Get clear about your purpose before you write for workplace readers

Speedometer - Reaching Your GoalPro workplace writers are strategic. Period.

They begin a document with a predetermined goal and a plan for achieving it. Bryan Garner, author of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, makes the point when he says,

Many people begin writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, their readers don’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with the message.

You may think you have to write to know what you want to say. That’s fine. As long as you understand that sort of writing is just for you. It might count as a very rough draft. But it’s not for an audience. It’s expression. Not communication. The contrast between the two has occupied those interested in the arts as well as in communication for eons.

The downside to being a strategic writer, like being a strategic business leader, is a committment to spend time planning before you act and then holding yourself accountable while you do. With each email, proposal or report you create, you have to decide how important its effectiveness is to you and the organization you represent.

At this point, I have to remind you that no document can be fast, cheap, and good. When the cost/benefit of a document matters, you have to be strategic by planning. (See how intense planning a short document can be by reading about how much planning went into creating a mortgage disclosure form.) Getting clear about your purpose is a critical part of planning.

Purpose is explained in Chapter 1 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you identify purposes for writing in different workplace situations. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email created by me based on an actual student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 textbook titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell. I’ve adapted it specifically to help your think about purpose in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule


Video Tutorial

The email and some other examples are included in the 8-minute video below. This is my second attempt at a PowToon video so I welcome comments about how well it works.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with purpose in workplace documents. Just search for “purpose” or “planning” in the field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (2015). Thinking and interacting like a leader: The TILL system for leadership communication. Chicago: Parlay Press.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication28, pp. 213232.

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