Writing to Your Purpose

drawing of a student contemplating while writing

Source: Student contemplating, Asuka,

As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of most student research papers is to inform, explain, or persuade. Knowing your purpose will help you know how much background information you need to write about your topic and which details you want to include. Sometimes, you will be told what your purpose is when the paper is assigned. Often, you will not be assigned a purpose, and you will have to decide what your purpose is on your own.

Writing to inform

When your purpose is to inform, you want to present the facts about your topic in a neutral way without injecting your opinion into your writing. You are answering the basic journalistic questions: what, when, who, why, and how. You want to present your facts in a logical order.

Sometimes when you write to inform, you give the reader steps in a process (for example, how to cut carbon emissions in seven easy steps) or explain how an event happened (such as the events that led the United States to enter World War II). If you are writing about something sequential, you can use a few signal words or phrases to guide your reader along. Here is just a sampling: first, second, and third, or to begin, to continue, afterward, to finish, start by, next, then, and last. You should always think about which of these signal words would work best in your essay.  You never want to grab one without thinking of how it is best used.

Sometimes when you write to inform, you are comparing and contrasting two different subjects (for example, Christopher Columbus and the early astronauts). Signal words for comparing and contrasting include words such as both, similarlyalso, likewise, same, however, otherwise, different, but, and while.

When you write to inform, you might also be writing to show cause and effect (for example, the causes and effects of racial discrimination.) Signal words for cause and effect include words and phrases such as due to, as a result, consequently, leads to, and so that.

Writing to explain

Most often, your purpose when writing a research paper will be to explain. Writing to explain takes writing to inform a step further and allows you to add your opinion to the facts. When you write to explain, you are documenting a problem and proposing a solution. Just as you do when writing to inform, you need to lay out your evidence in a logical manner: chronologically, sequentially, or from least important to most important. Your final paragraphs should propose a solution to the problem you have posed, and your thesis statement should also focus on a solution. For example, if your topic is ending our reliance on fossil fuels, your paper should not only inform your reader of the alternatives available but also should make some recommendation about which alternative is the best.

Writing to persuade

When you write to persuade, you want to convert your reader to your point of view. Your topic should be one that has some controversy surrounding it. After all, you don’t need to persuade your audience to believe in something that is generally accepted. You want to give them facts, but you also want to appeal to their emotions so that they will relate to you and your conclusions. When you write to persuade, you want to acknowledge the opposite viewpoint and counter the evidence that supports it with evidence that supports your viewpoint. For example, although many people accept the theory that human activity is contributing to global climate change, there are many people who believe that what we call “global warming” is a normal part of the climate cycle, and, therefore, the clamor to change our energy and land use is unnecessary.

To successfully persuade the climate-change skeptics, you need to understand the evidence that they believe supports their opinion and offer compelling, factual evidence that contradicts that evidence. In addition to providing compelling evidence and anticipating the opposing point of view, when you write to persuade, your tone should be less factual than when you write to inform or write to explain. Consider using colorful language such as metaphors and similes, anecdotes, and imagery.