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?