For VOA Learning English, this is the EducationReport.
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein are the writers of a best-selling book about college writing. The book iscalled They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. The book has had a major effecton the way writing is taught in the United States. It is a required book at more than 1,000 universities. Thegoal of this short book is to take the mystery out ofacademic writing. Gerald Graff says studentssometimes make writing harder than it needs to be.
“Somebody needs to explain to students that, difficultas it might be, it’s not as hard as you’re making it.”
English learners often think that academic writing isall about spelling, grammar, and organization. AuthorCathy Birkenstein says almost anyone can put asentence together. The difficult part is learning to readand think critically.
“These concerns of English language learners aren’talways that different from advanced languagelearners…These are basic questions, really not just ofhow to write…but they’re really how to thinkacademically, and how to structure an argument, andhow to really be interesting.”
The two experts say that good academic writingfollows a simple design called “They Say, I Say.” Apaper should begin with what others have alreadysaid about the subject, or “they say.” Then, studentwriters present their own opinions, or “I say.” Acollege paper should show the writer entering adebate among experts.
“A lot of people think writing can’t be reduced to aformula. Well in fact it can…All effective academicwriting at least comes down to the basic formula of “they say, I say”…Although most people argue[blank], I argue [blank].”
Mr. Graff agrees.
“Most published journalism and scholarship followsthis basic form.”
Cathy Birkenstein says the form is common in otherkinds of writing as well.
“I think whether you’re writing on Facebook and whether you’re sending anemail, whether you’re writing a poem or a novel, and whether you’respeaking Vietnamese or French or English, you really have to kind of playthis underlying ‘they say, I say’ game of responding to what other peopleare saying and giving them a sense of what you think in response to whatthey’re saying. And if you don’t do that, and use some form a template thatGerry and I suggest, or your own version of it, I don’t people are going toreally understand what you’re saying or care about what you’re saying.”
Good academic writing starts with reading. Gerald Graff and CathyBirkenstein have some suggestions for getting started.
“Start with what others are saying and play off that. Resist the temptationto give your own opinion until you’ve sketched out the conversation, thedialog that’s going on.”
Ms. Birkenstein says students should explain an expert’s idea first.
“I think if you’re not sure what to write about, summarize a good author, findout who that author is responding to, and figure out the debate or conflictthere and figure out where you stand too.”
An expanded third edition of “They Say I Say” will be released on Februaryfirst.
I’m Adam Brock.
To see some examples of academic writing forms from these experts, visitour blog, Confessions of an English Learner.
Adam Brock wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was theeditor.