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III. Own Your Ideas

Feb 23, 2016 by Amy Benson Brown

Authors often receive mixed messages from peer reviewers. One reviewer may praise the keenness of an insight that another reader calls muddled. Such wildly different responses can be perplexing. But unless they relate to a key claim of your article, you can probably afford to be more amused than alarmed.

A more serious kind of critique, though, is one that may appear to raise different issues but actually points to the same underlying problem. One reviewer may ask, “What’s at stake here?”  Another might phrase her confusion in terms of the article’s purpose. And a third may question how the thesis adds to the literature. All this feedback basically points to a lack of clarity about the article’s claim and why it matters.

If you’re like many writers, you may be tempted not to lead with a clear statement of your purpose because you want to situate your topic within current debates about it. Of course, it is vital to contextualize your ideas within the larger scholarly conversation about your topic. However, the prominent placement of others’ work and overcitation of others can camouflage what’s original in your own argument. In other words, rather than framing or supporting your points, the density of citations in the text actually may obscure your contribution.

Owning your ideas, by contrast, means claiming your contribution. It means placing the points necessary to prove your argument in the foreground, rather than casting those points in terms of their intellectual history or scholarly lineage. Relying too heavily on other writers’ ideas rather than making your own argument is often an easy problem to spot in others’ drafts, but harder to see in your own.

Assess the Clarity of Your Contribution

Review your draft. Does almost every paragraph begin by evoking the name of a prominent researcher in the field and then link your points to theirs? This can create an impression that you are, in a sense, riding the tailcoats of those scholars rather than building your own ideas based on their prior work. Instead, aim to lead paragraphs with your own critical idea for that paragraph, citing other scholars when appropriate.

Review each manuscript page with a highlighter. Flag direct quotes over two or three lines on each page. If more than two, long direct quotes pop out on many pages, consider if they are serving your best interest. Too much direct quoting can put the quoted researcher’s voice in the foreground and leave your own in the shadows. Unless the quoted author’s language is particularly striking, paraphrase the point and cite appropriately.

Clearly Claim Your Contribution

Connect the dots for your readers. Make connections between your new points and the research you are building upon. Make clear where you agree with previous researchers and how they support your claim. If you are like many authors who struggle with confidence, you may forget to articulate clearly the logic that reveals how your points are supported by the scholarship you draw on. Often, you are so close to this work that the logical link may seem simply obvious, but you need to make those links clear to your readers.

Insert yourself into the dialogue. Delineate where you disagree with previous scholarship or point out the gaps that exist. Clearly convey the value in approaching earlier findings from a new perspective. Many writers still hesitate to use first person to explain how their perspective departs from earlier work. But almost all style guides—from the APA to the MLA—now explicitly endorse first person when it is the simplest way to clearly convey your argument.

Use a direct and collegial tone. Sometimes authors hesitate to own their ideas and clarify how they build on or disagree with published work, especially work of a prominent author in their field. However, owning your ideas doesn’t require taking a dismissive or hostile tone towards another scholar’s work that you may be challenging. It simply means crafting a well-researched argument to support your ideas.

Don’t be paralyzed by worries about offending colleagues. Such worries should lead to action, though. It is worth taking time to craft your wording so that it shows sensitivity for the feelings of other researchers and conveys your respect for their contributions. Consider the tone that you would probably be most comfortable with when other authors refer to your own work, even if they disagree with parts of it or propose an alternative interpretation. Let that tone guide your phrasing choices. In addition, your Works Cited or bibliography offers a tactful and appropriate way to acknowledge the extent of your indebtedness to the research of other scholars.

This blog about owning your own ideas follows the previous one on frontloading your argument because these two writing strategies clearly complement each other. Frontloading the significance of your argument orients the audience to your perspective, and owning your ideas further strengthens communication with readers throughout your text. The next blog in this series tackles other common challenges to communicating well with your audience.

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