Before You Begin to Write

Knowing your purpose

Your purpose is, put simply, the goal for your writing. What do you want to achieve? What points do you want to make? What idea or cause motivates you to write? Anything you can do to sharpen your thinking and infuse your writing with a clear sense of purpose will be to the good: you will find it easier to stay focused and help your readers see your key point and main ideas about your subject.

What are some common purposes writers have? The authors of the essays in The Norton Reader had informing, persuading, entertaining, or expressing as some of their purposes. So, too, your writing will have a primary purpose, usually defined in an assignment by words such as “explain,” “describe,” “analyze,” “argue.” Each is a signal about the purpose for your writing.

Use these questions to think about your purpose for writing:

What does the assignment ask you to do? Is the goal to inform readers, entertain them, argue a point, or express an idea or feeling? Beyond a general purpose, what does the assignment require in terms of a specific purpose?

  1. How does your purpose affect your choice of a subject? What do you know about the subject? How can you find out more about this subject?
  2. How can you connect to your readers? What will they want or need to know? How do you want them to respond to your writing?

Addressing your audience

Just as the authors in The Norton Reader aimed their essays at different audiences—readers of books, large newspapers, magazines, small journals, and scholarly publications, as well as activists, ordinary citizens, and churchgoers—so you need to imagine your audience as you write. Too wide an audience—“the general public”—and you run the risk of making your essay too diffuse, trying to reach everyone. Too narrow an audience—“my roommate Zach”—and you run the risk of being too specific.

Use these questions to guide you in thinking about audience:

  1. What readers are you hoping to reach with your writing?
  2. What information can you assume your readers know? What information do you need to explain?
  3. In what ways will you need to adjust the style of your writing—the language, tone, sentence structure and complexity, and examples—to meet the needs of your audience?

Finding a subject

Some assignments give you a lot of leeway in choosing a subject, leaving you with the inevitable question “What should I write about?” In this case, write about what you know or care about, drawing on knowledge you’ve already gleaned about a subject from personal experience, your reading, or research. Your knowledge does not have to be totally new, but your perspective on a subject needs to come from you—a real person writing about a subject that matters.

How do you find what you know or care about? One way is to raise questions about an essay you’ve read:

  1. What is the author’s main point? Do you agree or disagree with the main point?
  2. Has the author said enough about the subject? What gaps or omissions do you see, if any? Are there sentences or paragraphs that you could expand into an essay of your own?
  3. Are the author’s examples and evidence convincing? If not, why not? Can you provide a more compelling example, additional evidence, or a counter example?
  4. Does this reading “speak” to anything else you’ve read in The Norton Reader? Can you explain how this reading connects to the other? Do the readings agree or disagree?
  5. Is this reading true to your own experience? Has anything like this happened to you, or have you ever observed anything like this?

You can also choose a subject by reflecting on your own experience:

  1. Has someone you know affected your life in some way—by teaching you, by serving as an example (good or bad), or by changing your attitude?
  2. Is there a place that you can describe to others, telling them what makes it unique or special to you?
  3. Is there a subject you feel strongly about, something you believe others need to learn about—for example, a program on your campus or in your neighborhood, a controversial item of national significance, or a matter of global importance?
  4. Have you had an experience that has taught you something valuable, influenced the way you live, or made you think differently about life, school, work, family, or friends? Readers will be interested in the details of the experience, including how it affected you and what you have learned.

Determining genre

Like the purpose, audience, and subject of your writing, the genre or form of your writing may be prescribed in your instructor’s assignment. The Norton Reader contains a variety of essay genres:

  1. Narrative genres
  2. Descriptive genres
  3. Analytic genres
  4. Argumentative genres

If you have some leeway in choosing the genre in which you will write, consider what genre best fits your purpose, audience, and subject:

  1. What goal do you have for your writing? What genre is most appropriate for that goal?
  2. Who will read your writing? What genre will best convey the point of your writing to your readers?
  3. What are you writing about? What genre is well-suited to your subject?

To gain more understanding of these genres, read plenty of examples, analyze the forms and strategies they use, and then try out a genre on your own. There’s no better way to understand how a genre works than to try your hand at writing it.

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