50 pages 1 hour read

Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein

They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing

Nonfiction | Reference/Text Book | Adult | Published in 2006

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing is a reference text designed for student writers. It explains the basic rhetorical strategies one can (and should) use when writing academic papers. Although the writing advice in this book is built around classwork and term papers, it is designed to transfer easily to other contexts.

Authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein are both tenured professors of English. In this book, they draw from their classroom experiences to identify stumbling blocks that new writers often face.

Rather than focus on teaching formal rhetoric, Graff and Birkenstein focus on identifying and explaining writing strategies in ways that make it easy for new writers to digest and retain. The 14 chapters of They Say/I Say are organized into four sections and include helpful writing templates and exercises.

They Say/I Say is often used as a textbook in composition courses designed for first-year students. Its publisher, W. W. Norton, also carries interactive resources designed to accompany coursework, such as quizzes and organizational tools for teachers.

This study guide corresponds to the second edition of this text, which was issued in 2010. They Say/I Say was originally published in 2006. At the time of writing, this text has been updated a total of four times since its original publication date.

Plot Summary

Part 1, “They Say” (Chapters 1-3), concerns the practice of summarizing other writers’ works to provide readers with background information. Graff and Berkstein present argumentative writing as a conversation. For a writer to keep their readers abreast of that conversation, they must summarize other relevant writings before adding to the conversation with their own arguments.

Chapter 1, “‘They Say’: Starting with What Others Are Saying,” concerns the importance of clear and motivated summarization in well-constructed arguments. The authors illustrate this by presenting examples of argumentation with and without clear summaries. They also explain how to summarize texts for a variety of argumentative contexts.

Chapter 2, “‘Her Point Is’: The Art of Summarizing,” explores some best practices for writing summaries of other texts. While Graff and Birkenstein encourage their readers to write objective summaries, they also note that summaries should also focus on the elements of a source that are directly relevant to one’s arguments.

Chapter 3, “‘As He Himself Puts It’: The Art of Quoting” explains how to incorporate quotations into one’s own writing. The authors discuss the importance of properly framing quotes and offer general advice for choosing the most useful ones.

Part 2, “I Say” (Chapters 4-7), advises new writers on how to integrate their own views into their writing. Graff and Birkenstein lead the reader through the subtle ways one can signal agreement, disagreement, and more complex responses to other people’s arguments. They also explore ways to use opposing views to one’s own advantage.

Chapter 4, “‘Yes/No/Okay, But’: Three Ways to Respond,” discusses the three major angles a writer can take when responding to another writer’s arguments. Graff and Birkenstein stress the importance of being frank and direct when taking a stance. They also urge new writers to use agreement/disagreement as a springboard for developing new arguments.

Chapter 5, “‘And Yet’: Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say,” explains how to differentiate between two or more perspectives that appear in a single text. By attending to what Graff and Birkenstein call “voice markers,” a reader can spot the difference between a summary of someone else’s arguments and the writer’s response to those arguments.

Chapter 6, “‘Skeptics May Object’: Planting a Naysayer in Your Text,” posits that, while addressing ideological opposition may seem counterintuitive, it can actually be a very effective rhetorical tool. By planting a hypothetical naysayer in the text, writers have the opportunity to build credibility, lend nuance to their position, and defend against real counterarguments.

Chapter 7, “‘So What? Who Cares?’: Saying Why It Matters,” leads new writers through explaining why their subject matter is worth reading about. Graff and Birkenstein argue that this context is crucial to keeping readers’ attention and winning their confidence.

Part 3, “Tying It All Together” (Chapters 8-11), explores the importance of small-scale rhetorical choices, such as word choice and phrasing, as well as broad organizational considerations. It also discusses academic writing styles and the importance of qualifying one’s own arguments. While the first two parts of They Say/I Say focus on the elements of an argument, Part 3 concerns the connective tissue that holds an argumentative piece together.

Chapter 8, “‘As a Result’: Connecting the Parts” explains the importance of connecting sentences and ideas together in argumentative writing. This chapter also looks at how connective words and phrases such as “but,” “not only…but also,” “because,” and many more signal various kinds of relationships.

Chapter 9, “‘Ain’t So/Is Not’: Academic Writing Doesn’t Always Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice,” advocates for the use of colloquial, creative, and informal language in academic writing. Birkenstein and Graff do not encourage using informal language as a substitute for rigorous scholarship. However, they argue that “formal/informal mixing” can elevate scholarly writing when it is thoughtfully deployed. Formal/informal mixing also makes space for non-standard English dialects in academia, such as those used by Black and Mexican American individuals.

Chapter 10, “‘But Don’t Get Me Wrong’: The Art of Metacommentary,” explains the importance of explicitly developing, qualifying, and clarifying one’s arguments, including statements one has already made. Graff and Birkenstein note that while such metacommentary might seem redundant, it is actually essential for developing nuanced arguments and making sure readers can follow them. Many of the rhetorical strategies introduced in previous chapters are themselves forms of metacommentary.

Part 4, “In Specific Academic Contexts” (Chapters 12-17), explains how to apply this book’s rhetorical methods to specific situations. These situations include classroom settings as well as particular academic fields.

Chapter 11, “‘I Take Your Point’: Entering Class Discussions,” is a brief guide to participating in classroom discussions by applying the rhetorical techniques described in earlier chapters when having academic discussions. They specifically highlight metacommentary as a key tool for maintaining clarity in both online and offline class discussions.

Chapter 12, “‘What’s Motivating This Writer?’; Reading for the Conversation,” focuses on how to analyze and understand other people's writing and rhetorical moves. Graff and Birkenstein break down argumentative writing across genres to expose some of the strategies they’ve already discussed and explain how to decipher challenging texts.

Chapter 13, “‘The Data Suggest’: Writing in the Sciences,” written by guest contributor Christopher Gillen, deals with argumentative writing in scientific fields. This chapter repurposes many of Graff and Birkenstein’s methods specifically for the type of argumentation that science writing involves. Gillen states that science is a fundamentally argumentative process, and as such, many of the rhetorical moves that work across academic fields are especially suited to science writing. He also breaks down the format of a traditional scientific paper.

Chapter 14, “‘Analyze This’: Writing in the Social Sciences,” written by guest contributor Erin Ackerman, echoes many of Gillen’s points about applying Graff and Birkenstein’s work to her field. She also outlines the format of a paper for the social sciences, which differs from Gillen’s model of a hard science publication. 

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 50 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 7,950+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools