Here’s a personal story. Before I became a freelance developmental editor and consultant, I held a post as associate editor at the journal Feminist Media Studies. With my co-editor (the awesome Susan Berridge at University of Stirling), I was responsible for the Commentary & Criticism section of the journal. Six times a year, we put out open calls for essay submissions around various themes. We would sometimes get dozens of submissions for any given issue, but we never had much trouble narrowing the submissions down to a handful that we were actually prepared to publish after some revisions. Why was it so easy to eliminate most submissions from the running? Because most people simply didn’t make any kind of argument in their essays. An author might come to us with a fun topic or an interesting opinion that piqued our interest, but without a clear thesis, the piece didn’t hold our attention.
A similar principle applies in scholarly book publishing. When an acquiring editor encounters a new book manuscript, they’re looking for two big things: a significant intellectual contribution and the potential to attract readers. Strong central arguments are helpful for both of these goals. Here’s why.
Your topic and approach, on their own, don’t constitute an intellectual contribution. Even if you research something that is understudied, or take an intriguing approach to a familiar phenomenon, it’s not a given that you will expand readers’ thinking or advance a field. An editor or reviewer cannot make an evaluative judgment on a topic alone, though they might grant that particular topics are timely, trendy, or generally appealing to readers. This is why you need to have an argument.
Arguments explain something to the reader they might not have understood before. As Melody Herr puts it on p. 8 of Writing and Publishing Your Book (a guide I highly recommend!), the strongest arguments do “more than answer the research questions or describe the findings.” Arguments don’t just describe relationships between entities, they theorize those relationships in ways that can be agreed with or disagreed with. The evidence you offer in the book persuades the reader to agree with your theory. In this way, arguments make books that make intellectual contributions. When you clearly articulate the argument at the heart of your book, you leave readers with a “big idea” they can associate with your name forever. Big ideas can make scholarly careers.
A provocative theoretical argument can also help you attract readers. Putting your contribution into the form of an argument, versus a description of facts, can enlarge the potential audience for your book. There are a limited number of readers who take an intrinsic interest in any given topic and will just buy any book that comes out about it. If you’re lucky, there may be enough of these intrinsically interested readers to make up a viable market for your book. But if you can show that the book draws on your research on a specific topic in order to advance a broader theoretical argument, you make a case for the wider usefulness of your scholarship and, by extension, a larger audience for your book.
A capacious explanatory argument offers readers scope for identification: they can imagine how the relationships you discovered might play out in the sites and scenarios they’re most interested in. A broader contribution that transcends the specific site of the research helps to make the case that the book will be useful to a wider audience of scholars and that the book will have longevity well after the topic ceases to be trendy.
A strong thesis can also make for strong writing. If you have a clear idea of what you’re arguing in the book, it can lend the entire manuscript a sense of narrative purpose. Knowing the big idea of your book enables you to shape each chapter (section, paragraph, sentence) in service of that big idea. Books written with a strong sense of purpose tend to be more enjoyable to read than those where the author meanders around a topic for 300 pages.
One word of caution about arguments: beware of packing too many arguments into your proposal (and book). It’s not uncommon for me to read a proposal or introduction chapter where the author has anywhere from three to eight sentences that begin with the words “I argue” or “This book contends that” and the ends of the sentences are different every time. A book that promises to prove many arguments can be as problematic as one that lacks a strong argument at all. You may feel that after all the work you’ve put in, you need to have a lot to show for it. You might think you have to (or want to) advance the field in multiple ways, and multiple arguments is the way to do that. The problem is that, by throwing everything at your reader, you make it less likely they’ll absorb and remember any of it. Packing a bunch of arguments into a book without giving structural emphasis to any of them is a good way to ensure readers come away without a clear idea of the overall point of it all.
As an author, you can help convince a reader that you have something very important to say by shaping the text as if that one big idea is very important. This means not asking the reader to hold multiple distinct arguments in their head at once. If you can prioritize and nest your arguments at different levels in the text (e.g. maybe some of those arguments become the sub-arguments of individual chapters or sections within chapters), you’ll help the reader grasp the big, overarching argument better. Ultimately your book will have a greater impact because of it.
If you suspect you’re one of those authors with too much going on, here’s one method for identifying the central argument of your project. Read through something you’ve written about it so far; this might be the stuff you put down on paper in preparation for the accelerator, the current draft of your intro chapter, a fellowship or job application, whatever you have lying around. As you read, underline everything that looks like an argument (remember that we defined an argument as a claim about a relationship between things that can be agreed or disagreed with). You might end up with a lot of underlining. Then go back through the document and put a star by anything that seems like an original, important argument you care a lot about reaching readers with. Not everything you underlined will make the cut; that’s ok. Now think about those important arguments. If there are a lot of them, you could write them out on a separate piece of paper. I like to do this by hand, but you could copy–paste into a blank document too. Looking at your list of arguments, try to identify one that is broadest and can encompass all or most of the others. It should be one that pertains to most of the content of your manuscript too. That’s your main thesis.
If none of the arguments you’re making in the draft seems like it could be the main thesis, you might need to think more abstractly. Sometimes I try to put the smaller arguments in a logical sequence. Then I come up with the statement that synthesizes all of them and call that the book’s thesis.
If you’ve gotten this far into the book proposal process and you’re still not sure what the big idea is at the heart of your book, don’t feel bad. It can be a really tough thing to figure out; it’s the main thing I end up helping authors with when they come to me wanting to turn their dissertations into a book. It’s also the most common piece of advice I give when I evaluate book proposals: you haven’t built this pitch around a clear central argument. So if you’re thinking about it at all, you’re already ahead of a lot of people. Put in this work now, and you may be one of the handful of submitters to your target editor who receives their serious consideration.
We’re talking about theses and arguments this week in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, and the participants are about a third of the way through the process of crafting their scholarly book proposals in preparation for pitching them to acquiring editors. We’re having such a good time (well I am, anyway) that I’ve decided to run two more sessions—one this fall and one next January. Details about both sessions will be coming soon, so watch this space!