• Marc Abernathy

What is an argument and how do you develop one?

Updated: 2 days ago

If you've read any books about academic writing, you know you need an argument. If you still don't know what one is or how to craft it, keep reading to find out.

Books and workshops on academic writing state it over and over: journal editors and reviewers expect arguments in your writing. No matter how many times academic writers hear it repeated, though, the ones I work with repeatedly struggle with the concept and how to develop and apply an argument in their own writing. If you're one of those writers, here's my advice.

What is an argument?

In the simplest terms, an argument is the broadest point (or claim) you can make about your findings. Let's say you found that sales managers who receive cash performance bonuses artificially inflate their sales figures. You might think that the finding is your argument, but you have to take it further to truly have an argument: What do those inflated sales figures mean? what do they show? how should we interpret that information? why is it significant that managers do this? and - importantly - why should anyone care? An argument is your interpretation of the findings and your explanation of their significance, so it requires you to give serious thought to what your findings mean based on your knowledge of research in your discipline. In the example above, the finding about sales managers and cash bonuses can be developed into an argument that cash performance bonuses are a poor method for encouraging positive sales performance, that cash does not motivate performance, or even that cash bonuses encourage deceptive behavior.

The findings are not your argument

Many early-stage researchers believe that the findings are the argument. "The argument is obvious!" they say; "the findings speak for themselves." Believe me, it's not, and they don't. Obvious to you, but often not obvious to readers. In fact, if your argument were obvious, you wouldn't need to publish your results. Readers and your peers aren't willing to read a paper if they already know or believe your argument. What your research adds is something new and interesting - including your perspective and your interpretation of your findings. This is your argument. Clearly state it and explain it.

Wendy Laura Belcher, author of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, says an argument is "your journal article’s single significant idea."

Built on the shoulders...

Your research is based on past research. It adds something to what others have done. This is what authors on academic writing call adding to "the conversation." Your job as a writer is to explicitly state how your research modifies, adds to, corrects, or does something different from what this past research has done. Therefore, you need to connect your argument to that current or past research: what does it tell us we should expect, and what about your research changes that expectation? Your readers will be steeped in your discipline. They will have read all the important papers and research, so you need to explain how your research fits into that stream. More specifically, to explain what it changes about that research, what it challenges, expands on, or revises.

Support it with evidence

Academics are skeptical. In fact, the entire practice of research is built around skepticism. Doctoral students are trained to look for alternative explanations, to reject evidence if they can, to dispute methods if possible. You have to persuade this skeptical audience using your strongest evidence. Your job is to use the evidence you have to build and support your argument. I often tell my clients to write for their harshest critic because it forces them to use their best evidence and reasoning to make the strongest argument they can.

Tell readers why it matters

The final piece of your argument is explaining its significance. In other words, why do your findings matter? who cares about them? who do they affect? what do they change about the way we think or do or should think or do? This step is usually the most challenging one for researchers because it requires them to think creatively and imaginatively - moving them away from their comfort zones of the strictly empirical findings and methods. Your findings will not speak for themselves; you need to speak for them. You're making a case to a skeptical audience, but you are in a unique position to provide an informed perspective and share your opinion based on sound evidence. This is the significance, and you need to state it clearly. This is your space to say, "Listen, world, this is what my research means and this is why you should care about it!"

If you're still struggling

Talk to a colleague about your research. Better yet, talk to an inquisitive person outside of your field or even outside academia altogether. Tell them about your work and listen carefully to the follow-up questions they ask. What is not clear to them? where do they get lost? what do they want to know? what do they need to know to understand your argument? The explanations you give will form the rough, working version of your argument.

For more detailed advice, I recommend the following three books to help you develop your research argument:

  • They Say, I Say. Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst (978-0393538731)

  • Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (2nd ed.). Wendy Laura Belcher (978-0226499918)

  • Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published. Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler (978-0415809313)

You can also check out another blog where I review all three books plus offer two other book recommendations and a PDF download: