This section ought to be read in conjunction with the section on Tone, as tone and purpose are very much related: one's tone is defined by why one is writing and vice versa.

It's important to know why you're writing. If your purpose in writing is to please your instructor or to get a better grade, that may not be enough. Many instructors devise strategies to persuade their students to write for a larger community — publishing students' best work in a newsletter or online publication, asking students to send their papers to local newspapers, putting their best papers in a collection in the college library — something that allows students to feel that more than one person, sitting alone at the kitchen table, is going to read this bit of writing. Knowing that there is more than one person to please, a public "out there," is a motivation in itself to do well, to communicate clearly. It will help establish, also, that consistent sense of tone that is so important to a paper's success.

Beyond that feeling that there is an audience out there, waiting breathlessly for this paper you're working on, it helps to have a clear sense of what you're trying to do for this audience. Are you trying to entertain them? That is surely a lofty purpose: writing to lighten someone's spirits is not a project to be undertaken lightly. Is your paper a matter of self-expression? Do you have opinions or feelings that you need to share with others? Are you trying to persuade others that you have a view of things that is clear-sighted, useful, and needs to be shared? Or that someone else's position is faulty, muddle-headed, or otherwise wrong? Are you trying to provide an exposition of facts or process or definition that others can take advantage of, or are you trying to persuade them of the rightness of a moral or ethical position? Do you want your audience to read your paper and then act, filled with new energy because of what you've told them? The objectivity, mood, and earnestness of your prose will be determined by this attitude or sense of purpose.

The writing process is normally aided by a sense of pressure. This paper that we're working on is something that has to be written — not just because we must please our writing instructors or because we need a good grade in this course (those pressures have their own sense of emergency) but because there is information or a point of view that we need to share with the reader. Karl Schnapp, an English professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut, calls this sense of pressure exigence.

Exigence consists of the circumstances that necessitate communication. For example, if you fall down the cellar stairs and lie at the bottom screaming for help, then exigence is easy to understand: you have fallen, and you can't get up. Those are "the circumstances that necessitate communication." Here is another example. You buy your Aunt Louise a scanner for her birthday so she can monitor all the emergency and police radio activity in her neighborhood, but she says the programming directions are too complicated and she gives the scanner back to you. When you try to program it for Auntie, you discover she's right. So you write the manufacturer to complain about their programming instructions. Those are "the circumstances that necessitate communication."

In a word, exigence is a problem, a defect, a challenge out there in the real world that compels people to communicate. Sometimes these problems are economic: the shortage of financial aid for students, the lack of money for necessities of life, the unwise manner in which tax dollars are spent by our government. Other times the defects are political: bickering over a recycling program among factions on the city council, a quarrel between members of a union over whether or not to strike. Sometimes the challenges are social: the deportation to immigrants, the treatment of people with racial, ethnic, or physical differences. Sometimes the flaws are personal: the need to vent anger about a casual remark that was taken as an insult, the desire to establish or maintain friendly ties with acquaintances or co-workers or family (please note that not all exigences are negative; in reality, many are positive), the need to relieve feelings of pain caused by the breakdown of a long-term relationship. In all these cases (and many more in our everyday lives), circumstances exist that call out for us to communicate with others. Understanding exigence is essential because without it we cannot effectively determine purpose.

(used with Professor Schnapp's permission)


The pressure to write is determined by the relationship between you as writer and the audience you're trying to reach and affect. Let's examine two essay beginnings with an eye toward determining the writer's purpose and how that sense of purpose establishes tone and word choice. Let's say that for a course in Art Appreciation we have to write (there's a bit of pressure right there!) a brief analysis of a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1558; Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm; Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels). [Clicking on the image below will call up a larger version of the same painting —179 kb, not recommended with slow connections.] As you read the beginnings, think about the relationship between writer and audience and how this might have influenced how the writer wrote as he or she did.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
[First Version]
The first thing that grabbed my eye when I checked out Bruegel's painting was the red jacket worn by the guy in the foreground. Except for the splotchy sun in the sky, it's really the only bit of color in the whole thing, and I really like bright, warm colors like that. Then I noticed the fact that this guy's looking straight ahead at the horse's rear end in front of his plow. "Whoa, Nelly!" I thought to myself. What a weird thing to put in the middle of a pretty painting! It wasn't until later that I noticed a pair of legs sticking out of the ocean down in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. Somebody's drowning. Of course, none of the three guys in the painting (the plowman, the shepherd, and the fisherman) are paying much attention to it either; in fact, they're pretty much oblivious to what's going on in the water. Even the boat is headed in the wrong direction, and no one seems to give a darn or is going to save whoever belongs to those legs splashing into the water. . . .

Our first version of this first essay's beginning is casual, to say the least. Some of the language, the choice of words, would be typical of friends standing in front of a painting at the museum, remarking in an off-handed way some of its more obvious characteristics. Words and phrases such as "guy," "pretty much," "horse's rear end," "weird thing," "give a darn," "pretty," and, of course, "Whoa, Nelly!" would be inappropriate in formal academic discourse. It's not so much that those words are wrong, exactly, just that they are neither precise nor helpful in our understanding of how the painting registers its effects on the viewer. In addition, the analysis of the painting is done entirely from the viewpoint of the first-person singular, "I." Again, that's not exactly wrong, but the reader is impressed by the fact that these impressions could be entirely those of the eccentric individual writing, not that these are impressions that ought to be shared by others. The reader is not aware of any need the writer might have to make us feel or know something about this painting.

The essay excerpt below is taken from a paper by Bea Wildred, who gives us her gracious permission to use this text. Her more objective, academically appropriate essay begins this way:

Bea Wildred
Introduction to Art
Professor Allegre
Capital Community College
14 April 1998

An Analysis of
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
[Second Version]

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, impresses the viewer first with the softness of sunshine and the bucolic pleasures of the countryside. The everyday pursuits of the three common men pictured — the plowman, the shepherd, and the fisherman — are being carried out in earnest, but with apparent ease and even pleasure. The shepherd lifts his face to the sky, seemingly unconcerned that his sheep are grazing perilously close to the seacliff's edge; the other two are a bit more intent on their work. The details of the foreground — the way the plowman's feet tread upon the neatly folded soil behind the plow — blend toward the vague but powerful treatment of the background's mysteries: the nearly obscured and whitened mountains, the majestic (if somewhat cloudy) city along the far shore, and the ruined castle in the sea with its cave-like entry.

The glow of the setting sun (its golden light nearly palpable in the sky) is mirrored by a splash of light in the far sea, but its main effect is in the foreground, the illumination of the commonplace activities of the plowman and the shepherd. The most vivid color in the painting is the reddish orange of the plowman's shirt, juxtaposed as it is to the natural earth tones of horse and dirt surrounding it. Even the shepherd's shadow has an ephemeral quality as the light hits him and his plow nearly horizontally. Whatever energy exists in the painting is moving toward the left side; the plowman, face downward, plods in that direction, as does his horse (whose backside also indecorously confronts the viewer). They move downward and to the left, toward the delicate tracery (like a Chinese screen) of the large tree on the left edge.

All of this occurs to the viewer before the central event of the painting (as announced in the painting's title) reveals itself to his attention: the splash of a pair of legs as the fallen Icarus plunges into the sea. In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, the painfully splayed legs, their delicate pinkness, are all that we see of the fallen mythological figure. They are caught at that precise instant that this symbol of human pride or hubris is about to disappear forever from the world's attention (ironically, of course, in a world where no one is paying attention). We are the only ones who will ever know. All of the energies of the painting lead away from this disturbing and important event: the plowman and shepherd, oblivious, go about their business, as does the fully-rigged boat (also moving toward the left), sailing away from the fallen figure. . . .

Points to Ponder:

  • Which essay would you find more helpful in your understanding of the painting's effects? Can you relate this to the writer's apparent sense of purpose in each case?
  • There is no "I" in the second version of the essay's beginning. Do you miss that personal element or does the essay work better without it?
  • Does the second version ever come too close to being stuffy?
  • The writer of the second version seems to have a larger vocabulary than the writer of the first version. Words such as "bucolic," "ephemeral," "palpable," "juxtapose," "ironically," "backside," and "energies" come to mind. Did you have to look up any of those words? What impression does that vocabulary have on you as reader?
  • Is there already a thesis statement in this essay or is one about to suggest itself? Can you say what it would be?
  • The author of this piece is neither an artist nor a critic and so lacks some of the sophistication that other student-writers (art majors, say) might have. What other details in the painting or its composition would you select to write about?
  • If you'd like to experiment with this sense of purpose, try writing on a piece of art work of your own choosing. Visit the Texas.net Museum of Art and choose a painting that appeals to you. Then, using the Untimed Exercise Sheet (which will open in its own window), write one paragraph that sounds as if you're talking over the painting with a close friend and then another paragraph that sounds as though you're trying to help a serious group of readers in the general public understand what's going on in the painting. (If you want to save your writing, you'll have to copy and paste the text into a word-processing document.)