Crafting Argument-Driven Manuscripts
A Primer for Writing Arguments in the Humanities and Qualitative Social Sciences
The best way to increase your chances of publication is to ensure that your manuscript is argument-driven. Most journal editors agree that the absence of an argument, or the absence of an explicit or well-supported argument, is a primary reason most articles are rejected. Most of us in the humanities and qualitative social sciences learn early on that arguments are king, but determining how to craft an effective one that is supported throughout the manuscript is difficult.
Wendy Belcher (crediting Tim Stowell) describes a helpful analogy for crafting arguments in her book, which I'm going to expand on in this post today. According to Belcher, in order to write an argument-driven manuscript, you must think like a lawyer rather than a detective. Detectives gather as much evidence as they can and keep copious notes that don't always have meaning yet. Lawyers must deduce meaning from the evidence and present a case for what that evidence means for their cases.
The reality is that academics are like detectives and lawyers at separate times in the research process. Let’s say you are conducting a textual analysis of a television series. As a detective, you watch the show over and over again, taking notes on every detail. You end up with pages and pages of notes and numerous avenues to pursue in your analysis. Yet, you don’t have an argument yet. You simply have a lot of interesting things to say about the text, like a boat without a rudder.
But detectives don’t get published; lawyers do.
Making the Case
Belcher defines an argument as this:
An argument is (1) your journal article's single significant idea (2) stated in one or two sentences early and clearly in your article and (3) around which your article is organized, (4) emerging from or linked to some scholarly conversation, and (5) supported with evidence to convince your reader of its validity ( p. 67).
To progress from the detective phase of research to the lawyer phase of writing an argument-driven manuscript, you must first determine what some of the evidence means and how it advances knowledge in some way.
Laura Portwood-Stacer describes arguments in book manuscripts like this:
This argument is not merely a claim or an assertion; it explains to the reader a phenomenon they might not have understood before. A compelling thesis not only claims a relationship between entities, but also theorizes that relationship in ways that can be agreed with or disagreed with. The evidence you offer in your book persuades the reader to agree with your thesis” (p. 54-55).
I frequently read manuscripts that identify relationships between entities, but they don’t go the next step to theorize that relationship in a way that can be agreed with or disagreed with. These authors remain in the detective phase. To advance to the lawyer phase, you must assemble some of your evidence into a coherent story to convince the jury, i.e., the reviewers and audience, that your interpretation of the evidence is valid.
You must decide which evidence to use and which to discard or save for another article or chapter. To determine this, focus on the argument and only include evidence that supports it. Everything else is filed away as interesting facts you discovered but aren't relevant to your case.
I'll give you an example of an argument from a recent paper I wrote. Here’s the abstract:
This article examines how networked sports media actively facilitates a hierarchical system of visibility dependent on social media engagement and data analytics. I argue that in the case of women’s sports, as well as other less mediated sports, the industry logics that structure hierarchies of visibility deflect who is responsible for representation away from networks, brands, and leagues and onto fans to promote women’s sports through their engagement online. This strategy shields the business of sports from the risk of investing in women athletes and instead places the responsibility on fan labor.
If I had been thinking like a detective, I would have presented a slew of evidence about fan engagement with women's sports teams and athletes on social media and then stopped there. Instead, my argument is that the evidence I gathered demonstrates that there is a specific relationship between fan engagement and the business of sports, which I will have to prove in order to persuade you that it is valid.
Considering the Jury
Booth et al. note in The Craft of Research that there are two distinct stages of argument development:
Assemble your argument to see if it persuades you; then revise it into a report that you think will persuade your reader (p. 106).
I have written before about the importance of writing shitty first drafts and working through your ideas on the page for yourself first. This is a "writing to think" method that will help you consider how to make sense of all the evidence you gathered. To progress from a drafted piece to one that is ready for submission, you must consider who will read the manuscript.
Let’s extend the lawyer analogy and consider how the jury, i.e., audience, becomes crucial to your arguments. As Booth et al. suggest, you must write your arguments with your audience in mind. This could be your dissertation committee, journal reviewers, and/or the small group of scholars who work on similar topics to you.
To write an argument-driven manuscript, you must understand who your jurors are. When a lawyer is preparing a case, one of the factors they consider with their arguments is who will sit on the jury. The lawyer considers the demographics and backgrounds of each member of the jury in order to prepare arguments that may be persuasive to those individuals. As a result, you must consider who your ideal and/or real audience for a manuscript is in order to organize your argument in a way that will be convincing to those readers.
Developing Your Closing Arguments
Here's one more way to extend the lawyer analogy. As a detective, your job is to collect evidence, and discussing interesting things you discover can be enjoyable. When you switch to lawyer mode, the stakes rise dramatically when you have to stand in front of your peers and argue a case. Creating an argument with which the jury can disagree is intimidating, which is why authors sometimes fail to express their arguments explicitly.
I often encounter writers who are on the cusp of stating an argument but are afraid to take the leap for fear of being proved wrong. However, they don’t have an argument-driven manuscript yet. They have to expose themselves to criticism in order to advance from detective to lawyer, and that can be a scary thing.
Consider how many television shows and movies depict a lawyer agonizing over their closing arguments before delivering them because the stakes are high and they must be convincing or the case will be lost. For lawyers onscreen, the closing arguments are a dramatic event, and for academic authors, it can be a terrifying task. However, just like lawyers, it is our job to make arguments, and we cannot avoid doing so if we want to publish in academic contexts.
What's my advice for getting over that fear? When you're feeling hesitant to make your case and need some inspiration, watch Legally Blonde and marvel at Elle Woods' argumentative prowess.
What, like it’s hard?
We Would Like To Hear From You!
How do you think about arguments? What resources have you collected on arguments that might be useful for other readers? What questions do you have about crafting arguments?