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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. Frontload Your Argument

Feb 16, 2016 by Amy Benson Brown

“Frontloading” is a writing strategy that highlights what’s original in your work, what you are contributing to the understanding of your topic. Frontloading is one of the writing strategies I work on most often with the academic authors I coach. Quite literally, it means putting the “load”—the weightiest or most significant point of your argument—near the front of your manuscript.

Think: First Things First

Ask yourself what message you most want readers to remember after they’ve read your piece. Clearly conveying this message in the opening section of your manuscript anchors your argument, which helps to keep you (and your reader) from drifting off course. Whether you’re working on a journal article, book chapter, report, or grant proposal, frontloading is one of the most powerful strategies you can use to effectively reach readers.

Put yourself in the reader’s position. What state of mind are most readers in when they first pick up a journal article? Curious? Perhaps clueless? Probably pressed for time? Most likely, they want to know what this article is about and why it matters. Frontloading answers the reader’s initial questions and convinces readers early on to continue reading your work.

Frontloading sounds deceptively simple. Yet, if you’re like most authors, it can be very difficult to clearly articulate this key message early in the writing process when you’re still sorting out your research and finding the position you want to take on your topic. So, frontloading often comes not while you are drafting your manuscript, but later during the revision stage.

How Do You Know If You Need to Frontload?

Having deeply researched their topics, authors are often so close to their work that their purpose or contribution appears obvious to them. Thus, they may not see how frontloading could be helpful to their readers. It’s a kind of occupational hazard of bring a scholar. So, how do you know if you need to work more on frontloading?

You may receive comments or questions about your work that indicate you need to frontload your argument:

  • Can you sharpen your thesis?
  • How does this point relate to your larger thesis?
  • What’s your purpose?
  • What's at stake here?

Even if you haven’t received those sorts of questions about your drafts, take a look at your writing and ask yourself the following:

  • Does my manuscript begin with an extended epigraph that relates to my thesis but is never directly explained?
  • Do the opening pages recap debates about questions related to my topic without suggesting how this manuscript will advance the debates?

If you answered “yes,” you probably need to work on frontloading your argument—that is, to broadly state your key claim up front. Of course, it is critical to contextualize your argument within the relevant scholarly discourse. However, if references to other researchers’ ideas and publications frame your argument and dominate every page, you may be “burying the lead,” to borrow a phrase from journalism.

Recognizing the need to frontload is, of course, just the first step. It can be difficult at first to extricate yourself from the web of your argument to see the thread that runs through it and that needs to be introduced first. You may feel resistant to putting your primary idea or purpose so blatantly out front. Authors often ask me, “Isn’t that just giving it away?” But that question actually points to misconceptions about frontloading. So, perhaps a useful way to explain frontloading is to explore what frontloading does not mean.

What Frontloading Is Not

When writers first attempt to frontload, they often run into a conceptual wall. How can they possibly distill the complexity of their argument into a sentence (or even a few sentences) without making the whole argument up front? And, what would motivate a reader to continue reading after that? Won’t the surprise or the thrill of discovery be ruined? This seemingly unresolvable dilemma, however, is not the real problem.

This dilemma reflects misunderstandings about what frontloading entails. Frontloading an argument does not mean going into the details of evidence, conveying nuances of meaning, or answering potential objections. Nor does frontloading require mastering the skills of a miniaturist. In other words, the goal is not to create a tiny but exact replica of your argument and stick it into the opening section.

The good news here is that you don’t have to shrink the Eiffel Tower to the size of trinket. Instead, think of the way that famous French landmark appears on Google Earth. Frontloading requires the skill of a long-distance photographer or a broad-brushstroke painter to place an object in perspective while conveying the essence of its identity. In other words, it’s about conveying the big picture of your contribution.

Frontloading is one of the most powerful strategies to increase the audience’s ability to appreciate what is at stake in your writing. And, as the next blog suggests, the clarity frontloading fosters goes hand in hand with directness in claiming (or owning) your original ideas.

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