Review – Graff & Birkenstein: They Say, I Say

Struggling to word your literature review paragraphs or just starting with academic writing? This handbook will come to rescue….

My reading is a mess. Sometimes I’ll get drawn into a book or an interesting article that I won’t put it down until the last sentence, making few or no notes. More often, I would read strategically and make purposeful notes. Most often, however, my reading will be like a hurricane-like, hectic quest to answer a particular question and tick a box in my list. This post isn’t about reading though, it is about writing about what you have read.

The mystery of academic conversation

As you might imagine, such horrendous reading practice results in poor writing practice. While I enjoy writing about my data and analysis procedures, drawing tables and charts, the literature review gives me no such thrill. Unfortunately, it is quite an important part of academic writing so I went out to get any help I could with this.

Image credits: Mark Wathieu / CY BY-NC 2.0

They Say, I Say is a “persuasive writing handbook”, intended to “demystify the academic conversation”. In order to achieve this authors introduce structured ways to refer to any work you feel should be included in your writing, either to agree with it, challenge it, compare with others and similar. Their chapters also explore summarising, quoting and, most importantly different ways of distinguishing “what you say” from “what they say” and explaining why it matters. Apart from introducing various discursive moves, they also offer templates to operationalise it in writing and, finally, exercise tasks to help you put all this into practise.

Templates, really?

Yes, really. To give you an example, templates like these are suggested for introducing quotations:

  • X states, “________.”
  • As the prominent philosopher X puts it, “_________.”
  • According to X, “________.”
  • X himself writes, “__________.”
  • In her book,________, X maintains that “___________.”


Or these for indicating who should care about your research:

  • ________used to think________. But recently [or within the past few decades]
  • suggests that______.
  • This interpretation challenges the work of those critics who have long assumed
  • that_________.
  • These findings challenge the work of earlier researchers, who tended to assume
  • that__________.
  • Recent studies like these shed new light on__________, which previous studies had not addressed.

Will these templates inspire your creativity and yield page-turning academic writing? No, not really, but they have often helped me get started and produce something that I could later edit and mold into my own writing style.  I must admit there are constructions I would never use myself (or have seen used in a journal) but with a bit of re-tweaking they were still pretty useful in shaping my thoughts.

Who could find this useful?

This is not a book a on literature review. It will not help you decide what to read or how to map and structure your chapters or paragraphs, you will need to figure that out yourself, I am afraid (not to worry, we do have posts on planning and writing literature review). This is a book about wording your literature review. Experienced academic writers won’t find it particularly exciting or helpful, but those just starting to work their way about literature in the field would benefit from having a look. Or those who, like yours truly, frequently get stuck in front of the blank screen. Personally, I find these template to be a funnel for pouring my thought into differently shaped containers – funnel doesn’t define the final form, it just helps to contain the torrent of my thought (if yours are more stream like, fair enough).

Pro tip: Copying the templates into your document and seeing the word count grow is very, very soul-soothing.

Have you come across this book? Or have you found another one you can swear by?

Let us know in the comments section. 🙂

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)


Warwick based researchers can find the book here, when logged in.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: