Getting Into Arguments

I read people’s dissertations for a living. Well, to be more precise, my job is to read would-be authors’ book manuscripts and book proposals and help fix them, but most of the projects I work on begin life as doctoral dissertations. A recurring problem I see in diss-to-book conversions: the introduction or proposal lays out anywhere from three to eight arguments that the book manuscript promises to make.

Now, a book manuscript that promises to make many arguments is a step ahead of the project that doesn’t yet claim any arguments. But a scholarly book should really just have one big argument. The book may have several sub-arguments to make, and that’s fine, because it gives an author something to do with the body chapters. (Yes, each of your body chapters must make a clear central argument of its own, but that’s a topic for another post.) But every smaller argument you make in the book must be subsumable under the big, main thesis. That means it should in some easily discernible way support the larger point the book is making.

To be fair, I’ve seen this problem in book manuscripts that didn’t begin as dissertations (I work on those too sometimes), but I think conversions are particularly prone to it because the diss is such a huge project, both materially and emotionally. Authors have a lot to show for the years of work they’ve put into it, and they want to make sure it all gets seen. I understand and sympathize with this impulse. Yet the irony is that, by throwing *everything* at the reader, you make it less likely they’ll absorb and remember any of it.

If you think this problem might apply to the book manuscript you’re currently working on, here’s a tip that I use when I’m editing*: re-read your draft — you can just read the intro if you want to run a quick diagnostic — and mark up everything that looks like an argument. Sentences that begin “In this book, I argue,” are obvious, but you might have some arguments sneaking in under other guises too. If you have a bunch of these sentences, that’s a dead giveaway that you might not be clearly communicating the central thesis yet. Figure out which argument can encompass all the others, and treat that as the main thesis. If none of them quite works, you might have to actually articulate a new argument that you can fit all the other arguments within.

You might find that there are one or two (or more) smaller arguments that you just can’t easily fit within the big thesis. In that case, those arguments, and any material that supports them, may need to be cut from the manuscript. Yes, this might mean cutting an entire chapter! It might be a chapter you really love! It’s ok — you don’t have to throw it in the trash — you could turn it into a great paper that you publish separately from the book, or it might be the kernel of your next book. But everything in the manuscript absolutely has to point back to the big idea.

Why? Because the purpose of a scholarly book is to make a big contribution to one or more scholarly fields. Packing a bunch of arguments into a book without giving structural emphasis to any of them is a good way to ensure readers come away without a clear idea of the overall point of it all. As an author, you can help convince a reader that you have something very important to say by shaping the text as if that one big idea is very important. This means not asking the reader to hold multiple distinct arguments in their head at once. (That’s pretty hard to do when reading a book actually, especially for an academic reader who is likely pressed for time and not necessarily able to give your book deep, sustained attention. Assume that the people asked to weigh in on your tenure case, if that’s your path, will fall into this category of reader.) It also means structuring the book’s content so as to bring readers on a narrative journey, the culmination of which is them being thoroughly convinced that your big idea is correct and that it matters in the real world.

A tangled mass of rope

As Margo Bargheer very helpfully pointed out in a discussion about this on Twitter, focusing on one argument doesn’t have to mean oversimplifying the content. On the contrary, that main argument can serve as a kind of base weft, allowing other secondary arguments and evidence to be woven into a “rich fabric of information.” Margo also shared the super helpful observation that a clear through line in a book can enable other aspects of the publishing process to fall into place more easily. For example, a succinct statement of the book’s main idea can prove inspirational to the cover designer who is tasked with visually representing the book’s content. I’ve found, too, that coming up with a compelling title for a book becomes straightforward when you know the central argument you want readers to take from it.

I know that isolating a book’s central thesis and shaping the manuscript around it isn’t easy. I know this because very smart writers and thinkers pay me to help them do it. And here’s the part of this post where I pitch you on working with a developmental editor: one of my favorite parts of doing a manuscript assessment + revision plan for a client is formulating a statement that sums up what I think the central thesis of the book is (or could be). Often, the animating argument I see in the manuscript is not exactly what the author thought it was. That’s the point of the exercise: it provides the author with information about their own work that they previously lacked. Having your argument summarized for you by a close reader has payoffs well beyond the manuscript you’re currently at work on. Job search materials, grant applications, conference submissions, tenure documents: all of these pieces of paperwork require you to succinctly state your work’s argument and intellectual contribution. Muddling through and hoping readers will figure it out on their own is not the wisest long-term strategy.

So, whether you work with a developmental editor or not, it’s important to make the effort to clarify your book’s main argument if you want it to have a lasting impact on readers and on your field more broadly. Give people one big thing to remember about your book, and they’ll be able to associate it with your name and scholarly career forever.

*More on this technique can be found in Scott Norton’s book Developmental Editing. I also recommend William Germano’s guides From Dissertation to Book and Getting It Published, where you can read much more about the ideas I discuss in this post.