspire the reader to action, such as with sales copy or a rousing political essay.
To entertain: This is the purpose when you want to evoke emotion, such as with humor writing, narrative nonfiction, or fiction genres like romance, horror and mystery.
To record: In this case and the next, you, the author, are also the audience. When your purpose is to record, you write just to remember something.
To learn: Much of what you write for school is for this purpose. Writing can help you make sense of things you’ve read, heard or done; and it can help you commit information to memory, as studies have shown. Journaling can also have this purpose; you reflect on your experiences, thoughts and emotions to understand them.
Rhetorical purpose can be a little tricky to define, and it’s easy to conflate with a business or academic purpose, like self-promotion of good grades. To define your purpose, challenge yourself to think rhetorically about the writing itself and avoid thinking strategically about the project or career the writing is part of.
Here are some examples:
Research paper for a sociology class: The rhetorical purpose is not to earn a good grade. That’s a goal based on your academic career. The rhetorical purpose is to learn by demonstrating your understanding of the subject matter.
Memoir about your backpacking trip through South America: The rhetorical purpose is not to establish your expertise in travel, sell 5,000 copies or become a best-selling author. It’s to entertain and maybe inform readers by sharing your story. It might also be to record the experience for yourself or to learn more about yourself by untangling the experience through the narrative.
SEO-targeted blog post about how to write a book: The rhetorical purpose is not to rank on the first page of Google or garner 5,000 pageviews a day. It’s to inform the reader with practical steps so they can achieve their goal of writing a book.
These other goals are still important to your work, but separating them from your rhetorical purpose can help you focus on writing well — as you do the actual writing, that’s your only job!
How to Write for Your Purpose
To ensure your writing achieves its rhetorical purpose, carefully define it before you start writing. Ask a few simple questions, and keep their answers in mind as you write.
How Will Your Writing Serve the Reader?
What should the audience get out of your writing? Answer this question when you write for an external audience and target purposes such as to connect, inform, influence or entertain.
Tie everything you write back to this core purpose. It’ll get you out of your own head and keep you from straying into self-serving tangents (we’ve all been there) or unoriginal nonsense (there, too).
Take a couple minutes before you start writing to answer this question: How will your writing serve the reader?
To find your purpose, start with your reader story. Here’s a reminder of what that looks like: As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].
Then, tie your purpose back to your reader: How does what you’re writing help the reader achieve [some goal]?
On her blog, business coach Mindy shares exercises based in mindfulness, meditation and yoga to give her C-level executive readers (and potential clients) practical daily steps to relieve stress and clear their minds when it’s time to leave the office.
In this case, the Mindy’s readers’ goals are to relieve stress and clear their minds after work. Mindy’s writing to inform them with her content: exercises they can adopt into their lives.
What Do You Hope to Achieve by Writing This?
What do you want to get out of your writing? Ignoring your business or academic goals for now, answer this question when you write to learn or record — when you are your own audience.
Does the Reader Know Your Purpose?
For your writing to have the desired effect, your reader has to understand its purpose, too.
They don’t necessarily need to be able to define it as clearly as you do, but they should know as they read whether your piece is meant to inform, influence or entertain them. You can imagine the different mindset and expectations they’ll have as they read, depending on their assumptions about about the writing’s purpose.
Readers ask questions as they read that help them suss out purpose, even if they’ve never heard the words “rhetorical situation” in their life (‘hem, most have not). They’ll wonder:
What is the author’s intention?
What does the author want to happen next?
What is the author’s position on this subject?
For example, if you’re a reporter and your purpose is to inform the reader of an event at the White House, does your writing convey your objectivity and cover the facts? Or does it leave holes the reader could interpret as bias and assume your purpose is to persuade them to your political opinions?
Consider what you write based on how it answers these questions for the reader.
Write a Rhetorical Purpose Statement
In the classroom, students might be tasked with creating a “rhetorical purpose statement” for a piece of writing that answers those questions formally. The same exercise could help you understand your own work from the audience’s point of view.
A rhetorical purpose statement could look like this:
[Author]’s goal in [title of written work] is to [common purpose] the audience that [subject] through [rhetorical appeals employed in the piece].
Coach Mindy’s goal in her blog post “How to Fit Mindfulness Into Your Busy Schedule” is to inform the audience about mindfulness exercises through logos (an appeal to reason) by detailing research about the benefits of mindfulness.
Step Into Your Reader’s Shoes
Does your writing achieve its purpose?
While you write and review your writing, step outside of yourself, and complete these statements from the reader's point of view:
“The author intends to…”
“The author wants me to…”
“The author believes…”
Write to ensure these statements always point to your purpose, and you should be on track.