Book writing: making space for the ’emerging argument’

Argument. I have written a lot about that over the past few years. If you are a postgraduate student, you have probably heard that word many times, and as a supervisor, you are probably always looking for ways to explain to your students more clearly and effectively ways to make strong arguments. In this post I want to reflect a bit on my book writing, and the argument I am trying to make there, hopefully with some insights into argument creation that will be helpful to those of you meandering through this nebulous labyrinth yourselves.

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The first thing to say, here, is that no academic or scholarly argument has ever been made in one go, or even two gos. It takes several iterations to think through an argument, with several rounds of reading, writing, feedback and refining as part of the process. This can be really frustrating for many scholars and writers: the back and forth doesn’t always feel creative and generative and clever. It can make you feel small, and stupid, and un-knowledgeable. Why can’t I get this right? Why are my readers confused – why is what I am saying not clear? Why is this thing so tough? The thing that seems clear(ish) to you suddenly is weird and wobbly and fragmented on the page.

The thing about argument(ation) in scholarly and research writing is that it is the thing: if you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a publishable paper, or a thesis that will lead to the award of a doctorate. So, it is seriously high stakes. If I don’t have an argument, I don’t have a book. What is more complicated about book and thesis writing is that this argument has to pull through 6, 7, 8 chapters – it is a multifaceted beast.

The book is a bit different to the thesis, I am finding. In the book, each chapter has to have a bit of everything: literature, theory, methodology, data and analysis and conclusions. In the thesis, each chapter has to make part of the larger thesis argument: the literature review makes one part of the argument for where the study fits in the field, and the theory chapter (if you have one) argues for which theoretical framework will best address the research aims and questions, and so on. This is a big ask for a scholar: to create such a multi-layered argument, over several chapters, and hold the golden thread clearly and presently in the readers’ minds.

I read a blog post recently by Pat Thomson, talking about a book she has been writing, and deadlines etc. What stuck out for me was her comments on the structure and organisation of her book argument, and how what she thought she was going to do was not exactly what had emerged from the writing and thinking process she engaged herself in. This is what I am finding now, and what I found during my PhD too: that I had plans for what I was going to say, and do, and write (my PhD proposal, my book proposal), but what I actually said, and claimed and wrote was different. Plans and reality and not the same thing when it comes to making arguments in academic research. What we have to make space for – in our heads and in our timelines – in the emergence of something we haven’t planned for.

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This is not easy. At PhD level especially, I just wanted my thesis to be right, and clear. I was very unsettled by the not-knowing, because up until that point all my previous education has primed me to know. To know what was what – what does this reading say? What are these authors claiming? What is the answer? I got used to knowing, because that was what I had been trained to do. This is a really odd aspect of higher education for me: that actually, as researchers working in the field, post-studying, we spend a lot of time not-knowing. This is our business, really: We don’t know, so we design research projects to find out, and we get much better at moving between the knowing and no-knowing. We learn to be more comfortable in that space. But, we don’t always translate that into the supervision we do, or the teaching. We tend to emphasise knowing: What is your argument? What methods are you using? What is your theory? Students are expected to have clear answers, and if they don’t they worry that something is wrong. It took me a while to learn to be okay with not-knowing, and to become resilient enough to push through that towards knowing.

I am having to keep learning this now, writing this book. The plan in my proposal is changing. That structure – that argument – is not quite working out now that I am writing and trying to allow the ideas to form, and re-form, and shift within and across chapters. The argument is emerging differently. I must be clear, it is not a whole new argument. What I wrote in my proposal and what I am doing are closely connected, but the closer details have shifted in ways I could not have anticipated when I wrote the proposal last year. So, Chapter 3 is now Chapter 5, and there is a new chapter that was not in the proposal, because the emerging book argument demands that. This is not as scary as it was when I was doing the PhD – this emerging of something un-anticipated, and new.

I quite like that my argument is alive: it is a living, growing thing with its own aims and goals. My work as the writer is to give it space to emerge, and make itself heard, and then shape it into a form that is right for my audience, so that they can really hear and appreciate it, and learn from it. This is not necessarily easy. It requires me to hold the ambivalence, to paraphrase a former therapist I saw several years ago. By this she meant holding different, perhaps incommensurate things, together in the same space while the answers worked themselves out, and the way forward became clearer. In writing, for me, this means holding the knowing and not-knowing, the plans and emergence, together, and just writing through it as the argument does take clearer shape, and becomes more solid, and persuasive and fit-for-purpose.

What I am writing through at the moment is a restructuring of the book argument on the macro-scale – moving chapters around and rejigging the overall organisation of the book. On a micro-level, I am reworking a few of the chapters, within this new structure, so that their smaller arguments actually contribute to the larger, reworked argument. This is what I need to be open to: this lack of closure on what the argument of the book, and its chapters, is, and what form that needs to take. I need to actually create, and hold, an open space where that argument can emerge, and take shape, and where I can write my way into, and through it.

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Writing your own paper, or book, or PhD, this is your work too. To not close down, and pre-determine the argument so definitely that you close this ambivalence – this space where new ideas can emerge, and new avenues for the argument can be brought in and explored. Obviously, the road cannot stay wide open indefinitely. At some point you need to shut down all the sparkly ideas off to the side, and all those other roads and paths, and choose your path and stick to it. But, even having chosen this space, this road, this argument, you can still be open to the alive-ness of your argument, and its ability to form itself in not-totally-known ways. This can make the process scary, for sure, but it can also make it more creative and interesting for you as the writer. I am certainly finding that, and it helps draw me into my writing, because I’m keen to find out where this chapter is going to go. Watch this space… 🙂

Book writing: blog therapy (and some writing help)

I hope you will indulge me a little, but I am going to do some blog therapy with this post. I am in a bit of a writing rut, and need to get out and get writing, but somehow Book Writing feels almost impossible right now. The thought of opening the file I am working on is paralysing. So, I am hoping that writing about how I am struggling to write will push me a bit further towards my file and the chapter I need to finish (by next week).

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This is a bit like pre-writing, I think. Pre-writing is a well known writing tool, developed out of Peter Elbow’s work on free writing, and writing to think and work out your thoughts. Pre-writing is not actually supposed to be shared with anyone, really; it’s just for you and for your own thinking and motivation process. The idea is that it takes some of the pressure off you by making the exercise of writing less ‘high stakes’ – no one will read it but you, it is scribbled in your own research journal, and it’s really just you talking to yourself about what you are working on.

But it is also not a “dear diary” entry, where you just ramble on about whatever. It does need to have a focus, a point. So, for example, if you are struggling to write at all (like me), you might do a pre-free-write on what it is about this piece of writing that is troubling you. That often helps me work out why I am so stuck. Or, if you have done a lot of reading, and need to now translate that into some text for a supervisor, you might write about what themes have emerged from the reading that are interesting relative to your research project. The point is not to write formally, or worry too much about grammar and spelling and stuff like that. The point is really just to write – get those thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

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There is a therapeutic concept behind this. I am not a psychologist, but I have done a good deal of therapy, and there is something quite powerful about getting the thoughts, fears, troubles that you are struggling with out of your head – to speak or write them ‘out loud’ renders them somehow less powerful. You can open them up to critique and analysis – you can make a different kind of sense of them, turn them over, interrogate them. In doing so, you gain mastery over them, and you start to work out how to behave or be in different, less fearful or unconscious ways. You become more and more the captain of your own ship, because you can see and manage the ways in which you ride the tides and ebbs and flows of your life.

This is not that different to becoming a more conscious writer, and thinker. If you keep your writing and thinking all to yourself, you can start to feel a bit like you are going mad. You can’t see straight anymore – is this a good idea or not? Is this a valid claim or nonsense? Is my writing any good? You can’t actually always answer these questions yourself. You need to show people – supervisors, critical friends – your ideas and writing, and ask for honest feedback. That feedback can then help you become more conscious of the aspects of your writing and thinking that are working, and those that are not. You can start to ‘see’ what you are doing more clearly, and learn to make adjustments and changes where these are needed, to improve the work you are doing.

You cannot do a PhD all alone, and stay sane. You cannot write a book all alone either. It is true that you are the one in front of the laptop, and the journal, and the books, reading, writing, thinking, writing some more, And that often this is a solitary pursuit. But it cannot stay solitary. You need to be able to get all those thoughts and ideas out of your head, so you can turn them over, make sense of them, see them differently. Pre-writing is one way of doing this. Oddly, even if you are the only person who reads this writing, the writing feels different than it does locked in your head. It’s you, but also not you. There’s something that happens when you say a thought aloud, or write it down: it becomes separate from you in a way, that enables you to make sense of it, fit it into a larger framework of thinking, and hopefully move forward.

Another way of getting out of the solitary, and often paralysing, space where you know you have to write, and even want to write, but can’t quite make yourself write, is to actually share the writing. That is a form of what I am doing here. Telling you all, in the great and lovely imaginary space created by the Internet, that I am having a really tough time right now with this writing makes me feel less alone. Less fearful that it won’t ever get written. Because it will. Maybe not today, or not very much today, but if I can just write 300 words, it will be 300 less to write tomorrow, and the next day and so on.

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Writing paralysis is scary, especially when you have Deadlines. And Expectations. But, I have learned – am still learning – that it is not a permanent condition. But, it is unlikely to get any better if I just stay in my head, freaking myself out, and trying to give myself half-hearted pep talks. So, I am sharing this piece of pre-writing in the hope that I will be able to now post this, open the file, and write for a bit. I hope that, if you are stuck too, that you will find a way out of the maze for a bit. Try the pre-writing. Buy a friend a coffee and talk it all through with them. And then sit down and write – even if it feels hard and painful and scary. The only way through it is through it, and we’re all in this boat together.