Doing the PhD
a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial
5 The writing process
5.2 Developing an argument
One of the crucial characteristics of writing is that you often only discover what you want to say once you’ve written it down. It is a very common phenomenon to realise your main point at the END of an essay/chapter/thesis and then feel you need to rewrite the whole thing. Whether you should do or not is a moot point. The aim of this section is to give you enough self-awareness about the process of writing to be able either to prevent such a result occurring (especially frequent in cases where people leave writing up to the end) or to have accounted for it already, and to turn that reaction into the conclusion. If you write your notes, impressions and analyses as you go along, you will endlessly be discovering what it was that you had wanted to say, and you can rely on a process of continuous re-evaluation and rewriting that precludes you needing to go back over and dismantle large structures of argument.
One of the most effective ways to develop both your argument and your writing style is therefore to make sure that you do keep writing as you go along: synthesise the material you are reading or working on, analyse it, work out what its role might be within a chapter. Then, having written something, go back to it, see where the holes in your argument are, try and work out why they are there. Whole new analyses can grow from these initial flaws. Don’t worry if you think a piece of evidence doesn’t entirely support the point you wished to develop: rewrite your analysis and integrate your own critique – you will often find that this process doesn’t demolish your argument as you had feared, but instead enables you to develop an extended and more subtle version of it.
Logic in this context is to be understood as the process of assembling an argument such that all its constituent parts contribute cumulatively to the overall effect. Each sentence makes sense and follows on from the previous one, each paragraph makes a point which follows on from the previous one, and each piece of evidence demonstrates the point being made. It is not always easy to write logically, and if your piece of writing consists of a diffuse number of notes randomly cobbled together, what you will have is a series of impressions (possibly very worthwhile) but not a logical argument. This is something which happens to us all and it’s always a distressing moment when your supervisor says kindly, ‘well this is all very interesting, particularly x, y and z, but I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make: perhaps you could explain in more detail how it relates to your topic.’
This is why you need to keep writing all the time: not so that at the end you have 200,000 words of enthusiastic responses to what you have read, but so that you learn to manipulate all that material. If you write out a particular insight, analyse it and see where it takes you, you will find out how much mileage it has – you may discover that, although interesting in itself, and perhaps even worth coming back to later, it is not really central to your main topic. It is by a similar process of writing, reading and rewriting that you may realise that your main topic is itself a sideshow to the real argument as it is beginning to develop.
A warning and some encouragement: all these words about logic and argument are NOT aimed at the strict militarisation of your research process: on the contrary, they aim to encourage you to explore your topic, your reading, your responses and insights as fully as possible, to really give your research full rein while simultaneously showing you how you might begin to develop not only an argument of your own but also a way to assess that argument and its potentialities. The writing part of a research degree can be one of the most exciting parts of it: it’s the moment when you realise that reading and research is not a passive activity, and that your role as creative interpreter is most fully expressed through the process of writing itself.
If, after experimentation and rewriting you have built a logical argument, it will probably be rigorous as well. But it is worth making sure that the nuts and bolts of your argument, its transitions and main points, are clearly-defined rather than merely suggested, alluded to, or just not included. Signpost the different stages so that the reader knows what the argument is and what point it has reached at any given moment. You will strengthen the overall structure of your thesis if you do this, and make it much easier to write out and follow through.
Style and clarity (developing a critical language)
Along with logic you will develop clarity. A clear style is extremely helpful in getting the point across. Even the most complex theoretical relationships can be expressed clearly: to be clear does not mean to be simple. Aim for clarity; dare to be clear! Try your arguments out on fellow students: when they understand and can respond with questions you will know that you have clearly communicated your point.
Accuracy: citation and source-referencing
Part of developing a rigorous and accurate scholarly technique is making sure that quotations are accurately transcribed and described, that the arguments of other writers and scholars are accurately reported, and that references and sources are fully and exactly recorded. This is an absolutely crucial aspect of being a scholar: interpretations that sloppily or wilfully misreport a source will be completely discredited. Cultural, theoretical or literary interpretation and analysis has so much room for manoeuvre anyway that it needs to be exact in the use of source material, or it will be blown apart by its critics. And as mentioned earlier, an argument is often developed further by encountering and acknowledging counter-evidence, not the reverse.
Keep full bibliographical records of your sources, including exact page references, AS YOU GO ALONG, and try and do it according to your university’s conventions (ie MHRA, MRA, Chicago, etc) from the start. FULLY transcribe relevant passages on which you are basing your notes. Similarly, avoid draft notes to yourself like ‘Doesn’t Eagleton say something like this? Fill in later.’ Chase it up straight away so that you don’t forget either your thought process or where it came from. It is frustrating how often critics turn out not to be saying exactly what you thought you remembered them saying. So, try to process what we might call the admin of your research quickly and efficiently. You will kick yourself if you don’t, and be obliged to spend a miserable 8 weeks going back over every source to check its particulars. Get in the habit early so you don’t have to experience this black hole.