Writing Resources

Motive: Why Writing Matters Across the Disciplines 

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.

Humanities Example

Critics have usually approached Shakespeare’s tragedies from traditional perspectives based on Aristotle’s theory of tragedy presented in the poetics and A.C. Bradley’s reading of Shakespeare’s plays. […] Other critics, in recent times, have started to resist these traditional methods of reading Shakespeare’s plays

"King Lear Reveals the Tragic Pattern of Shakespeare," Al-Ibia, 2017.

This example shows the author engaging with different methods of reading Shakespeare’s plays. There is no larger real-world impact. The scholarly question / method is sufficient to motivate the writing.

Science Example

A variety of systems of devices are available for measuring density, including hydrometers, density-gradient columns, pycnometers, oscillating-tube densitometers, suspended micro-channel resonators,27 and magnetic suspension balances.28 These methods, however, are often nonportable, difficult to use, or expensive.1, 27

"High-Sensitivity Measurement of Density by Magnetic Levitation," Nemiroski et al., 2016.

This research paper is motivated by a scientific gap in the available technology. There is some real-word impact here, but largely the writing is driven by a scientific problem.


Real-world motives

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.

Social Science Example

Student discipline in American schools has grown increasingly harsh, as evidenced by the greater use of exclusionary punishments like expulsion and suspension, despite clear indications that student delinquency, violence, and victimization have been declining. […] Schools are now responding to student violations—even minor ones—as if they are criminal infractions, with various punishments and banishments that can be likened to those experienced in the criminal justice system […]. The negative consequences of exclusionary responses to misbehavior can be harmful in a number of ways.

"The Effect of School Use Conditions on the Use of Restorative Justice in Schools," Payne and Welch, 2018:

The motive from this paper clearly shows a real-world impact of traditional disciplinary actions, and the harm that results (note that this is an abridged version; the actual paper has two full paragraphs that develop these ideas and supporting evidence). The reader is motivated to learn about a new way to approach discipline (i.e., restorative justice).

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.

Example of a concise science motive 

Teaching is ubiquitous in human societies, but although social learning is widespread in other species (1, 2), it is not yet clear how commonly teaching is involved. Teaching is characterized by the active involvement of experienced individuals in facilitating learning by naïve conspecifics (3, 4). The focus of definitions of teaching ranges from cognitive mechanisms (5, 6) to evolutionary function (3, 7). In this paper, we use a widely accepted (2, 4, 810) functional definition developed by Caro and Hauser (3). This definition comprises three criteria: (i) an individual, A, modifies its behavior only in the presence of a naïve observer, B; (ii) A incurs some cost or derives no immediate benefit; and (iii) as a result of A's behavior, B acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly or efficiently than it would otherwise, or that it would not have learned at all. Teaching is thought to allow faster and more efficient information transfer than passive forms of social learning (11), but evidence for its existence in nonhuman animals is equivocal (3, 4, 810, 12, 13). To date, only one study provides firm evidence for teaching (10), and its occurrence in the wild remains unconfirmed.

Teaching in Wild Meerkats, Thornton & McAuliffe, 2006.

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.

Example of a longer science motive  

Hypertension is the most common modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 1 billion adults have hypertension, that this figure is projected to climb to 1.5 billion by the year 2025, and that hypertension accounts for more than 9 million deaths annually.1, 2 Because of its high prevalence and related morbidity and mortality, population-wide approaches to reducing blood pressure, and therefore the burden of cardiovascular disease, have been recommended. Among these strategies, reducing dietary sodium and, to a lesser extent, increasing dietary potassium have been included in many guidelines for the treatment of hypertension and prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, recent studies have raised questions about potential adverse effects associated with low sodium intake on important health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease and death.3

Low Sodium Intake — Cardiovascular Health Benefit or Risk? Oparil, 2014.

In this paragraph, the real-word impact of the paper is established in a detailed, multi-sentence first paragraph that makes clear that the results of this study could have serious implications. This is seen most heavily in the first two sentences, but the idea of the real-word impact caries through the first paragraph.

 Elissa Jacobs and Paige Eggebrecht