Self-Help For Graduate Students, Part 1: Review of They Say, I Say

Publishing Info: Graff, Gerald and Birkenstein, Cathy. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Time Investment: 135 pages, written for high school or undergraduate audience

They Say, I Say is a tutorial on entering an academic conversation—a crucial, basic component of writing a dissertation or scholarly article. They offer simple explanations of summarizing, quoting, answering potential objections to your ideas, and meta-commenting.

To teach these skills, the authors rely on templates. For example, here is one template for introducing an ongoing debate:

“In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been _________. On the one hand, _____ argues _____. On the other hand, _____ contends ______. Others even maintain ________. My own view is _______.”

If this seems an overly simple way to begin an essay, perhaps you’ve never struggled, as I have, to explain the main ideas of your dissertation in brief. The authors do not suggest every paper should begin with a variation on that sentence, but they do offer simple starting points for expressing your main argument. I can imagine beginning a chapter draft in this way, just to have a clear point to come back to when my mind is muddied up with details. In the final draft, one could always begin with something snappier.

Clarity is something that most writers strive for—and clarity becomes even more important when our purpose is to teach or convince others of specific claims. They Say, I Say helps writers clarify their purpose in writing and communicate that purpose to others.

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