11.3 Concept 2: Know your Purpose

It’s impossible to think of a piece of written communication without a purpose. Even if you are just scribbling down whatever thoughts enter your head, you have a purpose: to express your own ideas. Self-expression is a common purpose for written texts, but it’s not quite as important in academic and professional settings. In fact, you may have to sublimate your personal feelings if the situation calls for it. For instance, no matter how strongly you feel about being billed incorrectly for your internet service, abusive language or profanity in business correspondence to your service provider is generally not effective and may undermine your purpose entirely.

You should be clear about what you want to achieve with a piece of written communication or a publication before you can think about design or the nature of your content. Unfocused publications don’t communicate effectively, just as unclear, disorganized, or poorly supported arguments are far less likely to persuade a reader. Before you fire up the software and start creating off the top of your head, spend some time articulating your purpose. Are you trying to inform? Persuade? Instruct? What is the best format for achieving your purpose? For example, trying to explain how to shoot a free throw in prose only, with no visuals, is incredibly difficult no matter how skilled you are as a writer. Your purpose may require diagrams, graphics, or even video. Some things are very difficult to express in writing. The best way to teach people how to shoot free throws is to take them to the basketball court and let them try it. Consider if your purpose can even be achieved in writing at all.

Also consider how many purposes you can manage at once, especially if your text needs to be brief. A single short brochure that attempts to advertise the services at a community center, encourage healthy eating habits, and persuade the audience of the benefits of a municipal bond measure will probably fail on one or all counts. That’s a lot to cover in a short publication. A brief booklet that explains the ins and outs of kitesurfing in Kailua will accomplish a lot more than a general “Travel in Hawaii” brochure, which is likely to be pretty but not terribly informative. More specific, focused content is nearly always more helpful and interesting to a reader. Don’t try to do too much in a short format.

Sometimes your purpose is set for you. Readers of a business plan, for example, will expect certain information: an executive summary, a rundown of marketing strategies, financial requirements and assets, and a description of how the business will function. Know your audience, and make sure you cover all the required or conventional elements that they will expect.

Failing to understand your purpose (and your audience’s needs, which drive your purpose) can cause you to produce a publication that readers can’t use. Think of a garage sale sign with no dates and no address. Readers of the sign won’t be able to use it, and they’ll just ignore it. Similarly, a flyer for a kids’ soccer camp that doesn’t tell parents what they need to bring or doesn’t contain a schedule of the daily program will get you a lot of annoying phone calls and emailed questions.

Most professional publishers plan scrupulously, then they produce many drafts and get tons of feedback to ensure that their purpose is being achieved. Publications like brochures, booklets, and posters are “mocked up,” or sketched out in advance, to determine what can be covered in the available space, how many images or photos are needed, and how much text the writer needs to produce. Those who produce Web sites or publications know what they want to achieve before they ever write a word, and you should too. As Abe Lincoln once supposedly said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.” Creating a publication requires you to think in advance about your purpose, your concept, your audience, your goals, your format, and your material needs (images, graphics, text, headlines, color schemes, etc.). Do your due diligence so your final product will have been worth the time you spent on it.

ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are producing a brochure to advertise a new gym/workout space that you plan to open in your town or city. What goals (purposes) will you set for this publication? What types of information will you want to convey? Who is your audience? What graphics or images will be most important?


This chapter was written by Jodi Naas, Portland Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Technical Writing Copyright © 2017 by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book