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How to Write a Sophisticated, Dynamic Scholarly Argument

It is incumbent upon early-career academics to distinguish their research as mature scholarship, not student work. So as an editor who often works with junior faculty and recent PhDs, I’m always on the lookout for hallmarks of amateur writing that scholars can identify and excise.

Perhaps most academics can name some of the tics that unfortunately characterize graduate-student writing: overqualification, hedging, extensive literature review, and a high ratio of quotation to original material are just a few.

Another quirk I’ve noticed is that less effective manuscripts—whether they’re written by early-career scholars or not—tend to organize information into lists. That may not sound so damning, but lists become vulnerabilities when they are presented as arguments.

Tweed GearsNo matter how extensive, delivering a list is not the same as making a persuasive case. A list arranges elements without nuanced interrelationships and often without priority, effectively stripping an argument of crescendo. Good arguments, like good plots, have conflict, rising and falling action, climax, and denouement. If the bulk of a writer’s exposition is essentially a list, she will find it difficult to animate her argument.

A list-based argument is any that operates by an additive logic—the assumption that the sheer quantity of components will impress and persuade. Lists can therefore be lurking at any level of writing. A table of contents that shows no progression from one chapter to the next might reflect a static series of topics that don’t build on each other (probably not the most engaging book architecture). Or an introduction to a journal article might rattle off a modern play’s cast of characters without much syntactical variation or thought to putting the personalities in dynamic relation.

So what does a list-dependent piece of writing look like? It won’t always have a series of numbered components, but I’ve certainly seen my fair share of “firstly . . . secondly . . . lastly” constructions. (Usually, the first edit in American English manuscripts is to strike the “-ly” suffix, but that’s trivial in comparison with fundamentally unsound analytical structure.)

Even without those enumerative tags, a preponderance of very short paragraphs is symptomatic of a checklist approach to argument. Blog posts like this one can have multiple one- or two-sentence paragraphs, but that staccato structure would undercut an academic article or monograph, which should be cultivating at least the appearance of thoroughness.

This compulsion to start a new paragraph with every successive ingredient can be overcome. If a writer has a constellation of relatively equally weighted points to make, he could even put the first in its own paragraph and the next two in another paragraph. That’s absolutely okay because—at least in the humanities and qualitative social sciences (the fields in which I edit)—scholars tend not to be writing dry handbooks or manuals.

Another dead giveaway of additive discourse is—drumroll, please—starting a sentence with the word “another.” I try not to espouse rigid pseudo-rules, but I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which an initial “another” does anything but defang the statement it introduces. It’s a very flimsy transition. Picture this lead-in to a paragraph: “Another interesting aspect of x is . . .” Kind of boring, right? At the very least, I suggest that writers consider sentences beginning with “another” to be worthy of scrutiny during the revision process.

I certainly appreciate that the topic-by-topic approach is motivated by an impulse to cover all the bases. Completionism for its own sake is fine if the goal is encyclopedic treatment of a chosen subject. But engaging narrators are those who actively decide which bases need covering in the first place, and they devote proper attention to explaining the importance of what’s included and excluded. They reveal their objects of study as complex systems—as machinery whose gears, springs, and ratchets interact with dynamism, torque, and teeth.

A linear display of all the parts that go into a clock will never be as instructive as a working model. By the same token, an argument that presents a long list of proportionate elements sacrifices the opportunity to relate research components in complex and instructive ways. That’s why I’ve devoted this post to what might at first seem like a superficial or inconsequential rhetorical choice.

Scholars are clearly passionate about the phenomena they spend so much time dissecting. So my wish for all academic authors is that they are able to present their readers with arguments that function like multidimensional mechanisms, not dull parts inventories. The ability to identify logical progressions that are fundamentally just lists enables a writer to recalibrate and make stronger contributions to scholarship. When we are attuned to the many elaborate disguises that lists can assume, we are at least in a better position to deploy them intentionally, and not just for lack of a functional analytical model.

Katie Van HeestThrough her practice, Tweed Editing, Katie Van Heest, PhD, refines scholarship so that research makes its mark within the academy and beyond. Her services are retained by professors, independent researchers, and advanced graduate students, and she edits for university presses, research centers, and scholarly societies. She has a PhD in religion (the humanistic study thereof) from Claremont and a certificate in editing from the University of Chicago.