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In this essay Lookner articulates their newfound awareness of “purpose” in any piece of writing – a perspective they gained during their semester of ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing. From being the primary challenge in this class, the engagement with “purpose” becomes their most important takeaway from this writing class.
ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing
Day Month Year
No Flowers, Featuring Linguistic Anthropology
This semester, along with College Writing, I took a linguistic anthropology class. Now, I am a science major. I am used to quantitatively analyzing the world. So even the smallest, most obvious qualitative observation about human behavior or anything of the sort seemingly opens up a whole new way of thinking for me. You can only imagine the many, many, little epiphanies I had on a weekly basis.
The main takeaway from this anthropology class was “language does things.” Yes, that is obvious, I originally thought. Language communicates ideas, duh. But of course, it goes much further than that. Based on the language or form of language people use, they reveal parts of their identities to us – or, really, we form ideologies about them based on their language use. Language is wholly connected with obtaining and maintaining power and with creation and with destruction; it shapes how we see the world. That is what all the linguistic anthropologists mean by “language does things.”
So that is what the anthropology class taught me. I was set in my epiphanies for the week. Then College Writing popped her head in the door, and asked the question:
“What do you want this language to do?”
And that became the hard part.
I knew language did things, but what did I actually want it to do? What were the “things”? In College Writing terms, this translated into “purpose.” Purpose is an extremely important part of a piece of writing. If a writer wants the reader to feel a certain way, or wants the writing to otherwise accomplish an element of the human experience, and the reader does not feel that way, or the writing does not accomplish that element, then the writing has not achieved its purpose. It will not have the writer’s desired impact on the reader or the world.
The issue was, I could not figure out exactly what I wanted this impact to be, or how I could go about expressing it. I could write page-long flowery descriptions, but I would stray far away from what I actually wanted to say. College Writing led me away from the flowers, and instead, towards the nitty-gritty language that was actually doing things.
“Shitty First Drafts” (Lamott) was instrumental in helping me find my purpose for a piece of writing. Putting it all out there in one giant brain-dump of words forced me to articulate my arguments with no regard for all the extra flowers. Based on this process, I have created my own little practice. Whenever I am having trouble putting my thoughts into words, I literally say to myself, out loud, “What am I really trying to say here?” It may seem silly and futile, but it demands that I ditch the extra flowers, and focus on the real purpose of each point in my writing. Saying this to myself is a practice I will continue whenever I write, as it helps me put the brain dump onto paper, which eventually results in the formation of an overall purpose.
To explicitly define more specific and smaller purposes, and to streamline my arguments, reverse outlines were beneficial. Rather than focusing on the overall purpose, they helped me to look at each individual part, and assign purposes to each. I had to analyze what the language was actually doing. Most times during reverse outlines, I would have to shift paragraphs around, or rewrite them to better connect to the overall purpose. Sometimes I would even end up changing my overall purpose of the paper based on a sentence that changed the tone of the paper or my argument, when I first wrote my “shitty first draft” or a later draft (which was scary). The process as a whole, of defining a purpose, was a sort of back-and-forth between creating a purpose through language, then making that language more pleasant (and frankly, bearable) to read, then once again articulating a purpose, then adding a few fun flowers in the language to round the whole process out.
Before, during, and after this process, looking at the given example essays with the same prompt, provided possible structures, but more importantly, helped me figure out my own place and purpose within a conversation or question. By reading about other people’s experiences and arguments, I found areas to which I could relate, and areas to which I had no relation. These model essays lit the paths through which I could take a prompt, by suggesting what needed to be said or what could be said from a different point of view. In other words, these essays showed the “gaps” in the conversation or question where I could interject with my own arguments and points of view. These “gaps” eventually became the purposes in my writing.
I now see writing as more than presenting a string of words into the everlasting empty void. Rather, it is many small purposes combining into an overall purpose. It is a collection of bits and pieces of language doing things in different ways than simply communicating information. And this “empty void” does not exist. My language is only doing things because there are people who receive it. There are people on the other side of my string of meaningful words to whom I am declaring a purpose. My language is imploring them to do something, or think in a certain way. It is simply about finding the right string of words for the job.
All of this is not to say that I am complete, and have found every way to articulate every purpose I could possibly imagine. On my most recent paper for College Writing, the feedback I received advised me to include sentences at the end of each paragraph describing how certain points relate back to – you guessed it – my overall purpose. I still have trouble staying focused on a purpose throughout a piece of writing as well as clearly defining that purpose. Now, the difference is I have specific processes to help me articulate what it is exactly that I want my language to do.