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Analyzing an author's purpose | Reading

Authors have a purpose when writing, which can influence the text. To understand their purpose, ask yourself: What's their opinion? What information is included or left out? What's the connotation of their word choice? What's the overall tone? Be a skeptical reader and watch for manipulative tactics! Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello, readers. Today we are going on a dangerous journey inside the mind of the author. (ominous music) Every piece of text is written for a purpose, and especially in informational text, every author structures their texts, words, and their ideas with that purpose in mind. And sometimes that purpose will be harder to see. As readers, our job is to consider the author's purpose as we read. How is it influencing the information the author shares? How is it influencing my understanding of the topic? Is what I think the same as what the author thinks? Do I agree with them? Do I disagree? You may be familiar with the memory device of P.I.E., persuade, inform, entertain, as three categories of purpose. But I'd like to go deeper than that. I live in Washington, D.C., which is home to an entire professional class of what are called lobbyists, people whose job it is to advocate to Congress on behalf of a special interest, for example, the oil industry or the cheese industry. This isn't always bad. You can learn more about lobbyists and advocates in Khan Academy's Government and Politics course. But frequently, it takes the form of someone from an industry trying to convince Congress to give them a competitive advantage over other industries. Now, let's pull real-world politics out of this and pretend for the purposes of this lesson that there are two warring lobbying groups in D.C. One that represents the cake industry, and another that represents the pie industry. An age-old conflict. So hold that conflict in your mind for a second, cake versus pie. Now, when we read informational text, we should be learning new information. But the author's opinions can shape the text to the point where the information becomes biased or misleading. When you read informational text, maintain an air of healthy skepticism. Ask yourself the following questions constantly. What's the author's opinion? What information did they include, or what information did they leave out? And if so, was that on purpose? What's the connotation of the author's word choice? You know, how do the words feel? And what's the overall tone of the piece? So now we have these questions to ask ourselves, let's return to our pie versus cake lobby fight in Washington. So imagine you're reading "The Washington Post," and you see this opinion column. "Cake Connected to Cavities "and Poor Dental Health, Study Finds." "A recent study by the American Dental Association "connected the consumption of cake or similar foods "with a 30% increased risk of tooth decay, "cavities, and gingivitis. "People who reported having consumed cake "in the previous 60 days were significantly more likely "to experience problems related to dental health "than those people who did not. "Cake is dangerous. "Cake, which rarely contains fruit, will rot your teeth." And then if we squint down at the very bottom of the column, it'll say in small text, "The author is the CEO "of Circular Solutions, a pie-advocacy network." And now let's ask ourselves those same questions again while acknowledging that this is a fake story that I made up for the purposes of this video. There is nobody named Wendell Apricotjam, although I wish there were, that'd be a great name. So, what's the author's opinion? Well, it seems to me that the author really thinks cake is dangerous and poses a threat to the nation's dental health. We know this because they literally say "cake is dangerous." They want people to buy and eat fewer cakes. What information did the author choose to include? Well, so this is interesting. The author talks about the results of this study and the big takeaways about the danger of cake or similar foods, and then they go on to mention incidentally that cake rarely contains fruit. That's a curious thing to say. It's almost like they're saying, "Pie, which has fruit in it, is better for you than cake," without actually saying it. What information did the author choose to leave out? Well, notice that the piece says "cake or similar foods." I would be hard-pressed to come up with a definition of foods similar to cake that does not also include desserts like pie. But the way that this piece is written, it swerves out of its way to avoid pinning the same tooth decay risks on pie the way that it blames cake. I think it would be reasonable to assume that if we read the underlying study that this opinion piece is based on, it would include pies and cakes in the same category of sugary desserts that are associated with bad dental outcomes. Why would the author do this? Well, they want you to buy pie instead of cake. But they don't want you to think too hard about it because if you did, you would buy and eat both less cake and less pie. And the pie lobby doesn't want that. What's the connotation or the feeling of the author's word choices? Well, they're citing a scientific study by dentists, so they want you to take their warning seriously, and they're using words like risk and danger, rot and problems. They want you to make an association between eating cake and bad tooth health. They want you to associate scientific language with trustworthiness. So I'm gonna put down scientific authority here. What's the overall tone? It's negative. The author does not want you to eat cake. They want you to think it's bad, and they've planted a little hint here that fruity foods are better. And what's a fruity food? Pie. Can they say pie is safer? No, not without lying outright. Now, I wanna be clear about two things. Sometimes an author's purpose really will just be to inform straightforwardly. Not everything has to be a tug-of-war between you and the author over the truth. Sometimes a writer just wants you to know the lifecycle of a butterfly, or how to make egg salad, or the order the U.S. presidents came in. But most of the time, there's a purpose, an opinion, behind the text. Now, the second thing I wanna be super clear about is that I made up this whole thing. I made up the article, the statistics, Wendell, you know, all of that's fake. I like both pie and cake very much. And now that I've said that, I'm sure you're wondering, "Oh, is David in the pocket of big dessert?" And the answer is no. I'm in the pocket of big free education for everyone everywhere. You can learn anything. David out.