What’s the Occasion for your writing? What motivates you to write?
Imagine that you are writing to solve a problem, or to answer a complicated question, or even to help others by providing them with information. The question “Why do you write?” is a question about occasion. The idea of occasion is all about a time, a place, a situation that is perfect for you to write in. When you write, imagine an occasion for your writing. You need to feel that your writing is very important and that it fits a situation. Imagine that your topic of writing is important enough to bring a positive change to society by providing important information that may help others. Imagine that, if you do not write, then the (imagined) problems will grow worse and society will still be in need of help. This imagined feeling of urgency for you to solve a problem through speaking is what occasion is all about. Occasion means that your speaking has value and goals in your imagined situation. Occasion motivates you to write because, instead of just giving ideas that no one cares about, you have a problem, a solution to the problem to talk about, and a listening audience. Imagine an occasion for your writing by asking yourself a few questions:
1) What am I really writing about? If an instructor gave you the writing assignment below, for example, you should not only think about the topic, but you should also try to think about the bigger issues the topic is connected to:
Some high schools require all students to wear school uniforms. Other high schools permit students to decide what to wear to school. Which of these two school policies do you think is better? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Is this topic really about uniforms only? Or is this about some bigger issue? What larger, more important issues underlie the topic of uniforms? To imagine occasion for your writing, you must consider what larger issues you are trying to address. Perhaps you can imagine that some larger issues are related to the topic of a school uniform, such as 1) student’s freedom of personal expression, 2) security and school safety, and even 3) the academic quality of the learning environment. Thinking about the larger—more real and touching—issues behind the topic is the first step of imagining occasion for your writing.
2) Why do people need my writing? Next, imagining occasion means thinking about why other people even want you to speak. What problem or issue makes what you say important? Imagine that your writing is important and needed. For the topic about high school uniforms, you can ask: “Who really needs me to write about this topic?” Was there a debate in a local high school about a school uniform dress code? Do you have an (imagined) opponent who is making counterarguments against you? Imagine that you must answer this other speaker, this naysayer. You must ask yourself, “Why does my writing even matter to others? Is it important for my audience to hear?” Think about the reasons your topic is important for your listeners. Are there dangers that can be avoided through your argument about the topic? Are there moral issues that you think are important to consider? Imagining occasion, therefore, means imagining the necessity and the value of your writing—to yourself and to your imagined others.
3) What should my writing do to/for others? Also, imagining occasion involves considering, “What should my writing cause others to do?” Think about the intended effect/accomplishment of your writing. Imagine the outcomes—what others should do—after hearing your writing. Are you trying to resolve a conflict in the occasion, to answer a question, to inform or persuade an audience? You might have more than one goal. Some of your goals may be more immediate and important and, other goals may be more far off and less important. For example, when writing an essay arguing that high school students should not have to wear uniforms, your immediate goal could be to persuade your audience to change the rules. But, your ultimate goal may be related to a larger issue, such as promoting and maintaining individuality and freedom of personal expression. Thinking about the effect your writing has on others is an important step in imagining occasion.
Imagine that you are writing in response to others
One of the best ways to visualize occasion in your mind is to imagine that your writing is a reply to another speaker. In the book, They Say/ I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2003), the authors say that skillful and effective writers create their statements to sound like responses to others. Before you write your own ideas in your essay, think of what other ideas you might be responding to. Then, write your ideas as replies to these ideas. For example, here are two main idea statements of an essay arguing against high school uniforms—one sounds like a reply, and the other just sounds like telling a lone opinion:
1) Without occasion: I think high school students should not be required to wear uniforms. Personal freedom is an important value especially for high school students. I think a uniform requirement would restrict the personal freedom of students. Therefore, a requirement for students to wear uniforms would make high school life worse.
2) With occasion: Many have argued that a high school uniform requirement would improve students’ learning environment by minimizing distractions, making the campus more safe and secure, and helping families save money. While all of these reasons are admirable, I think they overlook a more important part of high school life: a student’s personal freedom. I think a uniform requirement would restrict the personal freedom of students and actually make the campus environment worse.
In example (2), the writer shaped his/her idea as a response to another person. This is a good strategy to write arguments because, in real life, arguments are usually provoked by others. You never make an argument with others unless they provoke you, either directly or indirectly. The statements and thoughts of other people should be the motivation (provocation) of your writing. Then, your essay is just the reply to others’ ideas. You should sound like you are addressing or responding to someone’s wrong idea, or adding to something you agree with. Sometimes students only write their own ideas—alone—without including the statements of others. This kind of writing is less skillful and less interesting; like someone going on and on, broadcasting his/her own ideas for no reason about a topic that nobody cares about. Imagine that we are still writing an essay from the above example (2). Imagine that you have already given many reasons and examples to support your argument that requiring school uniforms is not a good idea; perhaps, you think uniforms restrict students’ personal freedom. Now, in the third or fourth paragraph, you bring the other speaker’s idea into your essay again:
3) Regardless of all I have said, some would still argue that students do not come to school to express themselves freely, but to learn. This may seem like a good argument, but it overlooks the fact that students often learn from one another, as well as from teachers. But if students are restricted in how they can express themselves through clothing, then their thinking about one another will also be restricted. Allowing students to choose their own clothing, therefore, actually opens the way for them to learn more about one another’s cultures, ways, and norms, helping them find their own identities in the process. Even classrooms cannot always do such a great thing as this.
In example (3) above, you introduced a counterargument from the same naysayer in the beginning of the essay. But you now rebut (prove wrong) the counterargument. This writing strategy helps you to make your paper more argumentatively effective because it shows your readers that you are wrestling with a topic actively, and it can pull your readers into the argument, making them more interested and involved. When your audience is interested, you are indeed a skillful writer.