The ‘So What?’ Question

Full vitae publishing summer

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It's midsummer, which, if you’re an academic, may mean you are traveling or firing up the grill, but it most definitely means you are trying to get some of your research and writing done. By summer's end, you are hoping to press the submit button.

But, wait. I’d like you to pause a moment from your daily diligence — grinding out future articles and book chapters — and think about those of us who work as editors and manuscript reviewers. And I’d like to ask a big favor — one that will benefit us and you. Before you send in that manuscript, take a second look at that draft you’ve polished three or four times and ask yourself the following question: What is my main argument here?

Without a central argument, a piece of writing is a structural mess. It’s confusing. It is frequently repetitive. It meanders. It reads like a laundry list of interesting ideas on a subject, it promises things it doesn't deliver, and, ultimately, it tasks the patience of even the most generous of readers, turning us all into some version of the dreaded Reviewer No. 2.

In our digital age, we all have much more to read and far less time in which to do it. What editors, reviewers, and readers, including myself, really want to know when we sit down to read your work is: Why should we spend our precious spare time reading this? If you don't answer that question in the introductory section of your article or book, readers are not going to keep reading. Period. And you want them to keep reading, right? Of course you do.

Now I know what a lot of you are thinking at this point: This is basic level stuff. This is Writing 101. You’re way past this. You didn’t get this far in academe without knowing how to craft a thesis statement. This advice isn't for you.

Let me assure you, it probably is.

As the digital editor of one of my field’s top journals — and as someone who is asked to review manuscripts for major academic publishers on a fairly regular basis — I see a lot of polished texts by sophisticated thinkers whose writing, nonetheless, either has no argument whatsoever or has 17 smaller arguments peppered throughout the text, not one of which binds everything together.

In the past few months alone, I've had to write so many comments to authors pointing out their lack of an argument and their poor organizational structure that I’m forced to believe this is a much more widespread problem than I’d originally imagined. And it’s a problem at all levels of scholarship — from graduate students to renowned professors. It distresses me, as someone trained in both writing and editing, to read manuscripts that lack a strong thesis. As a scholar, it depresses me.

In an effort to stem the problem, I offer here the top three signs that you may not have a solid central argument — even when you think you already do.

  • You can't answer the “So what?” question. When I’m editing, I often write “So what?” in the margins of a piece to indicate that the author hasn’t told me why I should care about it. A good central argument will not only answer that question, but also tell us what you’re going to argue, how, and why. A good text answers the “So what?” question for the reader — it doesn't just tell us a bunch of interesting facts and then ask us to sort them out by ourselves. Academic articles and books are not written like mysteries: You shouldn’t have to wait until page 15 of a 17-page article — or until the final chapter of a book — to learn the point of the piece. In fact, I’ve often found that manuscripts lacking a strong argument often have a nascent one buried in their conclusions.
  • Your introduction and conclusion don’t mesh. Reread your opening and closing sections together and highlight the main argument and supporting claims. If you can’t do that — or if they don't match — then you don’t have a central thesis. If you have three or four arguments in the introduction (or, god forbid, more), then decide which one you’ll give primacy and which ones are sub-arguments. Your overarching argument may be made up of sub-arguments and ancillary claims, but there should be something that ties all those multiple arguments and claims together. It’s the bright red thread that connects all the various pieces into a beautifully interwoven text. It’s what you keep looping back to, and what allows the reader to follow your argument all the way through. (Cautionary note: The red thread is not simply the subject of your text, it’s the framing theoretical argument. Sure, every chapter of your book talks about the threat of extinction of pink dolphins, but that’s not an argument. The red thread tells us why we should bother to read an entire book on pink dolphins.)
  • Your colleagues can’t explain your main argument. Have people you trust (like your writing partner) read your introduction and tell you what they think your central argument is. If they had to finish this sentence — “This article/book argues that …” — what would they say? If their description doesn't match what you think you’ve argued, then you have some work to do (assuming you’ve picked smart people). Go back and fix your structure and prose to reflect the actual argument you want to make. If they can't find your main argument, then they will likely ask you some terrific questions that will lead you to it. Readers are terrifically helpful like that, which is why it’s so crucial to find one or two people who are willing to look over your drafts.

Trust me, no one who edits or reviews your submission wants to be Reviewer No. 2. We all want to love the piece of writing that we’ve been charged with reviewing or editing. Ensuring that you have a strong central argument at the core of your text — before you submit it anywhere — will lead not only to better organization and clearer prose, but to happier readers all along the production line.

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