The Moves That Matter

in Academic Writing


Second Edition



Entering the Conversation


T H 1 N 1< ABOUT AN ACTIVITY that you do particularly well: cooking, playing the piano, shooting a basketball, even some~

thing 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 hav~

ing 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 estab~

lished moves that are crucial for communicating sophisticated ideas. \Vhat 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 suecessfully enter not only the world of academic thinking and

writing, but also the wider worlds of civic discourse and work. Instead of focusing solely on abstract principles of writing,

then, this book offers model templates that help you 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 ; 1 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 ("! 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 r~sponding 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 position. You need to enter a conversation, using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own views. 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 peo~

ple'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. Instead, 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 muchn; "I agree: it was a great

filmn; "That argument is contradictory.n 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 \\Titer, 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' viewswith

something "they say." If your own argument doesn't identify the "they say" that you're responding to, 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 thesis or "I sayn moment of your text -should always be a response to the arguments of others. Many writers make explicit "they say / I sayn 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 clergy~

men deploring the civil rights protests he was leading. The letter-which was written in 1963, while King was in prison for leading a demonstration against racial injustice in Birming~

ham-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,n 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-9/11 patriotism.


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. She tells me I'm wrong-the

flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no

to terrorism. In a way we're both right ....

KATHA PoLLITT, "Put Out No Flags''

As Pollitt's example shows, the "they" you respond to in crafting an argument need not be a famous author or 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 with which readers might

identify-in Pollitt's case, those who patriotically believe in flying the flag. Pollitt's example also shows that responding to the views of others need not always

involve unqualified opposition. By agreeing and disagreeing with her daughter, Pollitt enacts what we call on agreeing, but with a the "yes and no" response, reconciling apparently difference.

incompatible views.

While King and Pollitt both identify the views they are responding to, some authors do not explicitly state their views but instead allow the reader to infer them. 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 the common belief that in order to be a good teacher of literature, one must have grown up liking and enjoy~

ing books.

As you can see from these examples, many writers use the "they say I I say" format to agree or 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 vvriting that fails to answer what we call the "so whatt 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 I say" argument that we focus on in this book can be just as useful when you agree as when you disagree.

~~>- She argues

~~>- Her argument that

showing that

, and I agree because

is supported by new research

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, as Pollitt illustrates above.


Entering the Conversation

~~>- 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 I say" template demonstrates.

In recent discussions of , a controversial issue has been whether . On the one hand, some argue that

hand, however,

. From this perspective,

others argue that

. On the other

In the words of

___ , one of this view's main

According to this view,

whether or

My own view is that

.. , I still maintain that

proponents, "

In sum, then, the issue is

. Though I concede that

For example,

. Although some might object that I would

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 "),and 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 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, over~arching 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'll rum us into writing robots," one of our students insisted. Anot.her 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 versechorus~verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn't invent the sonnet or the dramatic

forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant arde, cutting~edge artists (like improvisational jazz musicia~s) 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 only 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 to fit new situations and purposes and find others in your reading. 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 in 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 ZtNCZENKO, "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 com·panies for making them fat is a joke; but I say such lawsuits are justified."


"But isn't this plagiarism?" at least one student each year will usually ask. "Well, is it?" we respond, turning the question around into one the entire class can profit from. "We are, after

all, asking you to use language in your writing that isn't your own-language that you 'borrow' or, to put it less delicately, steal from other writers." Often, a lively discussion ensues that raises important questions

about authorial ownership and helps everyone better understand the frequently confusing line between plagiatism and the legitimate use of what others say and how they say

it. Students are quick to see that no one person owns a conventional formula like "on the one hand ... on the other hand ... " Phrases like "a controversial issue" are so <,:oml

monly used and recycled that they are generic~community property that can be freely used without fear of committing plagiarism. It is plagiarism, however, if the words used to fill

in the blanks of such formulas are borrowed from others without proper acknowledgment. In sum, then, while it is not plagiarism to recycle conventionally used formulas, it is a serious

 academic offense to take the substantive content from others' texts without citing the author and giving him or her proper credit.


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 so~ial 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/ll 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 think~

ing critically about our own beliefs, and perhaps even to

change our minds.


L Read the following paragraph from an essay by Emily Poe,

a student at Furman University. Disregarding for the

moment what Poe says, focus your attention on the phrases

Poe uses to structure what she says (italicized here). Then

write a new paragraph using Poe's as a model but replacing

her topic, vegetarianism, with one of your own.

The term "vegetarian" tends to be synonymous with "tree~hugger"

in many people's minds. They see vegetarianism as a cult that brain~

washes its followers into eliminating an essential pan of their daily

Entering the Conversation

diets for an abstract goal of "animal welfare." However, few vege~

tarians choose their lifestyle just to follow the crowd. On the con~

trary, many of these supposedly brainwashed people are actually

independent thinkers, concerned citizens, and compassionate

human beings. For the truth is that there are many very good rea~

sons for giving up meat. Perhaps the best reasons are to improve

the epvironment, to encourage humane treatment of livestock, or

to enhance one's own health. In this essay, then, closely examining

a vegetarian diet as compared to a meat~eater's diet will show that

vegetarianism is clearly the better option for sustaining the Earth

and all its inhabitants.

2. Write a short essay in which you first summarize our ration~

ale for the templates in this book and then articulate your

own position in response. If you want, you can use the tern~

plate below to organize your paragraphs, expanding and

modifying it as necessary to fit what you want to say.

• In the Introduction to "They Say/ I Say": The Mo"s That Matter

in Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein provide

templates designed to . Specifically, Graff and

Birkenstein argue that the types of writing templates they offer

As the authors themselves put it, "

Although some people believe , Graff and Birkenstein

insist that . In sum, then, their view is that

I [agreefdisagreefhave mixed feelings]. In my view, the types

of templates that the authors recommend For

instance, In addition,

object, of course, on the grounds that

argue that . Overall, then, I believe

important point to make given

1 5

Some might

. Yet I would



Starting with What Others Are Saying


NOT LONG AGo we attended a talk at an academic confer~

ence where the speaker's central claim seemed to be that a cer~

tain sociologist-call him Dr. X-had done very good work in

a number of areas of the discipline. The speaker proceeded to

illustrate his thesis by referring extensively and in great detail

to various books and articles by Dr. X and by quoting long passages

from them. The speaker was obviously both learned and

impassioned, but as we listened to his talk we found ourselves

somewhat puzzled: the argument-that Dr. X's work was very

important-was clear enough, but why did the speaker need to

make it in the first place? Did anyone dispute it? Were there

commentators in the field who had argued against X's work or

challenged its value? Was the speaker's interpretation of what

X had done somehow novel or revolutionary? Since the speaker

gave no hint of an answer to any of these questions, we could

only wonder why he was going on and on about X. It was only

after the speaker finished and took questions from the See an example

in Figure 1

on p. 4·

audience that we got a clue: in response to one ques~

tioner, he referred to several critics who had vigorously

1 9


questioned Dr. X's ideas and convinced many sociologists that

Dr. X' s work was unsound.

This story illustrates an important lesson: that to give writ~

ing the most important thing of all-namely, a point-a writer

needs to indicate clearly not only what his or her thesis is, but

also what larger conversation that thesis is responding to.

Because our speaker failed to mention what others had said about

Dr. X's work, he left his audience unsure about why he felt the

need to say what he was saying. Perhaps the point was clear to

other sociologists in the audience who were more familiar with

the debates over Dr. X's work than we were. But even they, we

bet, would have understood the speaker's point better if he'd

sketched in some of the larger conversation his own claims were

a part of and reminded the audience about what ~~they say."

This story also illustrates an important lesson about the order

in which things are said: to keep an audience engaged, a writer

needs to explain what he or she is responding to--either before

offering that response or, at least, very early in the discussion.

Delaying this explanation for more than one or two paragraphs

in a very short essay, three or four pages in a longer one, or more

than ten or so pages in a boob length text reverses the natural

order in which readers process material-and in which writers

think and develop ideas. After all, it seems very unlikely that

See how an our conference speaker first developed his defense of Dr.

essay about X and only later came across Dr. X's critics. As some~

Wal-Mart one knowledgeable in his field, the speaker surely

opens by quot· encountered the criticisms first and only then was com~

ing its critics, pelled to respond and, as he saw it, set the record straight.

P· 62o, ~'· The rerro re, wh en it comes to constructm. g an argument

(whether orally or in writing), we offer you the following

advice: remember that you are entering a conversation and

therefore need to start with "what others are saying," as the

Starting with What Others Are Saying

title of this chapter recommends, and then introduce your own

ideas as a response. Specifically, we suggest that you summarize

what "they say" as soon as you can in your text, and remind

readers of it at strategic points as your text unfolds. Though it's

true that not all texts follow this practice, we think it's impor~

tant for all Writers to master it before they depart from it.

This is not to say that you must start with a detailed list of

everyone who has written on your subject before you offer your

own ideas. Had our conference speaker gone to the opposite

extreme and spent most of his talk summarizing Dr. X's critics

with no hint of what he himself had to say, the audience probably

would have had the same frustrated "why-is-he-going-onlike~

this?" reaction. What we suggest, then, is that as soon as

possible you state your own position and the one it's responding

to together, and that you think of the two as a unit. It is gener~

ally best to summarize the ideas you're responding to briefly, at

the start of your text, and to delay detailed elaboration until later.

The point is to give your readers a quick preview of what is moti~

vating your argument, not to drown them in details right away.

Starting with a summary of others' views may seem to con~

tradict the common advice that writers should lead with their

own thesis or claim. Although we agree that you shouldn't keep

readers in suspense too long about your central argument, we also

believe that you need to present that argument as part of some

larger conversation, indicating something about the arguments

of others that you are supporting, opposing, amending, compli~

eating, or qualifying. One added benefit of summarizing others'

views as soon as you can: you let those others do some of the

work of framing and clarifying the issue you're writing about.

Consider, for example, how George Orwell starts his famous

essay "Politics and the English Language" with what others are



Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that

the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed

that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civ~

ilization is decadent and our language-s~. the argument runsmust

inevitably share in the general collapse.

[But] the process is reversible. Modem English ... is full of bad

habits ... which can be avoided if one is willing to take the nee~

essary trouble.

GEORGE ORWELL, "Politics and the English Language"

Orwell is basically saying, "Most people assume that we can~

not do anything about rhe bad state of the English language.

But I say we can."

Of course, there are many other powerful ways to begin.

Instead of opening with someone else's views, you could start

with an illustrative quotation, a revealing fact or statistic, oras

we do in this chapter-a relevant anecdote. If you choose

one of these formats, however, be sure that it in some way illus~

trates the view you're addressing or leads you to that view

directly, with a minimum of steps.

In opening this chapter, for example, we devote the first para~

graph to an anecdote about the conference speaker and then move

quickly at the start of the second paragraph to the misconception

about writing exemplified by the speaker. In the following opening,

from a 2004 opinion piece in the New Y ark Times Book

Review, Christina Nehring also moves quickly from an anecdote

illustrating something she dislikes to her own claim-that book

lovers think too highly of themselves.

"I'm a reader!" announced the yellow button. "How about you?" I

looked at its bearer, a strapping young guy stalking my town's ,Festi~

val of Books. "I'll bet you)re a reader," he volunteered, as though we

Starting with What Others Are Saying

were two geniuses well met. "No," I replied. "Absolutely not," I

wanted to yell, and fling my Barnes & Noble bag at his feet. Instead,

I mumbled something apologetic and melted into the crowd.

There's a' new piety in the air: the self congratulation of book


CHRISTINA NEHRING, "Books Make You a Boring Person"

Nehring's anecdote is really a kind of "they say": book lovers

keep telling themselves how great they are.



There are lots of conventional ways to introduce what others

are saying. Here are some standard templates that we would

have recommended to our conference speaker.

,.. A number of sociologists have recently suggested that X's w9rk has

~-~.Y.~.r..i'-1 f1l n_Q_gm.~ .. o.te.J. _pJQ.R.l.~m .. ~ ..

,.. It has become common today to dismiss

..,. In their recent work, Y and Z have offered harsh critiques of

··- for ___ .- --·



The following templates can help you make what we call the

"standard viewn move) in which you introduce a view that has

become so widely accepted that by now it is essentially the conventional

way of thinking about a topic.


~>- Americans have always believed that individ_u~J .. E::.(fq_ri;__(:_a_I1.J.r.i..w.mp .. h

over circumstances.

,.. Conventional wisdom has it that

,.. Common sense seems to dictate that

,.. The standard way of thinking about topic X has it that

~>- It is often said that

~>- My whole life I have heard it said that

,.. You would think that

,. Many people assume that

These templates are popular because they provide a quick and

efficient way to perform one of the most common moves that

writers make: challenging widely accepted beliefs, placing

them on the examining table and analyzing their strengths

and weaknesses.



Another way to introduce the views you're responding to is to

present them as your own. That is, the "they say" that you

respond to need not be a view held by others; it can be one

that you yourself once held or one that you are ambivalent


,.. I've always believed that m_w~e:.LJ.n1S are bqrir1g.

,.. When I was a child, I used to think that

2 4

Starting with What Others Are Saying

• Although I should know better by now, I cannot help thinking that

,.. At the same time that I believe , I also believe



Another sophisticated move a writer can make is to summarize

a point that is not directly stated in what '\hey say" but is

implied or assumed.

~~> Although none of them have ever said so directly, my teachers have

often given me the impression that E::clucatjon _wi_II _ Q.P.~.I1 .... Q_q__q_r_~.·

,.. One implication of X's treatment of is that

~>- X apparently assumes that

,. While they rarely admit as much, often take for granted

that ______ _

These are templates that can help you think analyticallyto

look beyond what others say explicitly and to consider

their unstated assumptions, as well as the implications of their




Sometimes you'll want to open by summarizing a debate

that presents two or more views. This kind of opening

2 5


demonstrates your awareness that there are conflicting ways

to look at your subject, the clear mark of someone who knows

the subject and therefore is likely to be ~ reliable, trustworthy

guide. Furthermore, opening with a summary of a debate

can help you explore the issue you are writing about before

declaring your own view. In this way, you can use the writ~

ing process itself to help you discover where you stand instead

of having to commit to a position before you are ready to

do so.

Here is a basic template for opening with a debate.

._ In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been

On the one hand, argues

On the other hand,

even maintain


. My own view is

. Others

The cognitive scientist Mark Aronoff uses this kind of tern~

plate in an essay on the workings of the human brain.

Theories of how the mind/brain works have been dominated for

centuries by two opposing views. One, rationalism, sees the human

mind as coming into this world more or less fully formedpreprogrammed,

in modem terms. The other, empiricism, sees the

mind of the newborn as largely unstructured, a blank slate.

MARK ARONOFF, "Washington Sleeped Here"

Another way to open with a debate involves starting with a

proposition many people agree with in order to highlight the

point(s) on which they ultimately disagree.

._ When it comes to the topic of

agree that

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, most of us will re~dily

Where this agreement usually

Starting with What Others Are Saying

ends, however, is on the question of

some are convinced that

. Whereas

, others maintain that

The political writer Thomas Frank uses a variation on this


That we are a nation divided is an almost universal lament of this

bitter election year. However, the exact property that divides uselemental

though it is said to be-remains a matter of some

controversy .

THOMAS FRANK, "American Psyche"


We can't urge you too strongly to keep in mind what "they say"

as you move through the rest of your text. After summarizing

the ideas you are responding to at the outset, it's very impor,

tant to continue to keep those ideas in view. Readers won't be

able to follow your unfolding response, much less any complications

you may offer, unless you keep reminding them what

claims you are responding to.

In other words, even when presenting your own claims,

you should keep returning to the motivating ''they say." The

longer and more complicated your text, the greater the

chance that readers will forget what ideas originally moti~

vated it-no matter how clearly you lay them out at the

beginning. At strategic moments throughout your text, we

recommend that you include what we call "return sentences."

Here is an example.

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~ In conclusion, then, as I suggested earlier, defenders of

can't have it both ways. Their assertion that

is contradicted by their claim that

We ourselves use such return sentences at. every opportunity in

this book to remind you of the view of writing that our book

questions-that good writing means making true or smart or

logical statements about a given subject with little or no refer~

ence to what others say about it.

By reminding readers of the ideas you're responding to,

return sentences ensure that your text maintains a sense of mis~

sion and urgency from start to finish. In short, they help ensure

that your argument is a genuine response to others' views rather

than just a set of observations about a given subject. The dif~

ference is huge. To be responsive to others and the conversa~

tion you're entering, you need to start with what others are

saying and continue keeping it in the reader's view.


1. The following is a list of arguments that lack a "they say"any

sense of who needs to hear these claims, who might

think otherwise. Like the speaker in the cartoon on page 4

who declares that The Sopranos presents complex characters,

these one~sided arguments fail to explain what view they are

responding to-what view, in effect, they are trying to cor~

rect, add to, qualify, complicate, and so forth. Your job in

this exercise is to provide each argument with such a coun~

terview. Feel free to use any of the templates in this chap~

ter that you find helpful.

Starting with What Others Are Saying

a. Our experiments suggest that there are dangerous levels

of chemical X in the Ohio groundwater.

b. Material forces drive history.

c. Proponents of Freudian psychology question standard

notions of "rationality."

d. Male students often dominate class discussions.

e. The film is about the problems of romantic relationships.

f. I'm afraid that templates like the ones in this book will

stifle my creativity.

2. Below is a template that we derived from the opening of

David Zinczenko's "Don't Blame the Eater" (p. 391). Use

the template to structure a passage on a topic of your own

choosing. Your first step here should be to find an idea

that you support that others not only disagree with but

actually find laughable (or, as Zinczenko puts it, worthy

of a Jay Lena monologue). You might write about one of

the topics listed in the previous exercise (the environ~

ment, sports, gender relations, the meaning of a book or

movie) or any other topic that interests you.

"' If ever there was an idea custom-made for a jay Leno monologue,

this was it_---------------- Isn't that like__ :>

Whatever happened to

I happen to sympathize with , though,

perhaps because

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