This week, I wrapped up Week Three of Wendy Belcher’s marvelous workbook, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.
I wrote more than I have in the previous two weeks. I’d finally finished planning my article and felt ready to start writing. I made sure to write every day for forty-five minutes or so. I was pleased to see that even after short daily writing sessions, my article seemed to be taking shape.
Some writing days were a struggle. I felt profoundly sad for no particular reason on Saturday, a deep, heavy, aching sad. Sometimes I get the blues out of nowhere. I tried to muster up the effort to care about my article, but couldn’t quite do it. I decided to give myself a day off to take care of myself emotionally and physically. I meditated, exercised, and cooked healthy food. Although the sadness hasn’t passed entirely, I’m now able to get back to my writing practice and my article.
This week’s writing tasks centered on constructing a real argument. I’d written the first draft of my article when I was an awkward MA student and just starting to learn about how to study and write history. I’d been much more concerned with getting the story out than making an argument. After I re-read my (now) article draft last week, I realized that although it contained some interesting ideas, I had failed to write an actual argument.
In her book, Belcher provides a long list of reasons that journals reject articles. She argues that the main reason academic journals reject articles is because they contain no central argument.
I see my own editing clients struggle with writing strong arguments and thesis statements. I’ve edited several works recently that lack a central argument. What we think are arguments are often just topics. We lack confidence in ourselves and our writing. We’d rather not take a strong position, lest someone tell us we’re wrong. We present vague statements of exploration in lieu of an argument (e.g. “This chapter explores/uncovers/reveals/examines/analyzes…”). I counsel my clients to include in their writing a clear statement that alerts the reader to the main argument with bells, whistles, and flashing lights (”I argue that…”). Writing, “I argue that…” forces us to think about what we really mean to argue. If I could give beginning academic writers one piece of advice, it might be this: your topic is not your argument.
In her book, Belcher defines an argument a single statement with which the reader can either agree or disagree. It’s really just that simple.
People who work in higher education often lament that undergraduate students don’t know how to write thesis statements. Undergraduates who don’t know how to write thesis statements later become graduate students who don’t know how to write thesis statements. Graduate students who don’t know how to write thesis statements become scholars who don’t know how to write arguments. Everyone (and I mean everyone, but especially me) should practice writing arguments. We should learn (or review) why some arguments are compelling and why certain arguments aren’t really arguments at all.
I taught freshmen basic writing skills as a part of the introductory history courses I used to teach. (Actual quote from a student evaluation: “This is a history class, not an English class!” Sorry, not sorry.) I taught them how to write elementary thesis statements by teaching them a fill-in-the-blank formula similar to a game of Mad Libs. (Of course, many of my students were too young to remember Mad Libs, but that never stopped me from trying to explain ancient bits of pop culture to them.) To start, I explained to them that we needed to fill the first blank by writing something we thought was true about our topics. Then I told them that we needed to fill in the next blank with a statement of why we thought thing X was true. The final blank to fill would be a statement that contained some evidence of our claim about X. I was pleased to find that, despite complaints, students improved their thesis writing skills when they used my formula.
I was surprised to find out that what I'd thought was my own original thesis teaching method actually had been published in Steven Postusa’s book, Don’t Panic: The Procrastinator’s Guide to Writing an Effective Term Paper. Belcher cites Postusa specifically to explain his Instant Thesis Maker (1996,12). Paraphrased, it looks something like this:
Although X (general statement, opposite opinion),
nevertheless, Y (your idea),
because ABC (evidence).
I felt vindicated, as I’d been teaching students to make thesis statements using Postusa’s Instant Thesis Maker without even knowing it. Go me!
When it came time to write my shiny new argument for my article on the Central American Exposition, I followed the Instant Thesis Maker and came up with this:
“Although scholars have often viewed these mega-events [nineteenth-century world’s fairs] as cultural sites where elites constructed top-down structures of social control, I argue that elites maintained surprisingly little control over the ways that visitors understood the social and cultural messages embedded in the displays at world’s fairs.”
Is this a brilliant argument? Nah. But it does contain a basic statement with which that scholars could agree or disagree. Someone could tell me that I’m wrong about world fairs and that people really did absorb all of the message and meaning embedded in the displays. Or, someone could agree with me that fair visitors didn’t always understand world’s fairs the way their organizers intended. Look, a debate!
I sent my abstract and my argument to few friends to get some feedback (always making writing social!). I enlisted the help of both historians and non-historians because I wanted to make sure that I had written an argument everyone could understand. My reviewers sent helpful comments and put my argument in their own words.
One reviewer identified my argument as, “World's Fairs conveyed certain messages about race, difference, and cultural anthropology to their viewers/attendees, regardless of what those in power wanted to control or convey.” Another suggested that I could uncouple some of these statements from each other (”Scholars have suggested X about General Topic Z. However, they have overlooked Y…”) My reviewers also noted that both my article and abstract are still quite vague. They are right about this. It is still very much a work in progress, but I’m hopeful that the abstract, article, and argument will become much clearer by the time I’m done.
I also made a list of evidence that I’m going to present to support my argument. I fired up Zotero and I looked at all of the sources that I’d collected as a part of my MA thesis. I’d forgotten how many great sources I’d found! I have several solid pieces of evidence that I can use to support my argument. To show that fair organizers wanted to send specific messages to international audiences about the Guatemalan nation, I have the official fair guidebook and catalog, written by the fair committee. When I discuss how visitors interpreted the exhibits, I’ll use Karl Sapper’s narrative of his day at the fair. I also have newspaper articles from international presses that reported on the fair.
I’m excited to watch my article and argument develop further during the next few weeks!