Learning and Re-learning How to Write an Argument

At times, I can’t believe how difficult writing can be. Just when I think I’ve mastered it, I realize that I’m still a beginner in so many ways. I thought I’d have nailed this whole argument writing thing by now. (Somehow I’m still short of the 10,000 hours that it supposedly takes to master a skill.) Even though I know how to write an argument, I still struggle to write them. I’ve been wrestling with the argument about my new twelve week article on pseudoscience and the ancient Maya. I’ve made all of the possible mistakes that I warn other people about.  I realized that I needed to review the basic steps and re-build my argument from scratch.

I’m revising an old conference paper about junk Maya science. I want to know why people still insist that the ancient Maya came from somewhere other than the Americas. Why does it seem more reasonable to insist that they were paleo-astronauts than that they built great cites and developed sophisticated civilizations in the New World? In trying to answer this question, I keep falling into the trap of mistaking my topic for my argument. In the last week, I’ve written a lot of non-arguments.  

In my conference paper, I wrote this as the main argument:

I argue that ongoing debates over the origin of the ancient native civilizations of Mesoamerica reflect a deep ambiguity and uncertainty over the very nature of native peoples.

Despite the italics added for super emphasis and the fact that I’ve provided readers with a nice signpost (”I argue..”), this is an okay, but not stellar, argument. It’s sort of debatable; someone could disagree with me. (”Wrong. Theories of the ancient Maya don’t really reflect ambiguity. These are just crackpottheories.”) But it’s vague. And not particularly interesting. And repetitive (ambiguous and uncertain?). Blaaaaaaaaah.   

Putting aside my pride and frustration that I still had no argument. I decided to return to the instant thesis maker.

The instant thesis maker, for the uninitiated, is a creation of Steven Posusta (1996, 12) and goes like this:

#1 Although X,
#2 I argue Y
#3 Because ABC

Here goes.

Step One: Figure out what other scholars have argued.

Although X. Here I need to identify what the conventional thinking is about unorthodox Maya theories. In my mind, I always think about this as “Scholars have argued X about [topic].”  Okay, so what have scholars argued about junk theories about the ancient Maya? Mostly, they’ve argued that these theories aren’t worth serious attention. They’ve written them off as sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. One classic book about junk Maya science depicted (uncharitably) the amateur archaeologists who cooked up these theories as victims of their own ignorance, engaging in fake science they believed was real. Some people write these folks off as delusional crackpots, not to be taken seriously.

So the first part of my argument should probably be about this. Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as mere pseudoscience and fantasy.

Step Two: Add my idea. (However, I argue that...)

I argue Y. Here I need to insert my own idea. I think it is worthwhile thinking about weird Maya theories; they aren’t just sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. I think these theories tell us something about what people thought about native peoples in the past, but also how people thought about the world. No, I don’t think the ancient Maya were from Atlantis, but I believe that it’s worth thinking about why some people might think so.


However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because of the way deep racial ambiguities about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya.  

Step Three: Show some evidence.

I’m basing my argument on my readings of newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.  

Et voilà! A thesis statement is born. Together:

Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as the work of amateur crackpots, mere pseudoscience and fantasy unworthy of serious study. However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because they reflected how deep racial ambiguity about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya. I base my argument on my readings of historical newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.  


Is this a statement with which readers can either agree or disagree? A topic on an argument?

YES! An argument!

There's undoubtedly more revision in this argument's future. But, I'm willing to call this problem solved, at least for now.    

[Photo: Sunrise at Parque Nacional de Tikal, 2012]

Twelve Week Article: Week Eleven (and One-Half) Recap

[Alternative post title: The Miraculous Benefits of Actually Speaking to Real People]

I was hoping that this week would be my final week of working on my Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks article. I was looking forward to telling the world that I’d submitted my article to a prestigious journal and that I was celebrating. However, as the post title indicates, I’m not quite done yet.

I hit a serious snag last week, when I began adding more evidence to the final section of my article. As I began integrating the final pieces of evidence and remaining secondary sources, my heart sank as I realized that my argument and evidence didn’t fit together. The more I tried to force the argument and evidence to work together, the less my article made sense. I lost track of what I was really arguing. Panic set in. I was horrified to find myself so close to the end of my twelve week article and still struggling to come up with a coherent argument.

In despair, I called Writing Buddy. I had sent her my half finished article with a desperate plea for help. I hoped that talking through my dumb argument with her might clarify some things.

I’m pleased to report that Writing Buddy managed to save me (and my argument and my article) from myself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this post about how some people give deconstructive criticism. Being on the receiving end of deconstructive criticism feels devastating. On the other hand, getting genuinely helpful feedback feels awesome. I am fortunate that Writing Buddy knows how to give really great feedback, which helps me become a better thinker and writer.

When we finally got to talk about my article, I remembered why it’s so important to talk to other people about ideas. Talking with her for just fifteen minutes about my article clarified a slew of things I’d been struggling with.

What I appreciate about Writing Buddy is that even before she gives me feedback, I know she supports both my ideas and my writing. She’s got my best interests at heart. Getting feedback from someone who really wants to help feels way different than getting deconstructive feedback from passive-aggressive people bent on sabotage. Writing Buddy gives me constructive responses to my writing, rather than criticizing it or trying to fix it. She says things like this:

“What I thought was so interesting about your article was X, but your argument seems to be about Y.”
“You’ve got so much great evidence about Y, so really, it’s just a question of changing your argument to reflect that.”
“The part I didn’t understand was A. Are you trying to say B?”

I then get to explain my thinking and my ideas to someone who’s really listening. I feel validated and heard, rather than shamed and shut down. We listen to each other respectfully, which means that we get to have interesting conversations about ideas. We ask each other questions and clarify things.

Most importantly, Writing Buddy told me what she understood the actual argument of my article to be, as opposed to the one I had written. I had forgotten how massively helpful it is to hear someone else explain my argument in different words. By the time she finished explaining my argument back to me, I saw exactly where the problem was between my argument and my evidence. Even more importantly, I saw how to fix it.

When we finished discussing my article, we’d managed to revise my failing argument into one a much stronger one that said something even more interesting. I’ve got a new list of revision tasks: refining my argument and re-interpreting my evidence. Once I’m done with the big structural revisions, I’ll focus on omitting needless words, as I’m also dangerously close to the word count for the journal I picked. When I’m done with these chores, I’m going to submit my article, regardless of how perfect or imperfect it is.

Talking with Writing Buddy reminded me how important it is to talk to actual humans about our writing and ideas. As always, writing works best when made social. We can’t write in isolation. We create new ideas in response to other people’s ideas and then revise them further when other people respond with their own ideas. Writing is always a conversation, not a monologue.

The blog and I are off on vacation this week, but I look forward to updating the world on my writing progress in two weeks!



Twelve Week Article Writing Recap: Week 3

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!