The Argument for Editorial Arguments

It seems somehow topical, as the current election season wears on, that we take some time to discuss the art of argument. Or possibly even to simply debate the meaning of discussion. (I could go on, but I'll stop before I have use up the entire thesaurus.) As you work with an editor, you'll more than likely have some pushback. There will almost always be times when you and your editor - moving along all happily and breezy - come across a point of contention. You might be asked to change the order of chapters. You might be told that a character's name doesn't really work. You might even be told that a major point in your argument is flawed. Does this mean it's time to start doubting all you've written? Do you need to re-think your entire thesis? Is it time to choose a new editor? Yes, in fact, if you're someone who is prone to blowing absolutely everything out of proportion, then it is the perfect time for you to do all three of those things.

On the other hand, if you're able to take a step back and truly consider your editor's recommendations, you might be able to figure out where you've missed the mark - even if you never find fully common ground. Let's look at a quick example. Say that you've set up a portion of your argument based on one single point, such as:

Dogs shouldn't be allowed in the house, because all dogs eat furniture.

Your editor, with no disrespect intended, might reply with "I had a dog, once, who never ate any of my furniture. Are you sure this is correct?" You have three options at this point. Option 1) If you feel your argument is strong, you can explain - not just to your editor, but also to your readers - why you feel this way. NOTE: That italicized bit is really important. I don't know how many times I've made notes in the margins of a manuscript, only to have the author send it back to me with the manuscript exactly the same, but a two-paragraph explanation IN THE MARGIN. This is nice and all but the margin notes won't ever get to the reader unless they are incorporated into the text. So, assuming that the author wants to back this argument, he can say something to explain it, such as:

A study by a leading group of pet psychologists has found that every dog has an innate desire to chew on furniture, be it cushions, tables, or chair covers. Though not all dogs will act on this, it is entirely possible. Thus, the only way to avoid canine/furniture issues, would be to keep all dogs out of all houses.

Of course, for this argument to really work, there needs to be a citation, explaining just which "leading group of pet psychologists" issued this statement, and whether this study included multiple breeds of dogs, etc. Option 2) If you feel that the editor's response calls into question the validity of your claim, you could either couch it in some softer language ("Some studies have shown that some dogs...") or do more research and either remove it from your text or modify it appropriately. This will most likely lead to a ripple effect of needing to modify the rest of the text to back up your new claim. Option 3) If you do more research and find that the editor is correct and realize that the editor's statements call a central claim to your book into question - and possibly completely negate all you've been trying to do - then you can rethink your book entirely. Now, most people aren't going to take Option 3. Assuming you've done your research, you may be able to find some way to refute, or at least raise discussion around, what the editor has said. If this is the case, then Option 1 and Option 2 are perfectly good ways to go. However, frankly, if you are truly open to what your editor is saying - and you and your editor each have backing and support for your assertions - there's always the chance that Option 3 might be the way to go. Before you trash it all, though, this would be time for a big discussion with your editor, starting with questions like "Do you think the rest of my book has any validity?" "Do you think I need to completely start over?" "Are any parts of my book salvageable?"

If your editor is worth her salt, she'll be able to walk you through your crisis of faith in yourself, and you'll come out the other side with a much stronger book. And, in case you're wondering, here's a short list of things that I don't recommend that you do if your editor calls some of your facts into question:

  • Don't decide to reject all of your editor's other valid points (such as changes to grammar, spelling, etc.) because you have a difference of opinions on a point you're making.

  • Don't throw your hands in the air and declare to everyone around you that it's a conspiracy.

  • Don't start throwing random pieces of unrelated information around to try to prove your point (in other words, if your claim that all dogs should be kept outside because they eat furniture is being refuted, don't come back and say "but dogs' nails scratch hardwood floors" as if that proves your "eating the furniture" claim - an unrelated truth may be true, but it's still unrelated).

  • Don't make accusations about the editor's claim, as if it will back up your argument (if your editor's response is "my dog never did this," you won't prove your point by telling your editor "your dog looks funny and once ran away").

And always remember - whether in editing or politics - decisions you make today will impact what the future holds. Making those decisions with as much unbiased fact-gathering and discussion as possible gives you the best chance for a positive overall outcome.

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