Hello! I’m Margy Thomas, Ph.D.
I’m on a mission to develop a model of the knowledge-building process. This model, once complete, will be a tool that anyone, anywhere can use to navigate the process of seeking new answers to hard questions.
Imagine a world where everyone is equipped to learn and communicate what has never been known before, without getting lost or discouraged. How much more readily could we each find purpose, meaning, and connection in our work? And how much more productively and peaceably could we all work together to build a better future? This world of collaborative healing and progress is what ScholarShape is calling into being.
Back in 2013, I founded ScholarShape as an academic editing service. Over the years, I have watched hundreds of scholars around the world develop books, articles, and other texts that communicate their research to expert audiences. Being a developmental editor has meant having a front-row seat in the knowledge-building arena.
Developmental editing does for entire manuscripts what copy editing does for individual sentences: arranging the right elements in the right order to communicate the intended meaning to the reader. Knowledge is nothing more than information, meaningfully arranged.
The process of building knowledge (in book form) involves meticulous analysis of rough drafts at multiple structural levels and through various audience lenses. The process also calls for an intuitive recognition of the stories that data want to tell and the arguments they want to make. For the author, developmental editing is transformative; some even describe it as magical. The line between logic and magic turns out to be very thin.
Despite its benefits, though, as a one-on-one service, developmental editing is logistically and financially inaccessible to most scholars.
This is why today, even as I continue to work one-on-one with a small number of individual scholars, I am also working to make the benefits of developmental editing available to every thinker who wants them. I believe we can accomplish this goal by weaving the principles of developmental editing into the writing process itself, as we have the rules of grammar. Every writer can learn the invisible patterns that describe how a knowledge product holds together.
And this is where that model of the knowledge-building process comes in, the model that ScholarShape exists to develop.
A critical piece of this model is a concept I call Story-Argument: the shape and structure of a knowledge product. Through years of analyzing scholarship and the scholarly process, I’ve come to see how, across disciplines, compelling books, articles, and other texts all tend to follow specific patterns as they persuade audiences of what their data mean and as they invite audiences into co-construction of that meaning. And those patterns are also echoed across other knowledge forms, from artworks to technological devices to designed environments.
For this reason, our intuition is a powerful guide to finding the Story-Argument in our particular material. We already know how to tell the difference between music and noise, between a functional app and a useless one, between a temple and a pile of rubble. Similarly, we already know the difference between a text that leads us through a tightly woven Story-Argument and one that can’t keep our attention, that we struggle to skim through before eventually setting it down unfinished and forgetting all about. We just need to strengthen our intuitive ability to identify the features of a Story-Argument so that they can guide us when we are in the middle of the creative process.
Once the principles governing the knowledge-building process and the structure of knowledge products themselves are as explicit as the principles governing grammar and sentence structure, they can guide us in our processes of thinking and writing. Once we know more consciously what Story-Arguments look and feel like, we will be better equipped to create them.
The concept of Story-Argument is a lens we can use to see our work through others’ eyes and build trust in our own judgment of what we are seeing.
Story-Arguments are really everywhere, in various sizes and scales. I see them on websites; I hear them in conversations; I notice them on coffee mugs.
A Story-Argument happens anywhere we use sensory evidence and logical reasoning to appeal to each others’ sense of interconnection and possibility—anywhere we express knowledge in a way that points at what can’t yet be articulated.
You can even write a Story-Argument (or four) on your body in tattoo ink. Here, I’ll go first.
In the nineteen stars of Sagittarius, humans have long imagined an archer in search of truth, shooting arrows into the future. For me, that archer is a scholar, moving through space and time on a quest for understanding. I’m aware that what I see depends on where I am. Sagittarius is only visible from this specific position in the galaxy. Scholars are only visible to those who recognize what the scholarly process looks like. Constellations, and the astrological system as a whole, and really all knowledges, are stories we tell based on our perspectives. And yet knowledges, like constellations, also reference something outside ourselves and position us in the universe, giving us something to navigate by.
the golden spiral
The sacred geometry of the golden spiral is reflected in the shells of snails and the arms of galaxies, echoed in the art and architecture of humans across millennia, signifying the inextricability of form and function. Knowledge is both discovered and designed according to patterns and structures that are inherent in the universe. When a structure is sound, usefulness meets beauty in a way that has a sense of inevitability to it. Well-built knowledge is functional in the sense of being accurate, logical, and persuasive, and it is also beautiful in that it’s symmetrical, unified, and harmonious. The golden spiral is a path, a blueprint, a natural law—a transparency on the overhead projector of the universe.
The infinity symbol, or lemniscate, refers to the ever-unfolding nature of life and the mysteries of the universe. Building knowledge is how we make sense of our existence, moment by moment. We are always aware of some way that our lives could be fuller, larger, happier — and each new improvement we attain points beyond itself to the next question, the next vision of what we can do, what the world can be. To build new knowledge is to lean into the mystery of being alive and discover that the work of making our lives matter is harder, more beautiful, and more infinite than we’d imagined.
Throughout Moby-Dick, the crew of the Pequod seeks the elusive white whale. As they zigzag wildly around the globe, the captain continually revises the ship’s route in response to the changing tides and weather and his own instincts. Circuitous as the voyage may be, it always has a focal point: the outline of the whale. The idea of him. Just as the crew is driven by the question of where Moby-Dick might be, what their eventual encounter with him might mean, we are always moving through space and time focused on a working thesis that’s elusive and evolving. Only as we go along can we devise and revise our route and gradually discover what knowledge we are building. Knowledge emerges through iteration.
About Margy Thomas*
* a more prosaic account
Since founding ScholarShape in 2013, I have helped clients develop books published with Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, Louisiana State UP, Columbia UP, and many more, plus articles placed in dozens of high-impact journals. My Ph.D. (Baylor, 2012) is in English Language and Literature, and I wrote my dissertation on Herman Melville's use of genre in depicting human identity formation. While at Baylor, I taught academic writing and research for four years, and then served as the university's first Graduate Writing Consultant. In that role, I developed training materials for future consultants, an experience that planted early seeds of ScholarShape. Also at Baylor, I was a Presidential Doctoral Scholar, was named one of the university’s 2011 Outstanding Professors of the Year, published peer-reviewed articles on American literature, and learned the art of dive bar karaoke. From 2014 -2018, I served as North Carolina State University Graduate School's Dissertation Institute Writing Consultant, and in 2018 - 2019, I co-taught a doctoral writing course in the NC State College of Engineering. My favorite kind of researcher to work with is all of them. I live with my son, Abe, in our One True Apartment in Durham, North Carolina.