Plan to write – a controlling purpose


At some point in the writing process, most writers develop a plan. Some writers may already have, before they plan, chunks of text or a crappy first draft that needs to be beaten into shape. Other writers begin with the plan, perhaps making an outline. Regardless of the point at which the planning happens, the plan itself needs to have a goal – or what is often called in writing instruction, a controlling purpose.

A controlling purpose is not the same as a topic. A topic is simply what you are writing about. It is content focused. I’m writing a paper about X or Y. A controlling purpose is different. It brings together the writer, reader and text, and is both action and content oriented. That is, you have an eye on what you want your reader to understand, feel or think after they have read your paper. Your controlling purpose is about your intentions, and what you are doing to do in the writing you are about to do, in order to make that intention a reality.

And perhaps this needs some explanation. Let me give an example to illustrate the difference between a controlling purpose and a topic.

You might say “Im going to write about the pandemic and its effect on my and other people’s research and funding.” That’s a description of the topic – the content. It’s what you’re going to write about.

Compare that to “I’m going to write for the Grad School blog arguing that the pandemic has been really disruptive of doctoral research and we all need our universities and funders to extend deadlines and grants”. This sentence specifies the point you want to make, who your readers might be and what you want them to understand. It’s a statement of purpose, controlling purpose.

Purpose OK. But control? Control here simply means that the writer takes charge of what they do and the choices that they make. When linked with purpose, the term control suggests that the writer wants to have a particular effect on readers. The writer wants readers to learn or think something as a result of their reading. So even though readers also have choices, and writing functions like an invitation to a reader and not an order, it is the writer’s intentions that are made clear in a controlling purpose.

A succinct controlling purpose has a number of benefits. It limits what you are going to write about. It helps you to clarify your ideas and shapes the way you will organise them. It provides you with the red thread or through-line that will make the writing hang together. It focuses you on a particular audience and thus underpins all of your choices of style, genre, words, text length, examples and citations.

So when do you have a controlling purpose? Well. It is very helpful to have a controlling purpose in mind when you are writing a journal article or conference paper. You have a rough idea of where you are going before you start. You are oriented to move in a particular direction rather than flounder about trying to find where to start. A controlling purpose can also provide a very helpful guide to an entire thesis. You move away from simply describing your problem and results. You have to find the end point – the point in fact, that you want for the entire text. This in turn helps you to locate the controlling point of each chapter and how, together, they add up to the whole.

Many outlines or writing plans do not have a controlling purpose. They are simply a list of topics, a description of the material to be covered. But outlines don’t have to be like this – they can have a controlling purpose written as an overarching beginning statement. The outline writer benefits from the c.p.’s presence at the start. The Tiny Text always has a controlling purpose as it is always directed to the reader understanding the rationale for the paper, the structure of the argument and the end point.

Questions that help you develop your controlling purpose include:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What do I want them to think/feel/know when they have read my text?
  • What is my argument?
  • What evidence do I need to marshall?
  • What does this audience expect of to see in a text?
  • What therefore is the best way for me to stage and present my argument?

At the end of thinking about these questions it is helpful to write your one sentence controlling purpose– make it just as simple and clear as the example given of the pandemic and extending funding and deadlines. It won’t go in your final text, it’s there as a guide for your writing. Writing the one sentence about controlling purpose forces you to focus on the operational aspect of your writing, what you will do.

Of course you might well revise your controlling purpose as you are writing. That’s OK. But using an initial c.p. statement does allow you to get going, set some early procedural goals and structure the writing ahead. A controlling purpose grounds an outline and makes it into a plan.

Adapted from Lisa Ede (2004) Work in progress. A guide to academic print and reviewing. St Martins.