The Four Purposes of Writing

copywriting and the four purposes of writing

And how copywriting is all four in one

Malala Yousafzai: because she is an outspoken activist who’s words strike a harmonious balance between humility and confidence; seriousness and humour; enabling us to believe in the possible.

Tracey Holmes: because she is a reporter whose elegant and edifying presentation of information makes it a breeze for us to know the who, what, where, when and why of a news story. 

Professor Brian Cox: because he is an educator whose enthusiasm and empathy not only makes the complex easy for us to understand and appreciate, but also fun and fascinating.

Jane Campion: because she is a filmmaker whose poetics and visionary artistry tell stories with compelling expressions of the good, the bad and the profound in the human condition.

They are my personal reference points; you will naturally have yours. What they all personify so well are the four purposes we all employ when writing. 

Writing to Persuade

Persuasive writing comes in the form of essays, editorials, advertisements, letters and, most commonly, speeches. The writer’s purpose is to prove a point and change a mindset.

The formula for this is true belief + contagious enthusiasm + genuine empathy + literary devices

You’ve got to believe every word you write. You’ve got to feel love for the subject you’re writing about. You’ve got to have your audience’s best interests at heart. And you’ve got to be wise to the time-honoured repertoire of literary devices (the herbs and spices that make for engaging, memorable and compelling writing). 

In short, your words have to ring true throughout the land. 

Strong and impassioned opinions are barely enough. Facts, statistics, a thorough understanding and appreciation of the issue is paramount. But deep insight and skilful writing must also be on full display to ensure the buy-in.  

What’s more, structure is king and queen. The beginning, the middle and the end must move story forward, employ narrative logic all the way (with facts, knowledge and insight) until the conclusion is an unequivocal “yes!” from all. 

Speech writing is the go-to example of the formula and structure described above. You’ll find most books on the great speeches of our time will be an enriching masterclass in the art of persuasive writing. 

You can’t go wrong by starting with Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou, Barak Obama and Malala.

Writing to Inform

Information writing comes in the form news reports, research papers, wikipedia entries, due diligence reports and annual reports. The writer’s purpose is to convey an objective point-of-view, a summary, an update or the latest news. The desired outcome is a reader who’s well-informed enough to make up their mind and/or take action.

The time-old formula for writing that informs is the 5 W’s — Who, What, When, Where and Why. News reporters are the most common users of the first four of the 5Ws, while investigative journalists aim to shed light on the Why.

To spoil the alliterative rhythm of the 5Ws, there’s also a 6th element in this framework — the How.

In using the 5 Ws and H in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate report for example, the writer would ask questions like:

  • Who are the panellists?
  • What are they urging?
  • When must their recommendations happen?
  •  Where must it take place?
  • How must this be done?
  • Why should it be done?

The answers to these questions will be used to frame and structure the story in to an alarming 650-word article.

Having said that, it’s also about writing on a needs-to-know basis. That requires enough discernment to separate the useful knowledge from the useless or already familiar knowledge. 

Knowing what matters most is the information writer’s primary focus. And what matter’s most is knowing (a) your target audience well and (b) the imperatives of the subject matter.

This can, and most likely will, involve sifting out the true from the trivial, the gossip and the manufactured. 

Preventing the gate-crashing effect of “information overload” and mind-blunting effect of “fake news” is the writer’s noble task. 

Writing to Instruct

Instructive writing comes in the form of user manuals, rules and regulations content, educational material, recipes, and how to … books. The writer’s purpose is to guide, educate and/or explain. The desired outcome is some know-how for your reader or listener.

While there is no particular formula to this writing purpose, putting yourself in the mindset of a teacher is the best of all approaches.

A teacher has the expert skillset that only can only be provided by an Education Degree or extraordinary innate ability.

For the rest of us to instruct well, we need to over-ride “the curse of knowledge.”  This is a cognitive bias where we blindly assume that the other knows as much as we do about a particular subject. To quote cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, “the curse of knowledge is a difficulty imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know” (The Sense of Style; p.59)

Sound familiar? 

We all have curse of knowledge in some field of knowledge or expertise. The natural first step to over-riding it is to acknowledge it.

We can proceed to counter this affliction by getting to know your reader first and foremost. It helps enormously if you can visualise them. Then make sure you explain the jargon, spell out the logic, unpack the abstractions or supply necessary detail as you write.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind along the way:

  • Empathise
  • Don’t assume
  • Break down key points
  • Test drive on somebody if you can.

If all of that fails, just remember how long it took you to learn what you now know and may have to instruct to others. 

Writing to Entertain

Entertaining writing comes in the form of storytelling — be it fiction or non-fiction. The writer’s purpose is to make the reader laugh, cry, relax, relate or simply smile as they read. The desired outcome is an enjoyable and memorable journey for reader or listener.

Once again, there is no particular formula to this writing purpose. One way is to feel the feelings you want your reader to feel as you write the sentence(s). 

This is where you draw on your own preferred art form (music, film, dance, poetry, painting, comedy, cooking). These add rhythm, imagery, movement, poignancy, texture, levity, flavour and so on to your sentences.

For me, it’s music and film. I seek to make my sentences sing and that’s got to do with beats (1 syllable = 1 beat) and cadence (a combination of those beats to create a certain prose rhythm).

Author and teacher Pia Villanueva-Pulido describes engaging writing as, ‘melodic tunes and use of unrelated chromatic chords…building up layers of rhythm which fades out quickly, then leaving the melody to stand alone for a few seconds only to build up as quickly as it faded’.

Journalist, Leonard Ray Teel explains that good writing ‘is like music. It has its distinctive rhythm, its pace, flow, cadence. It can be hummed. The great stylists seem to have an inner music…’ (Into the Newsroom: An Introduction to Journalism). 

Sentences can also be viewed as scenes in a movie. And what you’re doing is directing the reader’s attention. Just as a director directs the camera angle, the lighting, the action, the timing, the dialogue – everything we see and hear on the screen – an entertaining writer directs the reader’s thoughts, feelings and vision with choice of words, an idea clearly articulated and a rhythmically structured sentence.

This can be as technical as focussing the reader’s mind with honed clarity and concision; it can be as artistic as evoking one of the five senses (feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling) with words that are concrete and evocative.

Two of the six genres of writing  – descriptive and narrative – will enable you to give your writing the X Factors that make mediocre writing good, and good writing great. 

Great Copywriting Persuades, Informs, Instructs and Entertains.

 No matter the target audience; no matter the subject; no matter the medium; the craft of copywriting employs all four purposes in one sitting.

Unlike all other forms of writing, copywriting is conversing with a reluctant, impatient and, quite likely,  skeptical reader. You can easily lose them any sentence along the way. 

Of course your primary objective is to persuade them into some sort of buy-in. But persuasion alone ain’t gonna move any mountains.

Persuasion needs to be propelled by solid substantiation points (informative); driven by demonstrable know-how (instructive); and fuelled by creative energy (entertaining).

To be even more specific:

Substantiations inform them of the 5Ws and H of any given subject that makes it important, relevant, useful and/or meaningful to the reader.

Instruction reveals the subject’s qualities, features and benefits that prove and make attractive the main point or message.

And entertainment is the storytelling panache that suspends a reader’s disinterest long enough to keep them willingly engaged to the final full-stop. 

Something like my attempts here to get you to the end of this post.

Meanwhile, my online copywriting course’s latest timetable is up and running and ready to take your booking now. It’s one copywriting course that makes you great at copywriting for all purposes of communication.

Originally posted 2023-04-14 08:35:21.

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