Academic writing Writing

Academic Writing — Framing an Argument as They Say, I Say

This post is about how to frame an academic argument, which draws on a book by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  I used this book in my class Academic Writing with Clarity and Grace.  Here you can get the syllabus for the class along with most of the readings and all course slides.  

The aim is to explore the process framing a paper around the process of joining an ongoing academic conversation.  The basic structure is:  They say, I say.  Here’s what the literature says, and here’s what I’m contributing to it.  This way you lead the reader into discovering what you are adding to the conversation.  I’m drawing on my slides from the class.

Academic writing is a process of entering an ongoing conversation:

  • So you don’t just jump in, you try to situate your argument in the larger conversational arena.
  • Orienting the reader is the key, so the reader knows: why are you telling me this?
  • What do others say about the subject? What set you off on this issue?
  • Not all others, only the most prominent and salient examples, the ones most germane to the point you want to develop.
  • Then explain how your argument relates to theirs.
  • This is the essence of framing an argument, what you do in the opening paragraph or two of a paper.

Graff Book Cover

The art of summarizing:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other.
  • Be fair; don’t stack the deck too obviously.
  • But keep in mind where you are going with this.
  • Don’t get lost in an aimless lit review.
  • The dangers of the lit review mindset
  • Never just summarize an entire literature.
  • Select the salient stuff, with the purpose of setting up your own argument.
  • Keep if focused, relatively short.
  • Don’t let the reader wonder why you’re going into all this
  • The review exists only to advance your argument

The art of quoting:

  • Quote only the most relevant material, where the wording itself is particularly apt, clear, and persuasive.
  • Otherwise it’s better to paraphrase.
  • Frame the quote so the reader knows how to interpret it.
  • Blend the author’s words with your own; this can be difficult.
  • You need to get the grammar right.
  • Make it so the quote flows with your own argument
  • Integration is everything.
  • Better not to use a lot of sentence fragments in quotes.
  • Sometimes a block quote is more effective, since it gives the author a chance to make an argument instead of just use a phrase.
  • But readers often skip long block quotes; publishers hate them

Ways to respond to what they say

  • Yes:
    • I largely agree; yes, and….
    • I’m drawing on this authority as grounding and then adding something of my own.
    • I’m in the camp but I’m not a camp follower
  • No:
    • I largely disagree.
    • So my task is to explain why.
    • But I don’t want to make things too black and white.
    • I need to acknowledge what’s of some value in the dismissed approach but then show where the author went wrong.
  • Okay, but:
    • I agree up to a point.
    • But then I take things in a different direction.
    • The result is more than a minor variation on the original theme but a substantial and distinctive contribution to the conversation
  • And yet:
    • Distinguishing their argument from yours
    • Voice markers, so the reader knows whose voice you’re representing each time in the text – yours or theirs

Planting a naysayer in your text:

  • The value of raising questions and complaints that a reader might have in assessing your argument.
  • Gives you a chance to head off obvious challenges to validity
  • Used sparingly, it increases your credibility by showing your willingness to consider alternatives – while also allowing you to display your finesse in dispatching opponents.
  • Don’t use too much, since it may undercut your authority and make you look too tentative.
  • A delicate balance between shooting down a straw man or shooting yourself in the foot.
  • You need to represent credible objections fairly; but you don’t want to undermine your own authority.
  • A lot of rhetorical effectiveness comes from apparent fairness and generosity to opponents while nonetheless slicing them to ribbons.

Don’t be too balanced in your analysis:

  • It’s not your job to make all the counter arguments to your own
  • You’re entering a conversation not providing the final word
  • If your argument is reasonably persuasive and can’t be shot down too easily; if it adds something useful to the conversation even if it’s not entirely true or wholly supported by the evidence – then go ahead and make it. That’s sufficient warrant for your paper.
  • Let others make the counter arguments.
  • A one-handed argument is better than a two-handed argument
  • Aim to provide an analytical razor not a beach ball

As a result — connecting the parts:

  • One thing leads to another, one paragraph to the next.
  • Keep the train of thought going.
  • Remind the reader where you’re going and why, how this argument builds on what precedes it.
  • Don’t leave the reader wondering: Why is she telling me this? Where are we headed?  What’s going on here?
  • That’s true for individual sentences in a paragraph; paragraphs in a section; sections in an article; chapters in a dissertation or book.
  • Keep the signposts visible for the reader – without overdoing it with too much meta-commentary.

Keeping your voice while remaining academically credible:

  • Often graduate programs have the effect of eradicating your voice and replacing it with a stilted academic voice that sounds professional.
  • Often this means learning to write in the voice of the author of a mediocre journal article
  • Sounding academic instead of saying something important and interesting.
  • Keep your attitude toward the text visible to the reader, audible to the listener using your own authorial voice
  • Remind yourself continually: Why were you interested in pursuing this question in the first place? What’s the grabber for you here?  Make sure this comes across to the reader.
  • When you do this – get to the heart of your engagement with the issue – you are more likely to write in a voice that’s yours and one that is more engaging to the reader as well.

I hope you find this useful.

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