Blog Writing

The Purpose That’s Driving Your Question: Asking Questions With A Purpose Part III

“Please don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions” (Mission Impossible III)

Not all questions demand an answer.

There are lots of different reasons why we ask questions, and getting clear on your reasons - getting clear on the purpose that’s driving your questions - will help you phrase them to get the response that you’re looking for.

Writing With A Clear Purpose In Mind

Sometimes we write questions quite naturally, without thinking about it all. Think for a moment about the questions you ask when you genuinely need to know the answer. You’re not asking to prompt a conversation but because you need help to do something (and you probably need it now).

The words come tumbling out, quick and fast:

  • Does anyone know someone who can help me make the transition from Typepad to WordPress?
  • Is there a way that I can transfer a blog from one to the other without losing all my links?
  • What’s the best free software that I can use to edit my photos for flickr?

We focus on the end result: what we want to do, what we want help with, how to phrase the question so we’re most likely to get a helpful response, and so we don’t waste people’s time. (Side note: Twitter is a great training ground to help you phrase your question both fully and concisely.)

What’s interesting is how keen people are to respond to these direct and specific requests. Why might that be? It’s probably because people:

  • Like to be helpful
  • Can see how they can add value
  • Enjoy sharing resources or expertise
  • Aren’t wasting time waiting for you to get to the point
  • Connect with the genuine request for help

It’s the purpose or the intention that they’re responding to. The words might make it easier or more difficult for them to do so, but that’s what drives the response.

How Do Readers Identify The Purpose?

Drafting this series on questions got me thinking harder about how readers treat questions. As we’re all readers as well as writers this is something we can all learn from: the clues and signals that we use as readers to inform and influence our response to the questions writers put.

When I thought about my own recent reading on the web I came up with 10 different types of purpose, and the clues I was using to interpret the intention behind the question. (I’m sure there are more: this is really to illustrate how we ‘read’ the question to get the purpose.)

The writer is asking in order to:

  • Get some help (question is specific, direct, practical)
  • Learn from feedback (expressing interest in learning, indicating an intention to share findings)
  • Make connections (question phrased in human, conversational style; refers to previous conversations)
  • Get comments (question is tacked on at the end, with no obvious connection to the rest of the post)
  • Encourage conversation (question is deliberately open, leaving as much room as possible for readers)
  • Stretch our minds (question has hallmarks of great brain teasers or puzzles, requiring our brains to go chasing after the answer)
  • Stimulate thought (question suggests reflection over period of time, not immediate response)
  • Think deeply (question might be rhetorical, leading to reflection for reader, or indeed the author)
  • Wake us up (question is personal & direct with powerful simple language)
  • Inspire change (question is aimed at changing mindset or emotional state: a call to action, not asking for a written response)

The last four examples aren’t looking for a conversational response, or expecting a comment to be written in the box. They’re written with the intention of creating a different kind of reaction.

Any one of these could be explored more fully (I can see this turning into a book never mind a series!) but I am going to cover one in depth: the next instalment is on questions that lead to positive change.

How Do You Get The Words To Match The Intention?

I don’t have an easy answer to this.

You can learn more about the principles of effective communication and how we use language. If you’re interested in language patterns and their effect I’d encourage you to find out more about NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). Joseph O’Connor’s NLP Workbook is a great place to start.

You can keep reflecting on questions that you read: how they’re phrased, how you respond, what kind of words act as triggers for you.

You can watch your own reactions and think about why you respond to some questions (even if you’re busy and don’t want to) when others leave you cold (even if you like the person you’re reading and want to try and respond).

Focus On The Positive Intention

But the simplest and most positive thing you can to is focus on your own positive intention. Get clear on the positive purpose behind your question. Try expanding the purpose till it becomes more compelling. Not just to ‘get comments’ or ‘be conversational’ but to have a conversation in order to… make human connections, change hearts and minds, teach someone about what you do.

Then focus on that. Focus on that intention. Narrow it down to thinking about one person you’d like to… connect with, learn from, inspire, teach, encourage.

And last but not least: trust. Trust your writing mind to find the words that will match the intention.

You’ve already got all the words you’ll ever need. You’re a human: you’ve been listening to, reading, absorbing, asking questions all your life.

You know what works. You’ve already got all the resources you’ll ever need.

Focus on the positive intention. Then allow the words to flow.

This is the third instalment of a 5 part series:

How To Ask Purposeful Questions: Introducing the Series

Part II: Creating the Space to Ask Questions

Coming next: Asking Questions For A Change

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

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11 Responses to “The Purpose That’s Driving Your Question: Asking Questions With A Purpose Part III”

  1. On June 11, 2008 at 4:34 pm Mark David Gerson responded with... #

    Great post, Joanna. So often (in life as in writing), we drift aimlessly, with no clear direction or focus. Setting an intention, setting out a vision, connecting with passion and purpose — all these bring clarity and depth to our creative writing and our creative living.

    At the same time, I believe it’s important to recognize that even our intentions are bound by the natural limitations of our incredible minds. The work — be it our books or our lives — have an intelligence that can transcend even our imagination and can carry us to new creations and new experiences beyond those we are able see with our human eyes or intend with our human mind.

    So, if I may, I would add that as important as it is to trust our writing mind to find the words that match the intention, it can be equally important to trust the innate intelligence of the writing project to help shape the intention.

    Not only do we have access to all the words we’ll ever need, but that same intuition that tells us what works and what doesn’t can also direct us into unanticipated — and wondrously miraculous — directions.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful piece and all you do to support creativity.

    Mark David Gerson
    author of The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write (and your Twitter pal, which is how I found out about the post!)

  2. On June 11, 2008 at 5:49 pm Ulla responded with... #

    Hi Joanna,
    thanks for describing these 10 different types of purpose - they give me a lot to think - and to work upon! That’s the most useful post about “getting comments” I’ve ever read.


  3. On June 11, 2008 at 6:02 pm Lissa Boles responded with... #

    Fantastic piece I’m going to put to use immediately. As a more natural talker than writer, writing plops me into left-brain mode and conscious intentionality can go pffft pretty fast! For me this is a great guideline that’ll help keep me plugged into my intention and purpose. Thanks!


  4. On June 11, 2008 at 6:53 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Joanna, for me this is a truly enlightening post, because you clarify a lot of ideas that vaguely rumble around in my head as I’m writing a blog post. Quite often I’ll approach a post with a mixture of several of the intentions you catalog. Too vague! Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on one purpose?

  5. On June 11, 2008 at 10:21 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Mark, and thanks for your comment. If I understand you right you mean don’t make purpose or intention a limitation on your creativity, but give it the space to flow and create, to take you to new & unimagined places?

    I’d agree with that… although I might still frame that within a purpose or intention (to create, to express, to explore, to marvel)

    Thanks for stopping by and taking time to add to this conversation


  6. On June 11, 2008 at 10:21 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Ulla, thank you. I feel I might need to retire from blogging now - my work is done!


  7. On June 11, 2008 at 10:23 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Lissa, thanks for that wonderful feedback. This was a tricky post to write, but worth it when I hear that you’ll be able to make use of it out there in the world!


  8. On June 11, 2008 at 10:25 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad, yes, I think you’ll get more impact (and more satisfaction) if you focus on one purpose in relation to each post.

    You can have one big purpose in relation to the blog overall, and lots of different purposes running along and playing out in different posts… but I’d stick to one per piece of writing, and get into the state or the frame of mind to achieve that one before you start to write.

    Hope that helps


  9. On June 13, 2008 at 3:04 am cat responded with... #

    “Any one of these could be explored more fully”

    This post is one to print out and think on further, for sure. To reread while in the clutches of post writing?

    (thanks, I’ve added the NLP Workbook to my amazon wish list …)

  10. On June 13, 2008 at 9:09 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Cat, maybe… I hope my round up post with 7 questions to ask yourself might work as a useful check list too.

    I think you’d be interested in the NLP stuff (though I do feel a twinge of guilt at adding to your amazon habit!)




  1. Welcome Back Joanna | Dawud Miracle @ - August 25, 2008

    [...] Part III: The Purpose That’s Driving Your Question [...]

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