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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 important 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-on-like- 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 generally 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 motivating 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- cating, 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 saying.

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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 civiliza- tion is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. . . . [But] the process is reversible. Modern English . . . is full of bad habits . . . which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Orwell is basically saying, “Most people assume that we cannot do anything about the 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, or— as we do in this chapter—a relevant anecdote. If you choose one of these formats, however, be sure that it in some way illustrates 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 miscon- ception about writing exemplified by the speaker. In the follow- ing opening, from an opinion piece in the New York 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 Festival of Books. “I’ll bet you’re a reader,” he volunteered, as though we were

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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 lovers.

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.

templates for introducing what “they say”

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.

j A number of sociologists have recently suggested that X’s work

has several fundamental problems.

j It has become common today to dismiss .

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

for .

templates for introducing “standard views”

The following templates can help you make what we call the “standard view” 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.

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j Americans have always believed that individual effort can

triumph over circumstances.

j Conventional wisdom has it that .

j Common sense seems to dictate that .

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

j It is often said that .

j My whole life I have heard it said that .

j You would think that .

j 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.

templates for making what “they say” something you say

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 about.

j I’ve always believed that museums are boring.

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

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j Although I should know better by now, I cannot help thinking

that .

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


templates for introducing something implied or assumed

Another sophisticated move a writer can make is to summarize a point that is not directly stated in what “they say” but is implied or assumed.

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

have often given me the impression that education will open doors.

j One implication of X’s treatment of is that .

j Although X does not say so directly, she apparently assumes

that .

j While they rarely admit as much, often take for

granted that .

These are templates that can help you think analytically—to look beyond what others say explicitly and to consider their unstated assumptions, as well as the implications of their views.

templates for introducing an ongoing debate

Sometimes you’ll want to open by summarizing a debate that presents two or more views. This kind of opening

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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 a reliable, trustworthy guide. Furthermore, opening with a summary of a debate can help you explore the issue you are writing about before declar- ing your own view. In this way, you can use the writing 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.

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

On the one hand, argues . On the other

hand, contends . Others even maintain

. My own view is .

The cognitive scientist Mark Aronoff uses this kind of template 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 formed— preprogrammed, in modern 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.

j When it comes to the topic of , most of us will read-

ily agree that . Where this agreement usually ends,

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however, is on the question of . Whereas some are

convinced that , others maintain that .

The political writer Thomas Frank uses a variation on this move.

That we are a nation divided is an almost universal lament of this bitter election year. However, the exact property that divides us—elemental though it is said to be—remains a matter of some controversy.

Thomas Frank, “American Psyche”

keep what “they say” in view

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 compli- cations 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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j 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 mission 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 difference is huge. To be responsive to others and the conver- sation 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 correct, add to, qualify, complicate, and so forth. Your job in this exercise is to provide each argument with such a counterview. Feel free to use any of the templates in this chapter that you find helpful.

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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. 462). 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 Leno monologue). You might write about one of the topics listed in the previous exercise (the environment, 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 hap-

pened to ?

I happen to sympathize with , though, perhaps

because .

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“her point is”

The Art of Summarizing


If it is true, as we claim in this book, that to argue persuasively you need to be in dialogue with others, then sum- marizing others’ arguments is central to your arsenal of basic moves. Because writers who make strong claims need to map their claims relative to those of other people, it is important to know how to summarize effectively what those other people say. (We’re using the word “summarizing” here to refer to any information from others that you present in your own words, including that which you paraphrase.) Many writers shy away from summarizing—perhaps because they don’t want to take the trouble to go back to the text in question and wrestle with what it says, or because they fear that devoting too much time to other people’s ideas will take away from their own. When assigned to write a response to an article, such writers might offer their own views on the article’s topic while hardly mentioning what the article itself argues or says. At the opposite extreme are those who do nothing but summarize. Lacking confidence, perhaps, in their own ideas, these writers so overload their texts with summaries of others’ ideas that their own voice gets lost. And since these summaries are not animated

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by the writers’ own interests, they often read like mere lists of things that X thinks or Y says—with no clear focus. As a general rule, a good summary requires balancing what the original author is saying with the writer’s own focus. Generally speaking, a summary must at once be true to what the original author says while also emphasizing those aspects of what the author says that interest you, the writer. Strik- ing this delicate balance can be tricky, since it means facing two ways at once: both outward (toward the author being summarized) and inward (toward yourself). Ultimately, it means being respectful of others but simultaneously structuring how you summarize them in light of your own text’s central argument.

on the one hand, put yourself in their shoes

To write a really good summary, you must be able to suspend your own beliefs for a time and put yourself in the shoes of someone else. This means playing what the writing theorist Peter Elbow calls the “believing game,” in which you try to inhabit the world- view of those whose conversation you are joining—and whom you are perhaps even disagreeing with—and try to see their argument from their perspective. This ability to temporarily suspend one’s own convictions is a hallmark of good actors, who must convinc- ingly “become” characters whom in real life they may detest. As a writer, when you play the believing game well, readers should not be able to tell whether you agree or disagree with the ideas you are summarizing. If, as a writer, you cannot or will not suspend your own beliefs in this way, you are likely to produce summaries that are

See how Nicholas Carr summarizes the mission of Google on p. 323, ¶24.

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t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

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