Every Writing Project Needs a Purpose Statement

by Anne Wayman

Sometimes a writing idea will arrive whole and complete. You know the audience you’re writing for, the market and exactly what you want to say.

Unfortunately, that kind of clarity doesn’t happen often. It’s much more usual to start with an idea that’s not focused well; the idea is too big, or too small, or contains too many parts.

The trick is to hone your original thought so you know exactly who you are writing for and what you want to say to them.

You need to turn your initial idea into a purpose statement

How Writing a Purpose Statement Helps

A purpose statement gives you several advantages, including:

  • It acts as your  road map; if the piece goes awry in the writing, helps get you back on track.
  • The purpose statement identifies the ideal reader you’re writing for (which pinpoints the market).

Ideally, a purpose statement should have no more than 10 words. This is true for a short article and for a 500 page book. It looks like this:

The purpose of this (article/book/etc) is: your 10 words here

For example, the purpose of this article is: to show the value of a 10 word purpose statement. That’s exactly 10 words.

Does it sound impossible to reduce your idea to a 10 word purpose statement? I’ll go so far as to say if you can’t boil your idea into 10 words or less, you’re not yet ready to write.

Sure, sometimes you have to do a bit of writing to discover the purpose, but until you’re clear on what you’re writing for whom, you’re still working with the idea itself. Purpose statements also work well when you’re developing queries and proposals.

Let’s take travel writing as an example. Like most ideas, writing about travel can take many forms. A travel article could be a personal experience, a review of a resort, tips on saving money or tips on staying safe. It might involve foreign travel, or travel to the next county. Eco-travel, adventure travel, travel by llama, train or RV all could be the focus of an article on travel. Many of these could also be the focus of writing a book about travel. But each has a different reader and a different purpose. And each needs it’s own purpose statement.

Start By Asking Yourself Some Questions

Start developing your purpose statement by asking yourself some questions. Using travel writing as an example, might questions you might ask yourself include:

  • How old is your target reader?
  • Is she a solo traveler or does she prefer groups or have a partner or children?
  • Does he want to travel luxury or is he willing to get dirty?
  • Roughly how much money does she have to spend on a trip?
  • Does he want to experience something unusual and maybe dangerous?
  • Would she rather be surrounded by people like herself or is she delighted with foreigners?
  • How long will the trip last?



These are, of course, just example questions. You’ll have your own versions. When you have the answer to the questions you can come up with a purpose statement for your work. These questions could result in a purpose statement like:

  1. 10 Ways to Save Money While Camping with Your Kids, or
  2. How To Be Truly Pampered This Weekend or,
  3. Get Away Locally on the Cheap, or,
  4. Doing Good While Traveling

Note that only the first takes up the full 10 words. As it happens, each these purposes might also make a good title; that isn’t always true; sometimes the title comes later. The point here is the purpose statement which simply sums up exactly the focus your writing will take.

Note too that 1, 3 and 4 could also be book titles. Books need 10 word purpose statements as much as articles do, maybe even more.

Put your purpose statement at the top of your draft manuscript or query in big bold letters. Read your purpose statement as you begin your rewriting and editing. Let it guide and inform your writing. You’ll find both the writing and the marketing much easier.

How do you keep track of the purpose of your writing?

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn October 15, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Yeah, I don’t get real technical on my outlines, just more of a list. I always have had a thing for outlines though, lol.

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Kathryn October 15, 2009 at 1:11 am

Yes, this is important. I’ve found that unless I write down at least a purpose I get lost. Usually I’ll make up a very loose outline before writing. That way if I start to wander off the track I can look at the outline and get back to it. Of course, sometimes my writing will take me to places I didn’t plan and they end up being better than my first idea so then the outline changes.

Great advice Anne!

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Michelle Kafka February 11, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Speaking of 10 words or less by reduction, this post reminds me of when I was in both Transactional and Comprehensive English classes; we learned about Precis Writing meaning precise writing.

Precis Writing consists of:

Compression by vocabulary
Compression by ellipsis
Compression by shorter construction
Compression of ideas
Idea relationship and sentence linking

Here is one example of compression by ellipsis I used:

Actual Sentence: “Unless it is stored when it is fresh, this food will not keep.”
My Sentence: “Unless stored fresh, this food will not keep.”

Source: Precis Writing, The Essence of Precis

It was a duotang workbook handed out by the instructor so I don’t have all the bibliography info. available.

I kept just about everything he handed out so I could always refer back to something in my writing in school and beyond, which has greatly helped me along the way.

Precis comes in handy in drumming up titles, in the text body, “purpose statements,” and more. It helps to reduce wordiness.

When I write something I always remember being in that class; and trying not to be too wordy. Mr. Hill was a big inspiration for me.

I’m surprised I don’t hear of the term being used more on writing/editing blogs…

My purpose of this post was to show a relation, to share a memory, and to share a thought/knowledge.

Thanks Anne.

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admin February 10, 2009 at 11:45 am

Amy, I love it when someone recognizes what I’m saying and agrees with me, and yes, the editing process to get down to 10 words or a sentence is sometimes amazing.

Reply

Amy February 10, 2009 at 11:37 am

Yes! This is my experience with every important project I’ve ever written. Once I take the time to work out the one-sentence encapsulation–which can be an interesting editing process in itself–my writing becomes more focused and efficient. It is, for me, and indispensable writing tool.

Amy’s last blog post..How To Write: Be Scared

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Anne October 15, 2009 at 10:30 am

When I do ‘outline’ it tends to be just a list

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