V.  Purpose

Anyone who has taken a composition course is familiar with the thesis statement, the sentence that states the proposition      an argumentative essay is supposed to develop and support.

But the thesis statement is just a subtype of the purpose statement. Not all types of essays have thesis statements, because not all essays are written to support a thesis, or proposition.  Some essays are strictly informative, some merely narrative or descriptive.  Some are analytical, but without being intended to support a single proposition. 

For example, a thorough explication of a poem might offer support for a set of related propositions about the poem, without being covered by a single thesis.

This is why I prefer to use the more general term purpose statement, as it includes all types of essays, not just those that argue a specific point.

One of the factors that determine whether an essay is "good" writing is how it defines and manages its purpose.  Most good essays embody their purpose in a well-defined purpose statement.  Although a very skilled writer can handle an implied or withheld purpose (i.e., a purpose that is led up to over the course of the essay, but stated explicitly only at  the end), most student writers should make an explicit statement of purpose in the first paragraph of their essay, or in the second paragraph at the latest.

1. Does the essay respond directly and appropriately to the assignment?

Most student writing is done in response to assignments, and most (though by no means all) assignments are fairly specific about what is required.  Many teachers will automatically fail an essay, regardless of how well-written, if does not respond directly to the topic, or if it fails to embody the methods specified in the prompt.  Others will deduct points, or else give the student a chance to rewrite the essay.  Very few teachers will completely ignore a student's failure to meet the requirements of the assignment.

Even very broadly defined assignments strike some students as too constraining.  For example, for the first two essay assignments in my English 101 class, I ask students to select their own topic--i.e., the issue they will analyze and take a position on in their essay.  But I also specify that they should find at least one article or essay that deals with that same issue and use that piece as a "pushing off" point for their own writing.  As essay assignments go, this one is obviously not very limiting.

Yet every semester at least one student will choose a topic that he claims he cannot find an essay or article about, and will ask if he can write on that topic anyway.

My response is that any topic worth writing about probably has already been written on by someone, and it would be difficult, and probably unwise, to choose a topic so obscure that nothing at all could be located on it, especially with all the resources of the internet at our disposal.  It is more likely that the student doesn't feel like doing even such a small amount of research than that he is completely unable to find an article on his topic. 

As a teacher, I would not want to encourage such recalcitrance.  Part of a writer's "job" is to choose an appropriate topic, and for a student writer, the appropriateness of his topic is very much influenced by whether it falls within the parameters of the assignment. There must be a zillion or more potential topics out there that would satisfy the requirements of such a broadly defined assignment.  Why should a student insist on selecting a topic that does not?

If some students find even the generous range of such an essay assignment to be too much of a constraint, you can imagine how uncomfortable many are with a more strictly defined assignment.  All teachers get papers that don't comply with the requirements of an assignment.  Sometimes a paper comes very close to full compliance, sometimes the noncompliance is more serious, and sometimes we get papers that seem to have been written without any reference at all to the assignment.

I won't pretend that all writing assignments are perfectly designed, but most teachers do design their assignments specifically to produce certain pedagogical results.  If a student ignores important aspects of the assignment, then he is not learning what the assignment is intended to teach him.

Besides, part of what students are supposed to be learning in school is to follow directions and  do what they are supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it, and the way they are supposed to do it.  An essay that does not respond properly to an assignment is already fundamentally flawed at the level of purpose, and that flaw should figure into the student's grade.  How much a grade is lowered for this sort of misstep usually depends on how far the student has strayed from the assignment, and on why he has done so.

2.  Is the essay's purpose interesting, significant, and manageable?

Interesting, significant, manageable. These are the biggies. 

Many an essay  is doomed from the start because the student does not think in terms of these qualities when defining his essay's purpose.  Of course, what constitutes interest, significance and manageability is determined by the rhetorical situation.


What is interesting depends on who will be reading the essay.  Sometimes a student in my English 101 class will want to write an essay on a topic that he has a particular interest in, but that the general reader would not know or care anything about.  Since the specified audience for most of our essays in English 101 is the "educated generalist"--i.e., someone very much like the students in our class--the student writer needs to take that audience's knowledge and interests into account.

In the fall of 2001, a very bright student named Josh asked if he could write his first essay on the use of nitrous oxide in scuba diving.  I told him that despite my eclectic and wide-ranging reading habits, even I had no interest in reading an essay on that highly specialized subject.  Since I had no interest in his topic, although my own brother is a professional scuba diver, I could pretty much guarantee that nobody else in the class would want to read that essay, either.

Scuba diving was Josh's passion, and given a choice, he would have written about nothing else.  But unless he was writing his essay for a specialized audience with a particular interest in scuba diving, he needed to choose a different topic.  It's not that scuba diving as a subject is completely outside the range of interest for a general audience, but that an essay on scuba diving for such an audience would need to be focused on aspects of the sport that would appeal to those with no prior attachment to the subject.  What Josh wanted to write would have been appropriate only to an audience of scuba-diving enthusiasts, and that was definitely not the audience specified in the assignment. 

If he had written that essay, it would have been a polished piece of work, because Josh is actually an unusually good student writer.  But the essay would still have been seriously flawed, because its purpose would not have been interesting to his supposed audience.  Fortunately, I headed him off at the pass, before he could write an essay that would earn him a much lower grade than his intelligence and the overall quality of his writing would normally deserve. 

An essay will also be uninteresting if the writer has nothing new to say on a subject that has already been done to death.  I tell my students that if they come up with a topic on which we already know exactly what points will be made and what will be said about them, then the essay is not worth reading--and not worth their time to write.

I choose a number of typical student essay topics to show them what I mean: the drinking age, abortion, prayer in school, assisted suicide, affirmative action, gun control.  Then I ask them to write down a list of the main points they would make in covering each topic.  When we compare their lists, the students find out that everyone has almost exactly the same points listed in almost exactly the same order.  Now, what purpose could there possibly be in writing an essay on a topic where the points are so predictable?  It would be worse than boring; it would be a complete waste of time, for both the writer and the reader.

The only reason for choosing such a topic would be if the writer had something genuinely new and interesting to say about the subject.  I even prove to them that new and interesting arguments are possible on these subjects by bringing up a few in class that they had never thought of.  But most students simply are not in a position to add anything new to these debates, so they are better off not choosing them as topics for their essays.

If a student has direct personal experience of a sort that makes one of these subjects particularly meaningful, so that he can present it in a vivid, unique way, perhaps even offering angles of analysis that we have not considered, then I would be willing to allow him to tackle the topic.  But most students don't choose such subjects because of any real interest, but only by default, because they have gotten used to thinking of them as the topics teachers want to read about in composition classes.  You know, the modern equivalent of "What I Did on My Summer Vacation."

Another way to fail to engage the audience's interest is to write with a purpose so vague and general that it leads to nothing but airy platitudes.  Often these are of the sort that I call "Miss America platitudes"--those sweet-sounding idiocies pronounced by young women at beauty contests:  "My dream is to build a world where all children are loved and cared for," or "We need to find a way to end war and bring peace to everyone."

In student essays, the platitudes are usually of this sort: "Something needs to be done to lower the crime rate"; "Our leaders need to find a way to ensure health care for everyone"; "The  issue of affirmative action needs to be approached from a balanced perspective"; "If we try, we can find a solution to the problem of teenage pregnancy"; "We need to raise standards to ensure excellence at  our academic institutions."  (Want an example?  To read a boring, vague and general essay filled with empty platitudes about this last topic, click here.)

Such sweeping generalizations have a lot of things wrong with them.  But the first thing almost any reader will notice is that they are colossally boring.  A purpose statement that leads in the direction of such platitudes is not doing one of its primary jobs, which is to shape an essay that readers will want to read.  Even teachers prefer to read essays that are interesting rather than mind-numbingly dull.  Honest.


When I say significant, I don't mean that an essay has to have earth-shattering impact.  What I mean is that it should be significant enough to be worth someone's time to read.  Significance is obviously very closely related to interest.  Even an essay on a topic that is not intrinsically fascinating will hold a reader's interest if it tells him something important or something that he needs to know.

For example, most people are not all that interested in grammar, but my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website gets thousands of hits precisely because it conveys information that some people need, even if the subject itself is not high on their favorites list.

But it's even better if the subject is both significant and intrinsically interesting.

Let me give you some examples  of essays I have seen that score very, very low on significance (and, not surprisingly, on interest as well). 

From the 1970s to the 1990s, my department used a grade-norming practice called "exchange-grading," which means that at some point during the term, two teachers would exchange a complete set of essays, so that in grading one another's students, we would (or so the idea was) validate and if necessary adjust our grading standards and practices.

The essays that one instructor tried to exchange with me were written in response to a "process essay" assignment.  I skimmed over the essays in the packet and returned them to him with the statement that I would rather eat sawdust than try to grade those papers.  I know exactly why he wanted to palm those essays off on me.  Anyone would rather eat sawdust than read 24 step-by-step process essays about how to tie a shoe, how to make a bed, how to change the film in a camera, how to refinish a cabinet, how to change a flat tire, etc.

Now, if someone really needs to know how to refinish a cabinet or change a flat tire, then the topic might be significant enough to hold some interest for him.  But in the absence of such significance, the inherent dullness of the essays was entirely unredeemed.  Furthermore, if someone needed such information, a process essay is by no means the best place to get it.  Diagrams, pictures, and bulleted instructions would serve his purpose far better than three pages' worth of sentences and paragraphs.

Besides, most of the topics chosen were so hopelessly trivial that there is no reason why anyone would seek out directions on them in the first place.  How to tie a shoe?  How to make a bed?  Please!

Obviously it was the instructor's fault for designing an essay assignment that was guaranteed to produce trivial, boring essays, but since it was his assignment, there was no way I was going to let him stick me with grading the results.  I told him I would take his next set of essays--if they were less unbearable to read.

But it isn't always the instructor that locks students into trivial essay topics.  I read a set of "classification" essays during one grade exchange that were almost as trivial and boring as those process essays.  One student wrote about the three different stages of water.  (Solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam.  Imagine!)  One wrote about types of hairstyles for girls with short hair.  Another wrote about popular shoe styles among college students.  (Yes, yes, I know: for some audiences in some circumstances even these subjects might be interesting and significant.  But not a general audience in a college-level English class!)

Obviously this teacher had not designed his assignment very well, but that doesn't mean that his students had to choose really dumb topics to classify.  I can think of a lot of topics that could fit into a classificatory scheme without being either trivial or boring.

For example, one student, whose paper I actually enjoyed reading, wrote about the two different types of snake venom, neurotoxins and haemotoxins, and the different effects each has on the victim.  He also explained the different evolutionary paths that led to the development of the two types of venom. 

He chose a subject that he was particularly interested in and that was important to him, but unlike Josh's overspecialized scuba-diving topic, this student chose an angle that many, perhaps even most, general readers would be interested in.

I am not saying that specialized topics are never interesting or significant to the general reader, but that the writer has to be aware of the need to make his subject significant and interesting, and to make the extra effort necessary if the subject itself requires that extra help to engage the reader.

Of course, in some classes it is not the general reader the student is writing for, but the specialist--often the teacher specifically.  For example, a history research paper might be on a topic of no interest whatsoever to the general reader, but it will still be "interesting" and "significant" to the professor in the sense that it demonstrates what the student has learned about the topic and how he has marshalled his skills to do the necessary research and write it up. 

But even in a situation like that, the reader (professor) will expect the student to choose a research topic that is significant enough to be worth writing about. And it certainly won't hurt if the topic also is interesting, at least from the professor's point of view.  Besides, if it is interesting in a more general sense, the student himself will be more involved in it and find writing about it more enjoyable. 

Put simply, it is the writer's job to analyze his rhetorical situation--to understand his reader, to recognize his needs and engage his interest, not to leave him thinking, "Boy was that ever a waste of my time!"


Occasionally a student will bite off less than he can chew (like the guy that wrote about the three stages of water, or the one who wrote about how to tie a shoe).  But it is far more common for a student to fail to narrow his topic sufficiently to make it manageable within the amount of time and space he can allot to it, or within the limitations of his own knowledge and experience.

Most of those typical college student essay topics I listed under the section on interest fall into this category.  They are unwise topic choices for a number of reasons, but one of the inherent problems is that the topics involve so many complex related issues that it would simply not be possible to do them justice in a short personal opinion essay. 

They are also unmanageable in the sense that most students lack sufficient knowledge or experience to really understand the complexity of the issues involved, so when they attempt to write essays on such subjects, what they write always ends up being vague, shallow, and predictable.

If an assignment is for a twenty-page research paper, then the issue of manageability is different from what it would be if the student is writing a 700-1000 word personal opinion paper that he has two weeks to work on, or a 500-600 word in-class essay written in response to a topic assigned right then.  As always, the rhetorical situation determines what is possible and what is suitable.

The questions the student needs to ask himself are

~ How much time do I have to work on this?

~How much do I know about the topic?

~How hard or how time-consuming would it be to fill in the gaps in my                        knowledge?

~Do I have access to the resources I would need to fill in those gaps within the             amount of time I have to work on this subject?

~How long is the paper supposed to be?

~Can this topic be handled adequately within the limitations of time, space,                 and knowledge that I have to work with?

Adequately handling a topic is something that most students have trouble with, because they usually don't understand what adequate coverage really is.  Vague, general statements about the topic do not constitute adequate development.  The writer has to have things to say that are specific, plausible, and sufficient.  (I will deal with these matters in the section on development.) 

The issue of manageability is closely related to that of focus.  If the topic is too broad, the essay will cover a lot of ground, but very little of what is covered will be analyzed in enough detail to be convincing or satisfying to an intelligent reader.  If the focus is too narrow, the detail may be "sufficient" to the subject, but the subject itself might be too limited to have much interest or significance.

Let me give you some examples of points that might affect the manageability of a topic.

In 2002 my daughter was a junior at Truman State University in Missouri.  All undergraduates there are required to take a Missouri history course.  In the course Becky took, students were required to do a research paper about a specific town or city in Missouri, and their research had to include historical archives from the town or city they had chosen to work on.

Now, Truman State is in Kirksville, Missouri, a very isolated little place, hours away from just about everywhere.  Becky did not have a car, so there was no way she could get to any of the many towns or cities that she might have wanted to do her research project on.  With no way to get from Kirksville to anywhere else in Missouri, she had very little choice: her research topic was Kirksville itself, the only place that she could access archival material on. 

Here's another example.

A  student in my English101 class wrote an essay on euthanasia.  As is usually the case when students tackle such large moral issues, the first draft of her paper was all over the place.  It lacked focus, unity, and direction, and it fell into a lot of sweeping, unsupported generalizations.

When we had our conference for her revision of that paper, I asked Sarah why she had chosen that topic. I had a reason for asking that question: a couple of details in her first draft had suggested to me that she might be one of those students who selected such a topic not by default, but because of direct personal experience.  As I explained earlier, such personal experience sometimes does give a student something new and interesting to say on the subject, and I thought that this might be one of those cases.

As it turned out, Sarah's beloved grandfather had died as a direct result of morphine administered not to hasten his death, but to ease the excruciating pain caused by pneumonia.  He was terminally ill at the time, and he would not have lived more than a few days longer in any circumstance, perhaps not even more than a few hours longer.  Yet Sarah was intensely aware of the moral issues involved in the doctor's (and family's) choice to administer enough morphine to relieve his pain, even though they knew it would almost certainly hasten his death.

By refocusing her topic, narrowing it to the issue of whether administering morphine in such a case is treatment or euthanasia, and by using her grandfather's death as a specific example, Sarah wrote an essay that was both significant and interesting, as well as manageable.  She offers specific explanatory details drawn from her research on the effects of morphine, and other specific details drawn from her own experience.  Her essay is both informative and poignant, and it offers a look at the issue that is very much worth the reader's time.  (To read her final draft, "Treatment or Euthanasia," which I now use as a sample essay for my English 101 classes, click here.)

Experience, more than anything, is what enables a student to select a topic that he can manage within the parameters of the essay assignment.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to handle a topic too broad or too complex, or one that he lacks the resources to deal with adequately, a student will usually learn to lower his sights when choosing topics and approaches.  But if students learn to think about the issue of manageability from the beginning, they can avoid a lot of stress, and probably get better grades along the way.

3.  Does the essay have focus, unity, and direction?


As the nutshell embodiment of an essay's purpose, the purpose statement is like a roadmap for the writer.  It keeps him on track by reminding him of where he is going with his essay.  The essay's purpose defines the essay's direction.  It is always possible to tell if a writer knows where he is going and how he is going to get there, just as it is easy to tell when he hasn't got a clue.

Another advantage to an essay with a well-defined direction is that since it is always on its way to someplace specific, it is quite clear when it has arrived.  An essay with a clear direction will "click closed."  In other words, it will come to a natural rest, without the need for a contrived "tying up" conclusion, although some types of essays (and some types of teachers) do require such conclusions regardless of whether or not the essay closes naturally on its own.

A vague, fuzzy purpose does not provide the writer with direction, and the essay written to develop such a purpose will wander and ramble, because there will be no clear principle for deciding what must go into the paper and what should be left out.  There is also no logical stopping point if the paper has no clear purpose.


The purpose statement also provides the essay with focus, an important aspect of manageability. 

Think of focus as if you were actually using a camera. If your focus is wide, you get more elements into your shot, but the resolution of each element will not be as clear.  A narrower focus will allow for a clearer resolution, but fewer elements will be included in the frame.  Too few elements will cost you on interest and significance, but too many elements will cost you on clarity and detail.  The trick is to make your "frame" just right. 


Once you have established your frame, though, you have to stick with it.  Just because you see something else that interests you, that doesn't mean you can just shift your focus to include it.  You can only include what is in your frame, not what is outside of it.  That's unity.

Think of Sarah's essay.  At first her focus was too wide.  She tried to write about the huge topic of euthanasia.  She could not possibly fit all the necessary elements of that subject into her essay.  But once she narrowed her focus to the specific issue of whether administering morphine in certain terminal cases is treatment or euthanasia, which is just one limited facet of the whole euthanasia topic, she was no longer free to include any other aspect of that issue.  In fact, part of her rhetorical strategy was to specifically exclude all other aspects of the topic of euthanasia.

Her focus was tighter and her details were clearer, but her range was of necessity limited.

That's what teachers mean when they tell their students to narrow or limit their topics.  They mean don't try to do everything.  You can't do everything.  Choose what you can do, and do that thoroughly.

Grading Standard: The grade a student gets on an essay should be significantly influenced by the appropriateness of the purpose he has defined for his essay, by whether his essay's purpose is significant, interesting, and manageable, and by whether it provides sufficient focus, unity, and direction for his essay.
back to page 1: What Is "Good" Writing?

back to page 2:  Adhering to Rhetorical Conventions

back to page 3:  Correctness

back to page 4:  Style

back to page 5:  Voice

to page 7:  Development

to page 8: Organization

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