In the classic Monty Python sketch Argument Clinic, a man played by Michael Palin approaches a receptionist and says “I’d like to buy an argument.” After paying for it and entering the next room, another man played by John Cleese repeatedly disagrees with him. Frustrated, Palin’s character says, “an argument is a collective series of statements intended to establish a proposition… it isn’t just contradiction!” Of course, Cleese disagrees with this as well. A frustrated Palin cries out that an “argument’s an intellectual process,” just before his time expires and he storms out.
Argument Clinic encapsulates what people assume academic arguments are about: being contrarian to sound smart. But academics I work with don’t think this way. They would rather not needlessly pick battles. Rather, academics want their book or article to make a subtle argument that persuades their desired audience to adopt a particular position. They also wish to ensure that their book compellingly synthesizes scholarship, and unites it with data they have lovingly collected over years, even decades.
Palin was right; an argument is a collective series of statements intended to establish a proposition! And every academic book should have one. In What Editors Do, Peter Ginna writes that “a nonfiction book has to have an engaging core idea… [and] a well-shaped argument.” When you submit your book proposal, University press series and acquisitions editors will want to know what your book’s argument is. A novel argument can help your research catch the eye of publishers and reach new audiences. So if an argument isn’t just being argumentative, what is it?
The Academic Argument Formula
Consider the below equation (modified from Toulmin’s model): Data + Interpretation = Conclusion. Simply presenting your data is not sufficient. Your argument should interpret your data to lead the reader to adopt a particular view. Your book should also have a unifying argument—a “core idea” you come back to time and again—that is driven by data. To be persuasive, you have to explicitly write about what you believe the data means. That’s what we call an “argument.”
For example, in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Dr. Jane Ward uses concepts developed by lesbian activists to recuperate straight relationships. Her main argument is that heterosexuality has been socially constructed over centuries. It teaches straight couples that heterosexuality is natural and (paradoxically) to regard each other as incompatible. To liberate heterosexuality from misogyny requires ditching what she calls the “heterosexual repair industry” and recognizing lessons of queer activists and feminists. Ultimately, Dr. Ward writes that, in her book, “I will argue that another way forward is to redefine heterosexuality itself, to expand its basic ingredients to include more, and not less, attachment and identification between women and men.” This is the core argument that drives Ward’s book.
Each chapter of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality interprets different types of data to strengthen her argument, by either setting up the problem or the ingredients that will alleviate it. After an introduction, the second chapter “He’s Just Not That Into You: The Misogyny Paradox” examines how media and self-help books have normalized marriage as an ideal, while entrenching dislike, manipulation, and violence as necessary tools to manage spouses. Chapter three finds Dr. Ward doing an ethnography of a “pickup artist” conference, tracing how concepts from history manifest and are reproduced. Chapter four uses online interviews to argue that queer people are often joyful, and leery of the misery of straight relationships. In chapter five, Dr. Ward brings her sub-arguments together in a conclusion, in which she argues for “deep heterosexuality”—an opposite-sex love and attraction “powerfully oriented toward all women’s well-being and liberation.”
Jane Ward’s book is compelling because she follows the D + I = C argument structure. Each chapter has a sub-argument developed from original data that enriches her larger argument. While she offers strong critiques, at no point does she needlessly belittle her interlocutors, like Cleese’s character in Argument Clinic. Echoing Peter Ginna, her argument is also well-shaped. She sets up a problem (the misogyny paradox), traces how it is reproduced, and then proposes a way to intervene.
While not all academic books need to be as prescriptive as The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, they should all have an argument that builds throughout the book.
So how do you find an argument? Well, just open your favorite academic book!
Finding the Argument
You may not know the name Don LeFontaine, but you probably recognize his voice. He’s the late voice actor who became famous for his “In a world” narration in movie trailers. The phrase “In a world” sets the stage for the movie, often setting up the plot and characters in broad strokes.
Academic books also often include a kind of “In a world” phrase in their introductions. In fact, academics give their argument away! Nearly every book published in the last decade has paragraphs in the introduction that begin similar to Dr. Ward’s statement above: “I will argue.” Other variations include “In this book,” “I argue,” and “This book.” These phrases signal to the reader that the paragraph that follows will tell them what the book is about. Consider Dr. G. Cristina Mora’s introduction in Making Hispanics:
This book examines the rise of Hispanic panethnicity in the United States by focusing on how activists, government officials, and media executives institutionalized the Hispanic category and developed a national movement to popularize the Hispanic identity.G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics (2014)
This sentence lays out what Dr. Mora will argue in her book. Actions of activists, government officials, and media executives (data) institutionalized the idea of a Hispanic identity through a national movement (interpretation), leading to the dominance of the ethnic category (conclusion). D + I = C.
Dr. Mora’s “core idea,” as Ginna put it, is also interesting and engaging. “Hispanic” is still a controversial category, because it unites distinct Spanish-speaking cultures under a single demographic. Many who are classified as “Hispanic” prefer terms like Latino, Latinx, or Chicano, which all have slightly different meanings. So why has Hispanic gained such a foothold as a demographic category? This is, in Ginna’s terms, the “big idea” that Dr. Mora’s book explains, and the “hook” that keeps you reading.
Writing A Short Argument
Writing a compelling argument around a bit idea is not that difficult. Argumentation, like any other writing skill, just requires practice.Academic writers should aspire to Dr. Ward’s organization and Dr. Mora’s conciseness. We are trained to be deep thinkers, and write sprawling books about topics that interest us. Far less frequently are we taught how to translate insights into short formats that are compelling and interesting to other people. Luckily, it’s not impossible to write more compelling arguments! You just need to start by writing that first D + I = C sentence.
If you’d like write better arguments, take an hour to:
- Take out three academic books you admire and find the argument in the introduction. Look for sentences that begin “I will argue,” “In this book,” “I argue,” or “this book argues.” There may be multiple places this happens, because authors often re-state and augment their position throughout their book.
- Decide which argument you find most compelling. You might like the way an author upsets a common historical perspective, or you could gravitate to one that interprets ethnographic data from a particular research site.
- Write a version of this same argument for your own book. Start with a single D + I = C sentence, similar to Dr. Mora’s above. Then expand to a full paragraph where you unpack the sub-arguments you’ll make throughout the book from a very high level.
Good luck! And if you would like editorial assistance to ensure your argument is strong throughout your book, please contact me for a free consultation.
Dr. Andrew Schrock is Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find him on Twitter at @aschrock.