Motive: Why Writing Matters Across the Disciplines
Understanding What Students Learn in UWS
Students in UWS learn that all writing is motivated (sometimes also referred to as the question, problem, so what?, or what’s at stake?). Everything, from an analytical essay to a grant proposal to a memo, is written for a reason. If that motive is clearly communicated to the reader, typically early in the piece of writing, the reader will be more invested in reading the subsequent piece of writing.
A good motive, regardless of the discipline, should:
- Be specific to your argument / thesis / topic / research
- Interest the reader by identifying your motivation for writing
- Not try to be too big / all encompassing
- Not include a hook or quote just to include one (only if it actually helps the reader)
Students often think of motive as something interesting or catchy. In high school, they may have learned to bring in a quote, example, or personal story as a tool to hook the reader. While doing so can sometimes work, often it feels forced or overdone. This can lead students to over-motivate to try to grab their reader’s interest. As an example, look at this introduction paragraph from a student in an Introduction to Psychology course:
Marie Antoinette may be history’s most famous airhead, a queen who was insensitive to the plight of France’s poverty-stricken population. When asked what ought to be done about the starvation of French citizens from a crippling grain shortage, she allegedly responded, “Let them eat cake.” Though there is no tangible evidence she ever uttered these words, Marie Antoinette has been thus portrayed as an oblivious figure enmeshed in the extravagances of royalty. She and her dessert have become some of popular culture’s favorite icons of a luxurious lifestyle.
This study seeks to examine how being reminded of a luxurious (or unhealthy) lifestyle might reduce an individual’s propensity to exert him – or herself. Many experiments have demonstrated the powerful effect of subtle reminders on influencing behavior. The work of John Bargh and his colleagues has been seminal in examining this “priming” effect…
The student is clearly trying to hook the reader by connecting their examination of the priming effect to Marie Antoinette. The professor was unhappy with this intro, though, since it strays from the topic and, in trying to include a catchy hook, loses the real question or problem at the heart of the paper. The reader doesn’t really know why we need to examine the priming effect.
As students develop as writers and thinkers, they start to learn that the academic questions they are exploring are motivated in and of themselves, and that it isn’t necessary to look so far beyond the material to find their motive. You can guide your students in this process by discussing why their writing and thinking really matters and how it fits into a larger dialogue among scholars.
Generally, there are two ways to motivate a scholarly piece of writing: academic question or real-world impact (though there is great nuance in these two categories and how they may be expressed). Both types of motivations can be found across disciplines, and some writing can use both types of motive simultaneously.
Academic question motives
This type of motive works to intervene in a scholarly conversation. The writing may address a question that was previously unsolved, resolve a contradiction in the literature, look at a topic from a new perspective, etc. The motive typically works, therefore, to establish was is not known or resolved, or how things have previously been done and why a new perspective is needed. This type of motive stays close to the scholarly material, and does not communicate a larger impact.
This type of motive addresses the larger, more external impact of the writing. How does the writing impact people or fit into a larger social conversation? These sorts of motives are more common in the social sciences and applied sciences, where research has a tangible impact on people and society.
While there is a consistent goal across writing, motives can vary widely depending on the discipline.
For example, in comparison to the humanities and social sciences, sciences motives are often minimized to just a sentence or two. Because the motive for the paper is very often a scientific question or gap, it doesn’t take long to establish this problem. For example, in the following introduction, the motive is established quickly and clearly in the first sentence – there is something interesting that we don’t know. Even as the motive is established, the authors are already bringing in evidence and beginning to prepare the reader for the topic more generally.
However, this does not mean that all science writing will have minimal motivations. Other science writing may motivated more broadly, such as biomedical research that has a real-word impact on a community.