Define the Purpose
Think about the different kinds of writing that you have experiences with every day. Consider the newspaper that’s delivered to your door or that you read online. Its different parts do different things—they have different purposes. Its news articles and bulletin boards generally inform you about world, state, or local events; its opinion columns and advertisements try to persuade you either to a point of view or to buy something; its humor columns and comics attempt to entertain you. Since writing can have so many purposes, you have to decide exactly what you want your writing to do. What you want your writing to do will be tempered by your audience, but, for now, let’s consider purpose by itself.
Since you have a topic, you already know what you want to write about. But, your writing also needs to do or to accomplish something.
Another way of thinking about purpose is to think about your topic as a noun and your purpose as a verb. Let’s consider an example: your topic is the rise in the sea level of Long Beach Island due to the green house effect. This noun phrase reflects the topic for your paper, but it doesn’t tell anything about what you want to accomplish in your paper. So, to have a purpose, you have to answer the question, “what do I want to accomplish in my research paper?”
If we return to our example, you’ll notice you need a verb or verb phrase to accomplish something in your paper about the rise in the sea level of Long Beach Island due to the green house effect. More than one verb phrase is possible that would relate to this topic. For example, you may want to
- Describe the affects of the rise in the sea level of Long Beach Island on the Long Beach Island community
- Persuade readers to prevent the rise in the sea level by raising the island.
You may have more than one purpose in your paper, but typically you will be driven by a primary aim. For example, you may have to inform readers of the dangers of the rise in sea level to persuade readers to raise the island, but your main aim is still persuasive because your ultimate goal is to persuade, informing your readers is just one of the techniques you are using to attain your goal.
Now, let’s get back to the research paper you’re working on. Before you begin to draft your research paper, you’ll want to ask yourself the question that we asked above, the question of purpose: What do I want to accomplish in my research paper?
It’s a simple, but tough, question. Ann Raimes, in Keys for Writers: A Brief Handbook, suggests several other questions you can ask yourself to help you clarify your purpose. The first three of her questions relate well to college-level writing:
“1. Is your main purpose to explain an idea or provide information?
2. Is your main purpose to persuade readers to see things your way or to move readers to action?
3. Is your main purpose to describe an experiment or a detailed process or to report on laboratory results?” (7)
Raimes also indicates what the “answers” to each of the questions means. If you answered number one with a ‘yes,’ then your purpose most likely involves informative writing; if you answered number two with a ‘yes,’ then your purpose most likely involves persuasive writing; if you answered number three with a ‘yes,’ then your purpose most likely involves scientific or technical writing.
Again, the question of purpose is a tough question. Before you begin writing you will need to consider your primary purpose in the context of your audience.