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In school and from books, I was taught that every prose composition must be planned before it is written and that the first step of planning a composition is to define for it a single purpose, whether it is to inform, narrate, describe, or persuade, concerning a particular subject or theme.

But for a long time, I wondered whether a composition could have multiple purposes, and whether it could have primary and secondary purposes, and whether a composition could be composed, not only by expounding on some subject but by determining and doing the things necessary to accomplish that purpose.

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  • By "a prose composition" do you mean the sort of short essay often assigned to students in high-school? If not, just what type of work is meant here? Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 16:12

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A written work, whether it is a short essay, or a novel, a song, or a text book, can indeed serve multiple purposes. Many of the best ones do.

Writing teachers often advise planning for a single purpose, because that is easier and helps a budding writer retain focus. Teaching a young writer to plan at all is hard enough, teaching how to plan for multiple effects is much harder. Planning a work can help avoid a confused work that goes nowhere. But some of the most acclaimed authors did little if any planning. Mark Twain, for example, seems to have done little or no planning for much of his fiction, and many of his shorter humorous essays. In some cases this resulted in works that seem unfinished or awkward, such as "A Double-Barreled Detective Story" or the several unfinished and unpublished versions of The Mysterious Stranger. But on the whole, his methods seemed to work well for him.

Satirical works, in particular, often serve multiple purposes. Consider the first section of Gulliver's Travels, separately titled A Voyage to Lilliput. This served, in its day, as a sharp satire of then-current politics. It also served as a thrilling adventure story. And it has been taken later as a general advocacy of equality.

This can also be true of non-fictional works, such as essays. Many of Issac Asimov's essays served both to educate people about particular facts, and to advocate for a pro-science view of things in general. Stephan Jay Gould's famous essay "Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of Evolution" serves both to discuss in some detail certain aspects of how evolution works, and to make several ethical points. Both meanings seem very clearly intended and planned for.

Poetry often has multiple meanings on multiple levels. Kipling';s well-known verse "Gunga-Din" both depicts some of the attitudes of the British soldier of its time, and makes a moral point about the equality or more exactly the equal moral worth of people from different racial groups. Much the same could be said of his less known verse "The Mother Lodge"

There is nothing wrong with having multiple meanings in a single piece of writing. However, it is harder to do well than having a single focused purpose, particularly in a short essay. One will want to avoid having the meanings result in a confusing and unclear piece of writing, or even having them clash. If the work can be clearly focused on more than one goal, wonderful. But often having only one goal at a time makes that goal easier to reach.

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It depends on how you define purpose. Here are some purposes for a published work of fiction:

  • For the bookstore, to be able to place it in a genre on a specific shelf
  • For the publisher, to make money (ultimately!)
  • For the reader to be entertained, thrilled, transported to another world, etc
  • For the writer, to gain a readership, express something emotional, feel alive, show mom/dad they're wrong, tell everyone how awful mom and dad were, make money, be attractive to the opposite sex, etc etc etc

I'm sure there are even more purposes.

I think when I write my purposes (among others) are a mix of most of the things you describe.

Is a text that describes, informs, AND persuades a bad text? Not necessarily. Does it risk being all over the place? No, not if it describes, informs, and persuades in a way that works.

Is it harder to write such a text? Maybe, or it may be that you have to cut things out of your text because it happened to do more than one...

I don't know in what books or from what people you got this advice, but I think it's incorrect...

I've come to a few conclusions when it comes to my own hunt for information on writing:

Every native language school teacher out there has in their school plans and in the law that they must teach their students to write in that language. Ergo corny ideas about writing such as that adjectives are the best thing since sliced bread, or apparently, that a text must have only one purpose.

I use to take less seriously those authors or teachers that have published more books on writing than actual fiction books. I've right out refused to look at some people with a single published work of fiction and a ton of "how to write books".

Sure, those books may have the most gorgeous titles promising the most wonderful results, but in my view, if there's more talk than action, I'll at least be a bit cautious about taking it too literally.

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