Writing with Purpose: Establishing Motive

Writing With Purpose:  Establishing Motive
By Jacob Kramer, CUNY Writing Fellow

Have you ever started reading something where you found yourself wondering, “Why is the author telling me about this?”  The answer to this question lies in understanding the motive of the essay or paper.  Ideally, your readers will not have this reaction because you will tell them why your writing matters.  According to scholar Gordon Harvey, your motive is the reason someone other than your professor would want to read your paper.  (See Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay.”) Your motive should explain why your specific argument is not already obvious, and why others could have reached different views.  Here are some questions to help you establish motive in your writing.

Why is the material you are writing about interesting to you?

  • Often a writer can become so immersed in a subject that the importance will seem obvious to him or her.  In general, though, the writer needs to spell out these thoughts explicitly for a reader to understand them.
  • If you are at the brainstorming or drafting stage, motive is a good place to start.  Try thinking of your reader as another student, or someone reading a newspaper, and explain why your paper is important.

Why would your paper be interesting to someone else?  (Incorporating “Motivating Moves” by Kerry Walk, Princeton University.)

  • Can your specific case be used to illustrate a general idea?
  • Is there something ambiguous or hard to figure out about the topic?
  • Have you found a contradiction that you can explore?
  • Is your topic more important than it might at first seem?
  • Have you found evidence that challenges a widespread view?
  • Does your paper reveal an assumption by both sides of an ongoing debate?

Why would your writing be important to other people working in the academic subject?

  • Although you may come to your topic for personal reasons, the motive should establish why someone else ought to read the paper, as Harvey points out.
  • You can approach this question by explaining how your paper addresses the major themes of the course. 
    • Sometimes the assignment lists themes explicitly. Take advantage of it!
  • The syllabus and lectures may also cover themes.
  • Your paper can participate in an ongoing class discussion.
  • You can join the conversation between other authors on the subject. Your professor can suggest two or three other authors.
    • Can you add something to what another author has said?
    • Have other authors underestimated the importance of your topic?
    • Can you resolve a dispute between other authors?
    • Do you disagree with the other authors?

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