ENC1102 First-year Composition II




They Say, I Say



  Department of English


EXPERIENCED WRITING INSTRUCTORS have long recog­nized that writing well means entering into conversation with others. Academic writing in particular calls upon writers not simply to express their own ideas, but to do so as a response to what others have said. The mission statement for the first-year writing program at our own university, for example, describes its goal as helping students “enter a conversation about ideas.” A similar statement by another program holds that “intellec­tual writing is almost always composed in response to others’ texts.” These statements echo the ideas of rhetorical theorists like Kenneth Burke, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Wayne Booth as well as recent composition scholars like David Bartholomae, Patricia Bizzell, Peter Elbow, Joseph Harris, Andrea Lunsford, Elaine Maimon, Gary Olson, Tilly Warnock, Mike Rose, and others who argue that writing well means engaging the voices of others and letting them in turn engage us.


Yet despite this growing consensus that writing is a social, conversational act, helping student writers actually “enter a con­versation about ideas” remains a formidable challenge. This book aims to meet that challenge. Its goal is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. In this way, we hope


INTRODUCTION Entering the Conversation


T H I N K A B 0 U T A N activity that you do particularly well: cook­ing, playing the piano, shooting a basketball, even something as basic as driving a car. If you reflect on this activity, you’ll real­ize that once you mastered it you no longer had to give much conscious thought to the various moves that go into doing it. Performing this activity, in other words, depends on your hav­ing learned a series of complicated moves—moves that may seem mysterious or difficult to those who haven’t yet learned them.


The same applies to writing. Often without consciously real­izing it, accomplished writers routinely rely on a stock of estab­lished moves that are crucial for communicating sophisticated ideas. What makes writers masters of their trade is not only their ability to express interesting thoughts, but their mastery of an inventory of basic moves that they probably picked up by reading a wide range of other accomplished writers. Less expe­rienced writers, by contrast, are often unfamiliar with these basic moves, and unsure how to make them in their own writ­ing. This book is intended as a short, user-friendly guide to the basic moves of academic writing.


One of our key premises is that these basic moves are so common that they can be represented in templates that you can use right away to structure and even generate your own writing. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this book is its pres­entation of many such templates, designed to help you suc­cessfully enter not only the world of academic thinking and writing, but also the wider worlds of civic discourse and work.


Rather than focus solely on abstract principles of writing, then, this book offers model templates that help you to put those principles directly into practice. Working with these tem­plates can give you an immediate sense of how to engage in the kinds of critical thinking you are required to do at the college level and in the vocational and public spheres beyond.


Some of these templates represent simple but crucial moves like those used to summarize some widely held belief.


Many Americans assume that_______________________.

Others are more complicated.

On the one hand, _______________________. On the other hand, _______________________.


Author X contradicts herself. At the same time that she argues_______________________, she also implies_______________________.

I agree that  _______________________.       

This is not to say that_______________________.          


It is true, of course, that critical thinking and writing go deeper than any set of linguistic formulas, requiring that you question assumptions, develop strong claims, offer supporting reasons and evidence, consider opposing arguments, and so on. But these deeper habits of thought cannot be put into practice unless you have a language for expressing them in clear, organ­ized ways.




The single most important template that we focus on in this book is the “they say, I say“ formula that gives our book its title. If there is any one point that we hope you will take away from this book, it is the importance not only of expressing your ideas (“I say”), but of presenting those ideas as a response to some other person or group ( they say ) For us the underlying structure of effective academic writing—and of responsible public discourse—resides not just in stating our own ideas, but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind. Broadly speaking, academic writ­ing is argumentative writing, and we believe that to argue well you need to do more than assert your own ideas. You need to either a conversation, using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own ideas. For this reason, one of the main pieces of advice in this book is to write the voices of others into your text.


In our view, then, the best academic writing has one under­lying feature: it is deeply engaged in some way with other peo­ple’s views. Too often, however, academic writing is taught as a process of saying “true” or “smart” things in a vacuum, as if it were possible to argue effectively without being in conversation with someone else. If you have been taught to write a traditional five­-paragraph essay, for example, you have learned how to develop a thesis and support it with evidence. This is good advice as far as it goes, but it leaves out the important fact that in the real world we don’t make arguments without being provoked. We make arguments because someone has said or done something (or per­haps not said or done something) and we need to respond: “I can’t see why you like the Lakers so much”; “I agree: it was a great film”; “That argument is contradictory.” If it weren’t for other people and our need to challenge, agree with, or otherwise respond to them, there would be no reason to argue at all.


To make an impact as a writer, you need to do more than make statements that are logical, well supported, and consistent. You must also find a way of entering a conversation with others’ views— with something “they say.” In fact, if your own argument doesn’t identify the “they say” that you’re responding to, then it probably won’t make sense. As Figure 1 suggests, what you are saying may be clear to your audience, but why you are saying it won’t be. For it is what others are saying and thinking that motivates our writ­ing and gives it a reason for being. It follows, then, as Figure 2 sug­gests, that your own argument—the “I say” moment of your text—should always be a response to the arguments of others.


Many writers make explicit “they say/I say” moves in their writing. One famous example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which consists almost entirely of King’s eloquent responses to a public statement by eight clergy­men deploring the civil rights protests he was leading. The letter—which was written in 1963, while King was in prison for leading a demonstration in Birmingham—is structured almost entirely around a framework of summary and response, in which King summarizes and then answers their criticisms. In one typical passage, King writes as follows.


You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”


King goes on to agree with his critics that “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham,” yet he hastens to add that “it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alter­native.” King’s letter is so thoroughly conversational, in fact, that it could be rewritten in the form of a dialogue or play.


King’s critics:

King’s response:




Clearly, King would not have written his famous letter were it not for his critics, whose views he treats not as objections to his already-formed arguments, but as the motivating source of those arguments, their central reason for being. He quotes not only what his critics have said (“Some have asked: ‘Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?’ “), but also things they might have said (“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ “)—all to set the stage for what he himself wants to say.


A similar “they say/I say” exchange opens an essay about American patriotism by the social critic Katha Pollitt, who uses her own daughter’s comment to represent the national fervor of post-9/1 1 patriotism that Pollitt goes on to oppose.


My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the former World Trade Center, thinks we should fly the American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. KATHA POLLITT, “Put Out N0 Flags”


As Pollitt’s example shows, the “they” you respond to in craft-I ng an argument need not be a famous author, or even someone known to your audience. It can be a family member like Pollitt’s daughter, or a friend or classmate who has made a provocative claim. It can even be something an individual or a group might say—or a side of yourself, something you once believed but no longer do, or something you partly believe but also doubt. The important thing is that the “they” (or “you” or “she”) represent some wider group—in Pollitt’s case, those who patriotically believe in flying the flag.


While King and Pollitt both identify the views they are responding to, in some cases those views, rather than being explicitly named, are left to the reader to infer. See, for instance, if you can identify the implied or unnamed “they say” that the following claim is responding to.


I like to think I have a certain advantage as a teacher of literature because when I was growing up I disliked and feared books. GERALD GRAFF, “Disliking Books at an Early Age”


In case you haven’t figured it out already, the phantom “they say” here is anyone who thinks that in order to be a good teacher of literature, one must have grown up liking and enjoying books.

As you can see from these examples, many writers use the “they say/I say” format to disagree with others, to challenge standard ways of thinking, and thus to stir up controversy. This point may come as a shock to you if you have always had the impression that in order to succeed academically you need to play it safe and avoid controversy in your writing, making state­ments that nobody can possibly disagree with. Though this view of writing may appear logical, it is actually a recipe for flat, life­less writing, and for writing that fails to answer what we call the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. “William Shake­speare wrote many famous plays and sonnets” may be a perfectly true statement, but precisely because nobody is likely to disagree with it, it goes without saying and thus would seem pointless if said.




Just because much argumentative writing is driven by dis­agreement, it does not follow that agreement is ruled out. Although argumentation is often associated with conflict and opposition, the type of conversational “they say/I say” argument that we focus on in this book can be just as useful when you agree as when you disagree.


She argues_______________________, and I agree because  _______________________.       

Her argument that _______________________is supported by new research showing that _______________________..


Nor do you always have to choose between either simply agree­ing or disagreeing, since the “they say/I say” format also works to both agree and disagree at the same time.


He claims that______________________, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I agree that_______________________.On the other hand, I still insist that _______________________.      


This last option—agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously—is one we especially recommend, since it allows you to avoid a simple yes or no response and present a more complicated argument, while containing that complication within a clear “on the one hand/on the other hand” framework.


While the templates we offer in this book can be used to structure your writing at the sentence level, they can also be expanded as needed to almost any length, as the following elab­orated “they say/I say” template demonstrates.


In recent discussions of . . , a controversial issue has been whether_______________________. On the one hand, some argue that_______________________. From this perspective, _______________________. On the other hand, _______________________;

however, others argue that_______________________.    . In the words of one of thisview’s main proponents, _______________________.According to this view, _______________________.

In sum, then, the issue is whether_______________________or_______________________.My own view is that_______________________. Though I concede that_______________________.

I still maintain that _______________________.. For example, _______________________. Although some might object that_______________________, I reply that_______________________. The issue is important because_______________________.


If you go back over this template, you will see that it helps you make a host of challenging moves (each of which is taken up in forthcoming chapters in this book), First, the template helps you open your text by identifying an issue in some ongoing con­versation or debate (“In recent discussions of . ,a con­troversial issue has been”), then to map some of the voices in this controversy (by using the “on the one hand/on the other hand” structure). The template also helps you to introduce a quotation (“In the words of”), to explain the quotation in your own words (“According to this view”), and—in a new paragraph—to state your own argument (“My own view is that”), to qualify your argument (“Though I concede that”), and then to support your argument with evidence (“For exam­ple”). In addition, the template helps you make one of the most crucial moves in argumentative writing, what we call “plant­ing a naysayer in your text,” in which you summarize and then answer a likely objection to your own central claim (“Although it might be objected that_______________________.      , I reply_______________________.    


Finally, this template helps you shift between general, over­arching claims (“In sum, then”) and smaller-scale, supporting claims (“For example”).


Again, none of us is born knowing these moves, especially when it comes to academic writing. Hence the need for this book.





If you are like some of our students, your initial response to templates may be skepticism. At first, many of our students complain that using templates will take away their originality and creativity and make them all sound the same They II turn us into writing robots,” one of our students insisted. Another agreed, adding, “Hey, I’m a jazz musician. And we don’t play by set forms. We create our own.” “I’m in college now,” another student asserted; “this is third-grade level stuff.”


In our view, however, the templates in this book, far from being “third-grade level stuff,” represent the stock in trade of sophisticated thinking and writing, and they often require a great deal of practice and instruction to use successfully. As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited vision of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less. After all, even the most creative forms of expression depend on established patterns and structures. Most songwriters, for instance, rely on a time-honored verse-chorus-verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn’t invent the sonnet or dramatic forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant-garde, cutting-edge artists (like improvisational jazz musicians) need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play. Ultimately, then, creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms, but in the imaginative use of them


Furthermore these templates do not dictate the content of what you say, which can be as original as you can make it, but rather suggest a way of formatting how you say it.  In addition once you begin to feel comfortable with the templates in this book, you will be able to improvise creatively on them and invent new ones to fit new situations and purposes. In other words, the templates offered here are learning tools to get you started, not structures set in stone. Once you get used to using them, you can even dispense with them altogether, for the rhetorical moves they model will be at your fingertips in an unconscious, instinctive way.


But if you still need proof that writing templates do not sti­fle creativity, consider the following opening to an essay on the fast-food industry that we’ve included at the back of this book.


If ever there were a newspaper headline custom-made for Jay Leno’s monologue, this was it. Kids taking on McDonald’s this week, suing the company for making them fat, Isn’t that like middle-aged men suing Porsche for making them get speeding tickets? Whatever hap­pened to personal responsibility?

I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them. DAVID ZINCZENKO, “Don’t Blame the Eater”


Although Zinczenko relies on a version of the “they say/I say” formula, his writing is anything but dry, robotic, or uncreative. While Zinczenko does not explicitly use the words “they say” and “I say,” the template still gives the passage its underlying structure: “They say that kids suing fast-food companies for mak­ing them fat is a joke; but I say such lawsuits are justified.”




Though the immediate goal of this book is to help you become a better writer, at a deeper level it invites you to become a cer­tain type of person: a critical, intellectual thinker who, instead of sitting passively on the sidelines, can participate in the debates and conversations of your world in an active and empowered way. Ultimately, this book invites you to become a critical thinker who can enter the types of conversations described elo­quently by the philosopher Kenneth Burke in the following widely cited passage. Likening the world of intellectual exchange to a never-ending conversation at a party, Burke writes:


You come late, When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. . . , You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns him­self against you. . . . The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. KENNETH BURKE, The Philosophy of Literary Form


What we like about this passage is its suggestion that stating an argument and “putting in your oar” can only be done in conversation with others; that we all enter the dynamic world of ideas not as isolated individuals, but as social beings deeply connected to others who have a stake in what we say.


This ability to enter complex, many-sided conversations has taken on a special urgency in today’s diverse, post-9/1 1 world, where the future for all of us may depend on our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those who think very differently from us. The central piece of advice in this book—that we listen carefully to others, including those who disagree with us, and then engage with them thoughtfully and respectfully—can help us see beyond our own pet beliefs, which may not be shared by everyone. The mere act of crafting a sentence that begins “Of course, someone might object that . ...“ may not seem like a way to change the world; but it does have the potential to jog us out of our comfort zones, to get us thinking critically about our own beliefs, and perhaps even to change our minds.