What is purpose? How does purpose shape composing processes? When composing, how can I best identify and express my purpose?
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What is Purpose?

Purpose, from the context of Writing Studies, is

  1. the writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s. . . reason for communicating.
  2. the reader’s, listener’s, user’s . . . reason for reading a text.


  1. Purpose is also known as Aim or Goal.
  2. Some people consider purpose and thesis to be synonymous terms. Others view purpose to be a broader classification of discourse and thesis to be a more specific message or argument.

For rhetors, after considerations of audience, little is more important than purpose.

Related Concepts: Organizational Schema; Professional Writing Prose Style

Purpose plays a profound role in human communications:

As humans, we are innately purpose driven. Our sense of purpose guides our composing and interpretative practices.

Purpose informs composing processes:

Purpose is an heuristic, a method of invention: Contemplating your purpose in relation to your audience brings into focus what to say and what not to say. Often, during composing, writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s. . . sense of purpose evolves as they learn more about the topic and intended audiences.

Once you know your purpose, you can

In some circumstances, writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s. . . know their purpose immediately. At other times, they need to compose a lot of drafts before they know what their purpose really is. In interviews of writers @ work, one commonplace anecdote is that writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s. . . especially love writing when their sense of purpose evolves.

Purpose determines genre:

Genres reflect shared textual expectations between readers and writers. Genre reflects the histories, activities, and values of communities of practitioners. And the actions of these practitioners are determined by shared purposes.

Because life is complicated, so are purposes. People write documents for countless reasons, including

  1. Record: Keep a record of events or information.
  2. Reflect/Explore: Write in a journal, attempt to make sense of something or to shape a new idea.
  3. Inform: Objectively report an event.
  4. Demonstrate Knowledge: Prove, in school, that you’ve learned course content.
  5. Summarize: Report someone else’s words, theories, and research in your own words.
  6. Explain: Help readers understand a difficult concept, theory, or event.
  7. Analyze: Break down a problem into parts.
  8. Persuade: Change minds, invoke action.
  9. Theorize: Speculate on possible causes and effects.
  10. Entertain: Bring joy, amazement, and thrills.

Purpose has been a subject of significant academic study. Since antiquity, theorists have have speculated about ways purpose shapes content.

In the 1970s through the 1990s, this effort to analyze the effects of purpose on the shape of content endured. Building on the shoulders of Samuel Newman’s work, James L. Kinneavy (1971) postulated there are four primary aims, or purposes, for communication:

Expressive Discourse
e.g, personal journals
Referential Discourse
e.g., scientific, informative, and exploratory discourse
Literary Discourse
e.g., novels, poems, short stories
Persuasive Discoursee.g., proposals, advertisements, recommendation reports

In 1975 James Moffett categorized the texts of eleven and eighteen old students in Great Britain. Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee followed up that study with How Writing Shapes Thinking in 1987, replicating the methods of Moffett’s study yet focusing on the writing of U.S. students. Langer and Applebee also extended this analysis by theorizing the effects of different discourse purposes on cognition.

Works Cited

Britton, James, Tony Burgess, Nancy Martin, Alex McLeod, and Harold Rosen. The Development of Writing Abilities (11-19). London: Scho0ls Council Publications, 1975.

Connors, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 444-455.

Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse. Englewood Cliffs , TV. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Langer, Judith A., & Applebee, Arthur N. (2007). How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies. The WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/landmarks/langer_applebee/ (Originally published in 1987 by National Council of Teachers of English)