What Are You Not (Not) Saying? Defining Your Argument Positively Instead of Negatively

Often, scholars who are trying to contribute a new concept or way of thinking find themselves struggling in early drafts to pin down and define the thing they’re trying to name. Writers who are experiencing this problem may find themselves defining their concept in negative terms: “it isn’t X,” “it’s not the same as Y concept/phenomenon,” etc. For a writer, it can feel very meaningful to circle around a concept by stringing together a series of negative definitions, but a reader will never be satistified by statements about what your thing isn’t until you also clearly tell them what your thing is.

This entry introduces a strategy that can help you move from a negative to a positive account of your big idea. The goal here is to frame your argument clearly for the reader and emphasize what you are doing—so that you can go on to establish why it’s important.

Step 1: Read through your draft and note every time you define your idea in negative terms.

Step 2: Write out each of these times you found into a list. Now, consider the list and add any other negative definitions you can think of for your idea. When doing this, try to think about adjacent concepts and phenomena that overlap with your big idea but aren’t the same thing (or could be confused for the same thing). For example, what time periods, theories, lenses, other studies, etc. are close to, but not quite, what you are saying?

Step 3: Choose a negative definition that seems especially important to you, one that you think has to be said in order to for readers to get closer to understanding your concept. Now, use this negative definition as the starting point for a Venn diagram.

Draw two overlapping circles and label one with the name of your thing and and the other with the name of the alternative thing that you are defining your concept or phenomenon against. Now, use the Venn diagram to identify (1) the attributes of the other thing that are NOT part of your idea, (2) the attributes that your idea and the other idea have in common, and (3) the attributes that are unique to your idea. The stuff you put in the third part of this diagram can help you shift toward a positive definition of your thing.

Repeat the Venn diagram process for other important negative definitions on your list.

Step 4: Once you’ve identified the positive attributes of your thing, think about what you’re seeing for a bit and then do some freewriting to reflect on what you’re starting to understand about your concept or phenomenon.  Finally, return to your draft and revise accordingly.

If Venn diagrams are working for you as a way to think through this problem, consider other ways to mull over your list of negative definitions (and the positive accounts that are lurking at their margins). The key, here, is to use a form of writing-to-think that is separate from the sentences and paragraphs of your formal draft. This will help you to keep your focus on conceptualizing a positive account of your idea.