5 2.1: Knowing Your Purpose for Writing

Learning Objectives

target icon1. Distinguish between general and specific purposes for writing.
5.  Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.
i. Identify your purpose for writing
ii. Use pre-writing strategies to generate ideas, as well as select and limit a topic

Rarely does anyone write for professional reasons just for fun. Whether you’re dashing off a quick email, filling out a work order, or a composing a large market research report, there’s a good reason for doing it—related, even if in a roundabout way, to getting paid for contributing to the profitability of an organization. Knowing your reason for writing is essential to staying on track in a writing process that, if followed from beginning to end, will save you time and effort by helping you write no more or less than you have to. The next four chapters will break down this writing process into four stages—preparing, researching, composing, and editing—each with a few sub-stages. But the whole process starts with knowing your purpose, which will guide you towards writing an effective message in a document appropriate for the audience and occasion.

Getting back to the communication process examined in the previous chapter, we can say that all communication, including writing documents, involves both a general and a specific purpose regarding the feedback message. The general purpose is the end-goal of communication such as aiming to inform, persuade, motivate, entertain, or a combination of these and other effects. The hope is that a sender’s message will come back as a feedback message proving that the receiver correctly understood the information, was persuaded to support an idea, was motivated to follow a desired action, was amused, etc. With the end goal in mind, the effective writer reverse-engineers the message to achieve the desired effect.

The most common general purpose of workplace messages is to inform. Most emails, memos, and reports cover a topic thoroughly and precisely with the journalistic 5 Ws + H subtopics

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How

How much weight you give each subtopic (or any weight at all) depends on the situation. Sometimes the why isn’t important and other times a rationale is crucial to an information message that also requires persuasion. Take, for instance, an email by a construction contractor responding to a customer inquiry about whether they can do a bathroom renovation. A thorough response would include details such as what exactly would need to be done and how (a labour itemization as part of the price estimate), how many workers would be assigned to the job (the who), and how long it would take (the when). Details such as the where and why are already given (e.g., the bathroom is being renovated because it is 25 years out of style and the baseboards are mouldy) although the contractor may provide an estimate that includes explanations detailing why the price might fluctuate given unknown factors such as delayed materials shipments and midway design changes by the client.

The specific purpose always depends on the situation at hand. If the general purpose of the above estimate is to inform, the specific purpose is to provide a written record of the probable price so that the customer can compare estimates from other companies and decide which offers the best value. Specific purposes may involve ulterior motives—hence secondary or tertiary purposes besides the primary general purpose. The contractor may, for instance, use the opportunity to provide a brochure illustrating attractive-looking past reno jobs to give the customer a sense of the quality of work the contractor does and inspire them with options ahead of their design consultation. Such marketing falls under secondary general purposes related to credibility and persuasion

Of course, any communicator must ensure that their purpose is realistic, which again affects the credibility of the message. If, for instance, the contractor priced themselves out of a job by providing a $40,000 bathroom reno estimate to a lower- or middle-income customer, the goal of winning the contract would fail for the contractor having misjudged the customer’s price range. All customers and employers seek the greatest value—preferably higher quality at lower cost. If professionals fail to strike a realistic balance by offering low quality at unreasonably high cost or “over-promise and under-deliver” with a too-good-to-be-true offer of extremely high quality at very low cost (unless this is a “loss-leader” marketing strategy for more regularly priced work to follow), they will be seen as lacking credibility either way.

Key Takeaways

key iconKnowing your general and specific purposes for writing at the outset of the writing process helps keep you on track with topic selection.


pen and paper iconSelect a letter you’ve recently received in the mail (or one your roommate, friend, or family member has received) from a company or organization, ideally a promotional or campaign letter rather than one too specific to your or the recipient’s situation, and describe both its general and specific purposes. If its general purpose included informing (recall that a document can have more than one general purpose), identify the subtopics (5 W’s + H).


This chapter is adapted from 2.1: Knowing Your Purpose for Writing in Communication at Work by Jordan Smith.


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Communication at Work Copyright © 2022 by Julie Rivers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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