Friday, November 12, 2021

Three Things Your Academic Book Must Have: An Argument, a Theoretical Contribution, and a Structure

I recently challenged authors on Twitter to state the core argument of their non-fiction book in a tweet. It’s harder than it sounds to state your argument clearly and succinctly. It’s also a necessary step in the manuscript development process. 

If you are writing a nonfiction book and can’t articulate the argument in a tweet, don’t worry. I have written several books, and usually have no idea what the argument is until I have drafted most of the chapters. If you aren’t there yet, keep writing and thinking. 

You need an Argument 

So, what is an argument? An argument is not a topic or a description of themes the book addresses.

Instead, as Wendy Belcher writes in her book, an argument is a statement someone can disagree with. And, as Helen Sword explains, every non-fiction book needs a question. The process of leading the reader from your question to your answer is your argument. 

Here are some examples of clear and succinct arguments from the tweet thread:

The thread inspired me to gain some clarity on my argument in the book I am currently writing. I have been writing this book since 2017, have drafted most of the chapters, and am still working on my argument. Thus, I came up with two versions. The first version describes the argument I am making in the book, using academic language. 

Disinvestment and coercive investment in Black communities in DC have displaced and dispossessed Black residents, making gentrification through racialized reinvestment possible.

I explain all those big words in the book. But, after reading through the thread, I realized I liked the arguments that use simple language better. So I tried again: 

The choice to use prisons and policing to solve the problems faced by Black communities in DC in the 20th century, instead of investing in schools, community centers, social services, health care, drug treatment, and violence prevention, is what made gentrification possible in the 21st century. 

As you can see, you can disagree with this statement. And, per Helen Sword’s guidance, my argument answers my guiding question of what factors led to gentrification. 

You need a theoretical framework 

In addition to an argument, you need a compelling theoretical framework. The theoretical framework is where you explain how your argument is novel and how it relates to what we already know about your topic. You could have a great argument like: “Mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow,” but, Michelle Alexander already made that argument so it’s unlikely anyone would want to publish that. 

An academic book does not need a literature review in the same way a dissertation does. If you don’t believe, me, pick up your favorite academic book and see how much lit review there is in the introduction. Often, it’s just a few paragraphs. It is almost never a full chapter. 

The manuscript I am working on engages with three fields: housing inequality, the War on Drugs, and gentrification. Thus, I explain in the Introduction what we already know about these three areas and how my intervention is new. 

The Introduction explains how Black communities, even those dominated by Black homeowners have been dispossessed; how poor, working, and middle-class Black communities across the city experienced disinvestment and then coercive investment, and how reinvestment is racialized today. As you can see, it all has to stay on the same theme – with a tight focus on the core argument. 

You need a structure 

Once you know what your core argument and interventions are, you need to figure out how you are building your argument throughout the book. Each chapter should contribute to your core argument.  

I am doing this in my book manuscript by focusing first on disinvestment, then on coercive investment, and then on reinvestment. This is in line with my argument that disinvestment and coercive investment in Black communities in DC have displaced and dispossessed Black residents, making gentrification through racialized reinvestment possible. 

I am not making the whole argument in each chapter, but instead focusing on one piece of the argument in each section, which includes two chapters. 

Part I: Disinvestment 
Ch 1: Disinvestment in Black DC 
Ch 2: The Violence of Disinvestment 
Part II: Coercive Investment 
Ch 3: Crack in the Neighborhood 
Ch 4: Bringing in the Feds 
Part III: Reinvestment 
Ch 5: Chocolate City No More 
Ch 6: Racialized Reinvestment 

There are other ways to build an argument. In my book Deported, I set the book up to follow a deportee’s journey, from growing up in the country of origin, to crossing the border, to growing up in the US, to getting into trouble in the US, to getting caught, to detention, and then to life after deportation. This structure allowed me to explain how global capitalism shaped each aspect of their migrant journey. 

If you are having trouble envisioning how to build your argument, try using a mind map. This is where you pull out a pen and paper, write down your argument, draw a circle around it, and start drawing more lines and circles to visualize the connections you are making. This can help you see the elements of your argument and to make decisions about what chapters you need to write to build your argument. 

Finally: Writing a book is an iterative process. 

Don’t expect to sit down, write a book, and publish it as is. Instead, sit down, write a draft, stop, figure out what your argument is, rewrite the manuscript to fit your argument, and then revise your argument to fit your manuscript. Repeat this process until the manuscript is doing what you want it to.

Since it takes years to write a book, make sure you have a community to support you through this long process. If you don't know anyone working on a book, the Twitter thread has lots of people you could reach out to and ask if they are also looking for support.

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