Purposes in Writing

When a person writes something, he or she has purposes for writing. The writer may have motivations of which he or she is unaware. The writer may also have mixed, and even contradictory, motivations for writing.

For instance, a student writing an essay for a class may wish to please the teacher and to amuse his or her classmates. Unfortunately, what might amuse classmates the teacher could find unacceptable.

In general, people write either because they are required to or because they choose to write for their own reasons.

Required writing happens on the job and in school. Self-chosen writing happens in many circumstances. Both required and self-chosen writing can be of many kinds. In either case, reflection on different purposes for writing can help one produce the most effective piece of writing.

Roman Jakobson's model of the communication situation provides a good framework for classifying the varied purposes of writing.

Adapted to written communication, Jakobson's model has these parts:

  1. Writer
  2. Reader
  3. Context
  4. Message
  5. Contact
  6. Code

Writing can be seen as having six general types of purpose, each type of purpose focusing on one of the parts of the communication model.

  1. Writer: Expressive purposes. One may write simply to express one's feelings, attitudes, ideas, and so on. This type of writing doesn't take the reader into consideration; instead, it focuses on the writer's feelings, experience, and needs. Expressive writing may take the form of poetry, journals, letters, and, especially, free writing. Often, a person will do expressive writing and then be disappointed when readers don't respond to it.

  2. Reader: Conative purposes. Conative writing seeks to affect the reader. Persuasive writing is conative; so is writing intended to entertain the reader. Writing intended to arouse the reader's feelings is conative. Conative writing may take about any form, so long as its intention to persuade the reader or affect the reader emotionally.

  3. Context: Informative purposes. Informative writing refers to something external to the writing itself, with the purpose of informing the reader. For instance, this page is informative, as are the other components of this Map. In our times, informative writing is usually prose, although in earlier periods poetry was used for informative purposes.

  4. Message: Poetic purposes. Poetic (or literary or stylistic) purposes focus on the message itself—on its language, on the way the elements of language are used, on structure and pattern both on the level of phrase and of the overall composition. Poetic writing can be in prose as well as in verse. Fiction has poetic purposes. Anytime one writes with an emphasis on the way the language is used, one has a poetic purpose.

  5. Contact: Phatic purposes. Phatic language (and nonverbal communication) establishes and maintains contacts between speakers or between writer and reader. In speaking, for instance, we may greet someone by saying, "Howya doin?" or Hozit goin?" These questions are not requests for information. They are intended to establish and maintain friendly contact. Phatic purposes are not significant in most writing. The use of greetings and closings in letters is one example of phatic purpose in writing.

  6. Code: Metalinguistic purposes. Comments on a piece of writing are metalinguistic. If a student attaches a note to an essay to explain why the essay is late, the note is metalinguistic in relation to the essay. An author's preface to a book is another example of metalinguistic purpose in writing.

If you think about it, you will realize that many pieces of writing have more than one purpose. A poem may be intended to arouse the feeling of sadness in the reader (conative), express the poet's feelings (expressive), and use the language imaginatively and forcefully (poetic).

When you write, define the purposes of your writing. Decide what your primary purpose is and subordinate the other purposes to it. If you have conflicting purposes, be aware of that, and try to resolve the conflict or exploit it to make the writing more intense.

I have discussed the purposes of writing from the writer's point of view, not the reader's. The reader's purposes are discussed with interpretation. But for now, consider that the reader's purposes may be quite different from, and may conflict with, the writer's purposes. A poet may have written a poem to experiment with the language. A reader may read the poem seeking biographical information on the poet. Such conflicts and tensions produce much of the energy and excitement of literature.

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To Models of Written Communication