Identifying a Purpose

All writing has a purpose. You may need to argue to prove that something is true or that a solution will work. You may need to analyze to understand why something is the way it is, and you may need to summarize to demonstrate another person's point of view or your findings from an experiment.

Usually, writing has more than one purpose. Academic writing often has the following purposes:

  • To demonstrate knowledge and comprehension of a topic.
  • To apply that knowledge to solving a problem or understanding an event.

Identifying your purpose will help you focus your writing to accomplishing that purpose and only that purpose. Thus, your writing will stay on target.

Sometimes the assignment provided to you by your instructor will have keywords in it to help you identify your purpose. For example, "compare," "contrast," "explain" and "evaluate" usually indicate that an analysis is needed. Words like "support,""defend," "devise,"and "justify" usually require an argument. Words like "state," "describe," "define," or "identify" usually call for a summary of some kind.

Analysis

Analysis breaks a whole into its separate parts in order to examine the parts to give meaning to the whole. To analyze something is to break it down into smaller parts and reconstruct it.

Whether we are analyzing the layout in our local supermarket or the writings of Samuel Huntington, we follow the same processes of deconstruction and reconstruction when we analyze.

Analysis DOES NOT just describe, summarize, or interpret. Although critical analysis is different from argument, analysis is used to support argument.

The subject for analysis can be anything: a text, a place, a person, a policy, an event, etc. Start by identifying the purpose of the whole thing. For example, if analyzing a text, what is the theme of the text? If analyzing a place, what is the purpose of this place? If anlayzing a person, what is this person's significant purpose?

Prepare questions before reading, visiting, or viewing the subject to be analyzed. Typical questions include:

  • What are the parts of this whole?
  • What are the benefits of the parts to accomplishing the purpose of the whole?
  • What are the problems of the parts to accomplishing the purpose of the whole?

For example, if analyzing an academic integrity policy at a university, you might ask the following questions:

  • What are the parts/requirements of this policy?
  • What are the benefits of these parts/requirements to accomplishing academic integrity?
  • What are the problems of the parts/requirements to accomplishing academic integrity?

Research! Use the gathered information to answer your questions about the subject. Indicate if the whole has accomplished its purpose, and explain how well the individual parts work together to help the whole accomplish this purpose. You might suggest reasons why the parts do not work well and offer suggestions for improvement.

For example, if analyzing an academic integrity policy at a university, you might answer your questions in this way:

  • What are the parts/requirements of this policy? The policy has specific requirements for students and faculty (name them).
  • What are the benefits of these parts/requirements to accomplishing academic integrity? Most of the requirements help ensure that students do not plagiarize (show how).
  • What are the problems of the parts/requirements to accomplishing academic integrity? Some of the requirements are not strict enough to keep students from plagiarizing (show how).

Argument

Argument essays deal with controversial and debatable topics, for which there are two or more sides. In an argument essay your purpose is to convince or persuade a specific audience of a particular claim or viewpoint and support that with logic and evidence. Arguments are different from reports, whose purpose is to state information and facts, and are different from descriptive essays, whose purpose is to describe a particular object, situation etc., because they make controversial claims. More....

Other kinds of writing

Most writing is shaped by a set of conventions that inform the structure and content of what you write. These are also limited by a specific length (word count or number of pages) required.

  • Rhetorical analyses
  • Counterarguments
  • Response papers
  • Reflection papers
  • Proposals
  • Abstracts
  • Personal statements and CVs
  • Executive summaries
  • Reports
  • Undergraduate research papers
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Literature reviews