Staking a Claim: Writing and Defending an Argument in Academic Writing

One of the most universal issues that I encounter when working with academic writers is inconsistent or weak argumentation. Either the argument is not clear from the beginning, or more commonly, the argument gets lost during the course of the article or book manuscript. Early career researchers also tend to be more hesitant to make bold claims, and instead, over-rely on quotations from other scholars.

The following are some tips for developing an effective argument and maintaining that argument throughout a book or journal article:

#1: Develop an argument that is both specific and open to debate

While this sounds simple, it can actually be quite difficult in practice. Being specific does not mean being narrow–by all means, make the broadest argument you can support–but it does mean that you have to situate your argument into a clear context.

You need to make sure that your thesis is also debatable in the sense that you’re not merely making an incontrovertible statement or taking a position that is already widely accepted. I really like Pat Thomson’s analogy of argument in academic writing as “a kind of conversation you might have if you are trying to settle something with another person.”

#2: Make sure that your argument is clear and engaging

Your argument should be so clear in your own mind that you can easily put it into one or two sentences. When working with clients on book manuscripts, I often recommend writing the main argument(s) out on paper and physically posting them in sight of your computer.

Also, take a lesson from good fiction writers and think of your argument as “the pitch” for a particular piece of writing. Spend time crafting your “hook” in order to engage readers.

#3: Be consistent

When writing a monograph, make it abundantly clear to your reader how each and every chapter bolsters your main argument(s). At no point should your reader have to struggle to remember what your central argument is or figure out how a particular chapter reinforces your thesis.

Pro tip: Taken a step further, be sure that you always explain to your reader how your specific examples throughout the text support your broader claims.

#4: Be bold

Last but not least, stake a claim! While there is always the possibility out there that someone knows your topic better than you, there’s a good chance that you really are an expert on this particular subject. Don’t be afraid then to assert your arguments and personal interpretations of the evidence throughout the work.

Related, be sure not to overuse quotes from other scholars to make or support your claims.

These are some ideas based on my experience for developing a strong argument in academic writing. What kinds of obstacles do you encounter when writing a scholarly argument?


It’s Not Too Late to Gear Up for a Productive Summer!

I used to have a colleague who every spring submitted their final grades and printed out their syllabi for the fall semester while I was still slogging through blue books. Although I was impressed by their organization, it always made me feel like my summer was doomed before it even began. Chances are if you’re reading this, you might be feeling something akin to my fears that the whole summer is going to be wasted if you’re not already deep into your academic writing by Memorial Day.

Nonetheless, the truth is that’s it’s only June 11 and there’s still plenty of time for you to be the master of your writing destiny! Don’t fall into the trap that it’s already too late for you to have a productive summer. Here are some of my suggestions for breaking out of your summer lethargy:

1) Be mindful. What is really at the center of why you’re not working on your academic writing? There are many things that could be mentally keeping you from delving into your inner scholar–insecurity, exhaustion, ambivalence, just to name a few. Now is the time to be honest and address these concerns–both real and imagined.

2) Clear the decks. For those fortunate enough not to be teaching summer classes, this is the time to give your mind a break from writing lectures, grading, and dozens of student emails. And even if you are teaching or preparing a new course for the fall, give yourself some chunk of time to devote exclusively to your academic writing. Whether it’s a week, a month, or some time every day, keep your writing time sacred.

3) Make realistic goals. Building on the idea of setting aside a regular time for academic writing, it is important to create practical goals. Useful goals are ones that break your work into small, do-able steps and provide an easy way to track your progress. While there’s a plethora of apps and software that you could use, I find that keeping a simple spreadsheet of my time and word counts tends to work best for me.

Pro-tip: If you know what you need to accomplish this summer, set your goals by working backwards. If your manuscript must be sent to the publisher by the end of the summer, be honest about how much is left to do and divide up the work by months, weeks, days, and even hours. Sometimes putting it all in writing can actually alleviate some of the stress and anxiety related to making an important deadline.

Thanks to Dr. Joanne Hill who tweets @ontheblueyonder for reminding me of the importance of goal making!

4) Get active. Maybe you live in a locale where it’s sunny and 70 degrees every day. If so, more power to you, but I sure don’t. Therefore, now is the time to get outside and be active. Soak up those rays–albeit with a layer of sunblock–and enjoy the great outdoors. Treat yourself to a daily walk in your neighborhood or on the newest addition to your local rails-to-trails. Go swimming at your public pool. Spend time with your kids in the park. Whatever it is you enjoy doing, get out and do it.

Still not convinced that you can spare the time away from your desk? Well, remember, academic burnout is a very real thing and you need to make time to be good to yourself. In the end, your writing will thank you. If you’re still not convinced, check out Tanya Maria Golash-Boza’s latest post on her blog, Get a Life, PhD.

5) Find inspiration. When was the last time that you read something in your field just because you were interested and not for your research or a class? Pick up one of those unread copies of your professional journal gathering dust on the bookshelf and read the first article that catches your eye. Find something new by one of your favorite scholars and just read for the sheer pleasure of learning something new.

If you haven’t already, start keeping a list of books in your field or just on writing in general to fuel your desire to sit down at your desk and put words on the page. I highly recommend designating a bookshelf on Goodreads to books that will remind you why you love writing in the first place.

For more ideas on how to get motivated, I hope you will check out my previous posts on overcoming academic writers’ block and not trying to write alone.

What are your biggest obstacles to making progress on your academic writing over the summer? Have you developed any good strategies? Please feel free to share in the “Comments.”

Here’s to a productive and restful summer!

Finding the Right Academic Editor

In my previous post on “Why Scholars Should Never Write Alone,” I discussed the option of working with a professional editor as one way to improve the quantity and quality of your academic writing. One major advantage to finding the right academic editor over sending work to a colleague or joining a writing group is that you can tailor the relationship to your specific needs, such as the exact type of editing that you’re looking for as well as your personal deadlines and budget.

For example, some of my clients are prolific writers and send me new work to review on a regular basis. These clients often need heavy copyediting and a fairly quick turn-around. Others check in a couple of times a year with new book chapters or articles. In these cases, they are looking for substantive editing based, in part, on my familiarity with their previous work. Deadlines on these projects tend to be relatively flexible. Some are new clients who have completed an entire manuscript and need light copyediting–they want to ensure that their work is as polished as possible before sending it off to be scrutinized by an acquisitions editor and peer reviewers. As for budgets, some of my clients pay out-of-pocket, but a fair number utilize departmental and university monies to support their research and writing.

But what exactly is academic editing and how do you go about finding a good fit for your particular needs?

Types of Academic Editing

Good academic editors want to collaborate with their client to produce a clean, well-argued, and appropriately cited work. These editors work to enhance their client’s writing through suggested revisions and thoughtful feedback as opposed to substantially rewriting the author’s original work. Although there are certainly variations, there are two main types of academic editing: basic copyediting and substantive editing. Both serve different purposes but are not mutually exclusive.

Ideally, basic copyediting is a step that comes toward the very end of the writing process or the manuscript stage. Some academic writers actually derail their progress by worrying too early about mechanical errors, such as consistent capitalization, grammatical errors, language inconsistencies, or the creation of letter-perfect citations. However, it is once the document has been through several drafts that it is time to turn attention to issues of accuracy and consistency.

Editors typically divide copyediting into three groups:

    • language (issues of punctuation, grammar, and syntax)
    • mechanical (conformity to a specific style manual, e.g., Chicago or APA)
    • content (consistency within the overall structure and organization of the work)

For most of my basic copyediting work, I suggest revisions using Word’s “Track Changes” feature with only the occasional “Comment” to confirm that I have not affected the original meaning of the sentence, to alert the author to a recurring problem, or to query structural or organizational inconsistencies.

Substantive or developmental editing serves a different purpose than basic copyediting and ideally comes much earlier in the writing process. This level of editing deals with issues of argumentation, voice, flow, and clarity. It can also involve feedback on how to reorganize or even restructure the work under review.

An aspect of academic writing that folks sometimes struggle with is demonstrating their work’s importance beyond their specific topic. The well-known proverb that not every story is worth telling comes to mind. Whether it’s for a journal article or a book manuscript, acquisitions editors are looking for authors that clearly articulate their work’s unique contributions. Or what is often described as the “so what?” question. Looking at the work with a fresh pair of eyes, academic editors can help authors to identify and strengthen their work’s broader significance.

How to Find a Qualified Academic Editor

Although there is no shortage of freelance editors, finding an academic editor who fits your specific needs can be a challenge. Putting the question of money aside for the moment, there are three major considerations for identifying a qualified academic editor. First and foremost, you want to identify someone with experience and a reputation for professionalism. Fortunately, there are several professional organizations geared directly towards those in the editorial professions. One that I personally belong to is the Editorial Freelancers Association. If you have a specific project in mind, you can post directly to the EFA’s job list or search their directory. One of the best things about their directory–besides being free and open to the public–is that you can search by skills and specialties. Other good options are the American Copy Editors Society and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, which is geared specifically to UK scholars.

Another consideration is whether or not a potential editor has any academic writing experience of their own. Academic writing–like any genre–has its own set of rules and expectations. Therefore, it makes sense that you want to find someone with experience as both an editor and as a scholar.

A third issue to consider during your search is whether or not a potential editor has training in your specific field. I don’t think this is a deal breaker, but hiring an editor with specialized knowledge of your subject area is a definite plus. A non-negotiable, of course, is whether or not they are familiar with your specific style guide, e.g., Chicago, MLA, and APA.

A final consideration–and one that is less tangible–is to find someone who is enthusiastic about your work or at least about academic writing generally. As you begin to get to know potential editors through email or over the phone, do they convey any professional or personal interest in your topic? While no one is going to be as passionate about your topic as you are–or at least were when you started–do they bring a sense of energy and enthusiasm to the project? You don’t have to be long-lost soul mates, but it is important to have a good rapport with your editor since they will have the delicate job of finding your mistakes and suggesting revisions.

What to Ask When You’re Hiring an Academic Editor

You’ve done your research and think you’ve found someone who appears to be both qualified and collegial, but there are still some important questions to ask.

(1) If the potential editor is not someone who has been directly recommended to you, request at least two references. Even if you never contact them, an editorial professional should be able to give you the names and contact information for two previous clients.

(2) Inquire about a potential editor’s process and make sure it fits your needs. What kind of software do they typically use and how flexible (or not) are they? Do you want your editor’s changes to be tracked or permanently inserted into the document? How do you want your editor to communicate written feedback–using “Comments” in the text itself or creating a separate document?

Pro Tip: Reputable editors will provide a short sample edit (typically free) to get a sense of the type of editing that will be required for your specific project as well as to give you a sense of what to expect in terms of feedback. Do not skip this step! If this is not something that your editor automatically offers during the “interview” process, do not be afraid to ask.

(3) And for many folks, one of the most important questions: how much is all of this going to cost? An experienced editor should be able to provide a good-faith estimate in writing before the job is started. If you are truly looking for someone who is qualified and reputable, you need to be willing to pay a fair rate for their expertise. The Editorial Freelancers Association’s guidelines for editorial services is an excellent place to get a sense of what you should expect to pay. Beware of editors who offer bargain basement rates–remember, you usually get what you pay for.

Don’t forget that a good editor will be open to discussing the type of editing that best fits your specific project and will share your goal of creating a clean, clear document that showcases your best academic writing.

If you are interested in finding an academic editor who specializes in the humanities and social sciences, I hope that you will consider MargaretEdits.

Why Scholars Should Never Write Alone

For most of my years as a graduate student, I clung to the image of the solitary scholar. You know the one–huddled over her laptop in a drafty library with a cup of coffee Bonoat the ready. While I’m not promising that reading this post will mean the end of lonely nights or early mornings while you painstakingly craft word after word of your latest piece of academic writing, I am proposing in the words of Paul Hewson that “you don’t have to go it alone.”

If I learned anything from working as an editorial assistant for the American Historical Review, it’s that excellent scholarly writing is rarely a solitary act. A second pair of eyes–and sometimes a third, a fourth, you get where I’m going here–can be crucial for helping to flesh out your argument or just curbing your propensity for em dashes.

So what are some of your options?

The most obvious choice is to share your work with a colleague. The problem: most likely, they are as busy as you are and desperate to find time for their own academic writing.

Another option is to join or form a writing group that fits your specific needs. If you’re looking for a safe place to debut your latest book chapter or draft for a journal article, try a traditional writing group. Whether you’re at a Research I university or a small liberal arts college, you can probably find a few folks who would benefit from getting together and sharing their work.

There are numerous online resources aimed at graduate students as well as professors on how to establish an effective writing group. (For a very helpful article, check out Joli Jensen’s recent contribution to Vitae.) Some items that you’ll want to consider are: group size, structure, frequency, and feedback.

For those of us who have trouble getting started or staying motivated, another great option is finding an accountability partner. Having someone to answer to–whether it’s once a day or once a week–can dramatically improve your productivity!

Write-on-site grcoffeeshopoups and virtual writing communities offer two more options for avoiding the trap of the solitary scholar. The advantage to write-on-site groups, such as Shut Up and Write!, is that they force you to get out of your home or campus office and interact with people in the “real” world. This is also a great solution for folks who work best with some background noise but apps like Coffitivity are no longer cutting it.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking “I became an academic so I could spend big chunks of time reading and writing alone.” I get it; I’m an introvert, too! But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from a virtual writing community. Thanks to Twitter, you can follow and participate in online groups, such as #acwri and #getyourmanuscriptout. Again, a little accountability–whether face-to-face or virtual–can go a long way toward increasing your productivity.

Last, but certainly not least, is the option to seek out a professional academic editor or writing coach. The advantages to hiring a professional are numerous. Two major benefits are the lack of guilt (you’re not asking for any favors from someone who is as overcommitted as you are but instead are paying for a professional service) and convenience. When you work with a professional, you are largely in control of the terms of the relationship. Maybe you’re wary of the commitment of a traditional writing group and are looking for just occasional feedback from an experienced and unbiased reader. Perhaps you’ve been putting off taking care of those dreaded footnotes and don’t have the time to figure out how to properly format a citation for a webpage in Chicago style.

Professional academic copyediting, however, is more than having a second pair of eyes to catch glaring mistakes–although that is a significant advantage. Based on my years as a scholar and an editor, I approach my editing and coaching work as a collaboration to make my clients’ scholarly writing the best that it can be. Whether it’s a journal article or book manuscript, your final product will be demonstrably more polished and effective when you find the right person with whom to work. In my next post, I will give some tips for choosing an academic editor that’s the right fit for you.

But for now, what concerns do you still have about challenging the myth of writing alone? Do you have any experience with being a member of a writing group or working with an accountability partner or academic copyeditor? Feel free to comment so we can continue the conversation. My intention for this blog is to start an ongoing discussion about the obstacles to academic writing and provide a place for scholars to share strategies for overcoming them.

How to Overcome Academic Writer’s Block: Writing a “Zero” Draft

It’s 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning–your designated time for academic sunny office windowwriting. You’ve just gotten back from class and your newly refilled cup of coffee is sitting next to the keyboard. The sun is streaming in your small window, and the smell of a spring rain is wafting in. You’ve closed your office door to indicate to your well-meaning colleagues that you are hard at work. Your afternoon is filled with teaching prep and meetings, but the next two hours are wide open. Ahhh, you think to yourself, the perfect time to make progress on that new book chapter. You sit down, move the mouse to wake up your computer, and open to a new Google Doc.

Instead of feeling joyful anticipation, however, your stomach begins to churn. All of the great ideas that have been brewing for the last several days when you didn’t have a second for writing suddenly disappear. You start to write and immediately delete it. You write another sentence and hit “delete” again. The blank screen that seemed so full of possibilities a few moments ago now seems to be mocking you with its white expanse.

You check the clock; two minutes into your academic writing session and a sense of panic is starting to well up inside of you. You find yourself longing for a knock on the door or an email notification from your phone (which you wisely turned off before sitting down to the computer). Even grading seems appealing right now…that’s not a good sign.

Instead of packing it up and waiting for the mood to strike you to start writing, you decide to keep butt in chair and forge ahead. So what do you do now? You start writing a zero draft.

You’re probably acquainted with the concept of a zero draft and might even have recommended it to your students, but you might not have tried one as a step in your own academic writing process. If you’re not familiar, a zero draft is all about creating a safe, non-threatening space to get your thoughts down on paper and start writing.

There’s really only one rule of writing a zero draft, but it’s often fairly difficult for writers to adhere to: you must resist the urge to revise in any way, shape, or form at this particular stage. Although the idea of writing incomplete sentences or making a huge leap in your interpretation of the evidence is abhorrent to most academic writers, denying your urge to edit as you write is crucial. Trust me, there will be plenty of time to revise, revise, and revise some more (which I’ll be talking about in future posts), but this is about getting your ideas flowing and down on paper.

I first learned about zero drafts from Joan Bolker’s amazing book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, when I had to write three chapters in three months to secure a tenure-track position back in 2003. Since then, I’ve identified some additional tips for incorporating zero drafts into your academic writing process.

  1. Make sure you save the document specifically as a zero draft and write “Zero Draft” at the top of the page. For some writers, that extra step of calling something a zero draft immediately alleviates some of their anxiety.
  1. If you’re feeling particularly stuck or just want to “warm-up” a little, I highly recommend taking some time (five- or ten-minute increments seem to work notebookbest) for free writing. Depending on my mood, I’ll type directly into a Word doc or write my ideas in a notebook. Think of a particular idea or piece of evidence that you know you want to include and just start writing about it. Don’t worry about tone or grammar, just write, and keep writing until your timer goes off. Whether you’re relieved when your initial time is up or want to keep writing, you no longer have a blank page staring back at you.
  1. To resist the urge to stop and edit as you go, type “REVISE” or “REVISE ALL” at the beginning of particularly problematic sentences and paragraphs and then keep moving. Although theoretically the whole draft is a work-in-progress, I’ve found that including this extra signpost that a particular sentence or section will need some additional work helps me not to get stuck.
  1. Another great strategy for writing a zero draft is creating an outline for the whole piece or a particular section. I am a huge proponent of using outlines for academic writing. Most of my zero drafts eventually take the form of an outline. Clearly and succinctly identifying your arguments and major themes not only provides a rudimentary framework for your writing but will result in a stronger piece over all. As you develop your outline, make sure that all of your headings are directly related to your main argument(s). Once the hard work of creating the outline is finished, all you have to do is fill it in and you’re on your way!

Pro tip: at this stage, do not allow yourself to get too caught up in writing an introduction or a conclusion. Usually both of these sections undergo so much revision over the course of future drafts that I’ve found that leaving them until closer to the end saves precious writing time and results in more effective introductions and conclusions. It is fine at the zero draft stage just to make a placeholder for the introduction and conclusion and move on.

These are some ideas for how to push past writer’s block. What about you? What strategies do you use that would be helpful to other academic writers?

Clarity in Academic Writing

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for MargaretEdits. I thought it made sense to start off with an issue that I find absolutely critical in good writing yet doesn’t receive a whole lot of attention: clarity. Let’s face it, what is the point of writing if your readers are going to struggle to understand what it is that you want to say to them?

Tip #1: while clarity is comprised of numerous components—sentence structure, organization, and proper grammar, just to name a few—there’s a very easy and reliable way to double-check for clarity and that is simply to read your work out loud.

It sounds obvious, but I’ve been surprised by how reluctant people are to take this extra step during the editing process. Thankfully, you don’t need a PhD in English to know when a sentence simply doesn’t sound right. And folks, if you need to take a few breaths as you read a single sentence then it is probably a run-on or at least suffering from being overly wordy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a critical sentence whose main points got buried due to verbose writing. In fact, nine times out of ten, being succinct is going to serve you and your reader much better.

clarityWhen we talk about clear writing, however, what exactly do we mean? I think it is writing that communicates an idea in the simplest and most precise way possible. For your writing to be lucid, you as the writer need to know exactly what you’re trying to say. When I ask clients to rewrite a sentence using the most straight-forward and simplest language possible, it sometimes takes them a few minutes to identify exactly what they were trying to say.

Which brings us to tip #2: if you don’t know what your main point is (whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole document) then the reader will be that much more clueless. The purpose of academic writing is to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible while still engaging the reader. Make sure you are using effective topic sentences to  identify your main points and to give the reader a sense of where you’re going next.

Tip #3: related to this idea of clarity is knowing exactly what is the purpose of what you are trying to write. For example, when I sat down to type this blog, my goal was to explain to other academic writers the importance of clarity in writing. Always take a few seconds at the beginning of a writing session to evaluate what exactly you want to accomplish; maybe even jot down a short list that will also serve to get you into a good writing flow.

The bottom line: nobody has ever been criticized for writing that is too clear.