How do I know what I think until I see what I say? — E. M. Forster, English novelist (1879-1970)
Before you begin your first draft, it is wise to do a bit of planning. This will help you to cover your topic comprehensively and present your ideas in the most logical order. Jotting your ideas on paper — whether in a formal outline, a web, or simply an informal list — will free your mind to focus on other aspects of the writing process. For example, you will be able to consider how to word your sentences instead of spending your mental energy simply to remember your ideas.
Regardless of your plan’s form, it is vital to identify the specific purpose of your writing and to consider how you can effectively appeal to your particular audience. A good question to ask yourself is, What do I want my reader to know, feel, or do when he or she finishes reading my composition? Once you identify this goal, everything in your composition should be geared toward accomplishing it.
We are going to consider audience and purpose in relation to several specific writing situations. These situations fall into two general categories: “real life” writing (which is internally motivated) and “artificial” writing (which is externally motivated).
“Real Life” Writing
“Real life” writing grows naturally out of your own desire to express an idea. You might want to persuade your fellow citizens to vote for a particular issue or persuade politicians to take a particular action. You might want to receive compensation for a faulty product or for unjust treatment. You might be seeking a new job or explaining a new procedure to employees. On the other hand, your writing might be of a more personal nature: You might be recording family stories for future generations or expressing love and appreciation for a family member or friend. Each of these situations has a particular audience and purpose. We will look briefly at points to consider in several situations.
Writing to Persuade: Certain principles apply whether you are selling a product, a candidate, or an idea.
1. Although your viewpoint may be clear, your purpose and your audience may be less obvious. You must determine exactly what you want to accomplish. Do you want citizens to vote for a particular issue? Do you want an elected official to vote against pending legislation? If you are a dissatisfied customer, do you want a replacement or would you prefer a refund? Be sure your goal is realistic. For example, although a job applicant ultimately wants to be hired, it is unrealistic to expect an employer to hire someone solely on the basis of an application letter. The immediate purpose of an application letter, then, is to secure an interview.
2. Once you determine your purpose, you must decide which audience can best help you accomplish it. If you are trying to sway people to your point of view on a current issue, should you send a letter to an editor (if so, which publication?) or send a mailing to households (if so, which ones?). Be sure to send your message to someone who has the power to take the action you request. If you are writing to someone within a company, you should send your message to a named individual rather than to just a position (Customer Service Manager, for example). By calling the company — or perhaps by checking their Web site — you can determine the best recipient for your message. Also be sure to check the spelling of names; even common names can be spelled in unusual ways.
3. Once you determine your purpose and your audience, you are ready to begin thinking about how you will approach your audience in order to accomplish your purpose. Spend plenty of time considering the current beliefs and/or behavior of your audience. Look at the issue from your audience’s perspective. Consider not only what your audience believes but also why. What supporting reasons underlie your audience’s viewpoint? Although your message probably will not address all of these arguments, you need to be aware of them and perhaps counter them more subtly. Also be sure to identify points on which you and your audience agree. Regardless of how violently opponents may disagree, there is usually some point of common ground. For example, both Israelis and Palestinians probably desire a safe and secure homeland.
4. A piece of persuasive writing should begin with something the audience will agree with. If you start by bluntly stating the action you want your audience to take (something that may be diametrically opposed to their current thinking), the audience is likely to read no further. If, however, you show respect for your audience and show that you share certain beliefs with them, the audience is likely to keep reading. Try to find a path that will very gradually lead the audience from their viewpoint to yours. Be sure to develop and support your ideas.
5. Let your reader know what action you expect. Consider an adjustment letter, for example. Most companies genuinely want to satisfy a customer. However, if you do not specify whether you want a refund or a replacement, your reader has to guess what you want, and you decrease your likelihood of receiving a satisfying response. If you are writing an application letter, let your reader know that you want an interview. In a polite imperative sentence (a command), ask your reader to call you to schedule the interview. Make your contact information easily accessible. In situations where a change of mind is more important than an action to be taken, a question can effectively conclude your piece. In some cases you might plan a series of messages to elicit additional commitment from your audience.
Writing to Inform: Your purpose in informative messages is likely to go beyond the simple transmission of information. There might be an element of persuasion as well. As you are informing employees of a new procedure, for example, you might be subtly encouraging them to follow it. In considering your audience, you must consider not only how the message will be received but also how you must construct the message in order for it to be understood. What does your reader already know about your subject? (You must be sure you are providing necessary background information and not presuming knowledge that is not there.) You must also be sure that the vocabulary and readability of the message are at an appropriate level. Would some parts of your presentation be clearer with diagrams or other visual aids?
Writing Personal Messages: Although your audience and your purpose may be obvious with a personal message (telling someone how much you appreciate him or her, or delivering a carefully crafted piece of advice), you should still put yourself in your reader’s place to consider how the message will be received and how you can make it most effective. An excellent book on this subject is From Me to You: The reluctant writer’s guide to powerful, personal messages. Authors JacLynn Morris and Paul L. Fair, Ph.D. identify five basic elements to include in nearly every personal message, regardless of its purpose:
1. What got me thinking about you?
2. What are my positive feelings for you?
3. What makes you special to me?
4. What do I remember and treasure about our time together?
5. What do I want you to get from my message?
In From Me to You Morris and Fair present examples of many kinds of personal messages, including those of appreciation, apology, advice, inspiration, and comfort. For a complete review of this book, visit
For ideas of different kinds of personal messages that you could make into a special keepsake, see
“Packaging”: Although packaging your message will be the focus of Lesson 7, it is important to think now about any packaging that will affect the content of the message itself. For example, if you are mailing a persuasive piece to many people who don’t know you, simply getting them to open the envelope is a major hurdle. You might be able to bypass that hurdle by sending, instead of an envelope, a self-mailer that summarizes your important information on an outside panel. Obviously, such a decision greatly affects the design of your message.
Bright-colored postcards can also be effective — and economical — if your message is short. You can cut a sheet of card stock into four postcards.
Special packaging is likely to be a consideration for a personal message as well. You might frame your message or make it into a book; or your words might be coupled with an object of special significance to make a treasured keepsake. Packaging needs to be addressed in the planning stage only if it will affect the content of your final product.
Instead of growing out of our natural desire for self-expression, “artificial” writing is imposed on us by some external force. Most school writing assignments are examples of “artificial” writing. In “artificial” writing both the audience and the purpose are likely to be unrelated to the content of the composition. Although you might be explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, your real audience (the teacher) already knows how to do that, and your real purpose is to demonstrate your writing proficiency. In “artificial” writing situations, identifying an imagined audience and an imagined purpose makes the writing more meaningful. For example, you might imagine that you are writing for a six-year-old child so that he or she can fix lunch for both of you. School writing assignments will be more meaningful when the audience and purpose are directly related to the content (such as writing a letter that will be sent).
Another example of “artificial” writing is the college admission essay. While the audience is a college admissions officer and the purpose is to get you admitted to the school, the content of your essay will probably mention neither. By choosing an interesting topic, showing yourself in a favorable light, and demonstrating acceptable writing proficiency, you are trying to convince your reader that you would be a good addition to the school’s student body. Although a detailed discussion of this specialized genre is beyond the scope of this lesson, excellent information is available on the following Web page:
For All Messages
For any of these writing situations, once you have identified your purpose or chosen your topic, jot down all of the ideas that you might want to include in your composition. This is not a time to censor your ideas. If an idea occurs to you, jot it down. Whenever you are writing, you want to narrow your topic and then develop it as comprehensively as possible. If you are writing in favor of a particular bill, for example, you don’t want to simply give the first few reasons that come to your mind. You want to consider all of the reasons and select those that are strongest. Some of the reasons might be subpoints of others. In writing to persuade, a general rule is to give your strongest argument last, your second-strongest argument first, and your other arguments in the middle.
When you have jotted down everything you might want to include, select the points that will most effectively accomplish your purpose. Then decide on the best order to present them to your audience. Also jot down words or phrases that you might want to use in your composition.
If you are writing with a specific publication in mind or writing to fulfill an assignment, be sure to meet all requirements and follow all guidelines. (If you are writing a Letter to the Editor, for example, check the specific publication for guidelines pertaining to word count and content.) Plan your writing so that you meet deadlines.
Carefully planning your composition — considering your audience and purpose — will help to ensure that your message accomplishes its goal. Planning will also facilitate the writing of your first draft.
Next Week: Writing Your First Draft
After you have planned your lesson and written your first draft, you will begin editing. Do you have an English handbook that makes the rules of grammar, usage, and punctuation easy for you to understand? If not, ordering Hands-On English now will ensure that you will have this information when you need it.
A. Analyze the effectiveness of various messages you receive — especially those designed to move you to a particular viewpoint or action. Which techniques do you think would work in your own writing?
B. Think about the following points. Discuss them with your conferring partner — and others.
1. Narrow your topic, and determine your specific purpose for the piece you will write. Exactly what do you want to accomplish?
2. Decide to whom your message should be targeted — a public official, readers of a newspaper, a list of individuals, a customer service manager, a family member, etc.
3. Decide what you want your audience to know, feel, or do after reading your message.
4. Decide how to effectively present your viewpoint to this audience to accomplish your goal. Especially if you want to move the audience to your way of thinking, consider these questions:
a. What is your audience’s opinion on this subject?
b. On what do you and your audience agree?
c. How can you get your audience’s attention?
d. What is the biggest obstacle to getting your audience to accept your point of view?
e. How can you overcome the obstacle identified in d?
5. “Only a Matter of Opinion?” comprises many excellent Web pages about persuasive writing. It includes specific guidelines for structuring editorials, commentary, and columns — and even includes information on editorial cartoons. Although the site indicates that its target audience is middle school and high school students, it has a scholarly appearance and its information is excellent for people of any age. Especially if you are writing a persuasive piece, spend plenty of time browsing these pages, which include a reference center and information about logic and the art of writing. (If you are a teacher or homeschooler, lesson ideas are included as well.) (Note: While this link worked a few weeks ago, it did not work a few days ago. I hope this is a temporary problem; the site has excellent information.)
6. Is there any information you need in order to make an effective presentation? Do any necessary research — find relevant statistics, documentation, supporting quotes, etc.
7. If you plan to submit your message to a particular publication, check the guidelines (especially for word count and content) for the type of piece you plan to send.
8. Plan what you will include in your composition and how you will organize it in order to accomplish your goal. Jot down some notes, or make an outline or a web.
9. Consider the tone that will dominate your piece. This has to do with your attitude toward your subject. For example, will your tone be humorous or serious, formal or informal, partial or objective? Some of this will become clearer as you begin writing, but it is good to begin thinking about it now.
10. Also begin to consider what your point of view will be. Will you use first person (“I”), or will you use third person, which will place more distance between you and your subject?