Generative Blanks: Using ‘They Say/I Say’ Templates in a Writing Center

October 1, 2015 Les Lynn Argumentative Writing, The Debatifier

by Janel Atlas

Much of the current scholarship published in the Writing Center Journal, Praxis, and College Composition and Communication reveals that minimalist tutoring is still very much the dominant philosophy in writing centers. While I agree that writing center sessions should keep student writers in control of the focus and direction of appointments, I still maintain that offering rhetorical templates and formulas can empower writers rather than stifle them.

Those two sentences do not make for spell-binding prose, but they do indicate clearly the space I’m carving out to share my ideas. The formula I used is based on the ur-formula put forward by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, first published in 2006 and now in its 3rd edition (W.W. Norton, 2015). My opening two lines of this paper employ the ‘they say/I say’ construction Graff and Birkenstein encourage academic writers to use.

In the book, Graff and Birkenstein practicalize the longstanding view of academic writing as an ongoing conversation. Joining that conversation requires that a writer indicate for herself and for her reader the discursive moment she’s joining. It’s not enough to just state an opinion or even what seems to be a fact; one distinguishing characteristic of academic prose is the positioning of one’s own thoughts within the context of the ongoing discussion about the topic at hand. To enter the Burkean parlor, writers must learn how to adopt academic moves that help them situate their ideas amidst those put forward by others.

Let me note: This is not an easy thing to do.

In writing center sessions, we’ve all seen the paper written by the diligent student who clearly knows that he must incorporate secondary source materials but still lacks the framework and writing ability to do so in a way that helps him construct his argument.

Common signs of this difficulty are

  • Quote bombs
  • Sources dropped in with no clear context or attribution
  • Research papers written with sources spliced into the writer’s own words in such a way that it reads like too many bland voices all just agreeing with the writer’s thesis

This difficulty that many student writers have should not surprise us.

Composition scholars have long identified traits of academic discourse that require significant and sophisticated thinking and writing moves. While many students come to the writing center for help that on the surface seems to diverge from concerns about argument, source use, and contextualizing their positions in relation to others’, this may be in part because students do not yet understand the benefits of employing rhetorical and compositional strategies to navigate the scholarly conversation. If we, as writing center administrators and staff, neglect this global and intertextual concern and instead just talk about proper attribution and works cited entries, I believe that we are doing our tutees a disservice.

The question for us, as people interested in the collaborative space of the writing center and NOT as much in the kinds of direct instruction taking place in the first year comp classroom, is whether They Say/I Say holds value within writing center one-on-one discussion. I believe that it does.

As part of my research on this topic, I interviewed Graff and Birkenstein to get their take on the application of formula in the particular space of writing center talk about writing. They offered some valuable insights into both how They Say/I Say can help in writing center tutorials as well as about the importance of using our unique position in the academy to challenge institutional problems with writing instruction and writing assignments throughout the university.

Before I share how I see They Say/I Say formulas as positive tools that writing center tutors should have in their repertoires, I would like to address the looming question: Does introducing such formulaic argumentation structures into a tutoring relationship reinstate directive modes or product over process pedagogy?

In a word, sorta. The long history of minimalist writing center tutoring has established for several generations of writing center administrators and tutors that sessions should be student-directed and student motivated, and that tutors should remain on as equal footing as possible, avoiding directive or proscriptive feedback. Doesn’t They Say/I Say, with it’s fill-in-the-blank templates, force the student writer into a particular way of saying something that perhaps she doesn’t even want to say? And doesn’t that seem to go against the philosophy of minimalist tutoring?

A few early reviews of They Say/I Say reflect this worry. I took the opportunity to ask Graff and Birkenstein what they thought about this concern.

We point out that since communication and creativity are shot through with formulas (from “hi how are you?” to “I love you” to popular song lyrics to classic sonnets), hostility to using formulas rests on a misleading idea of originality and creativity. We argue that these things consist in using formulas in inventive, innovative ways rather than in simply avoiding them. We also argue that to refuse to provide students with the conventional formulas used in academic writing amounts to withholding from students the very conventions they are penalized at grading time for failing to reproduce.

In a 2008 book review titled “They Say, ‘Templates are The Way to Teach Writing’/ I Say ‘Use with Extreme Caution,'” Phyllis Benay worries that students may just fill in the formulas instead of doing the “harder learning” that “takes place between the formula and the integration of that formula into the learner’s expanded system.”

When I raised this with Graff and Birkenstein, they both said that their own students often do just “fill in the formulas” instead of actually thinking! But Graff and Birkenstein say that students vulgarizing complex academic inquiries through formulas should be less of a concern to us than that those students will be completely shut out of these inquiries altogether. “The templates provide them with a way in that they don’t otherwise have, but they aren’t immune to being misused or trivialized—no pedagogical tool is,” said Graff in an email.

It may be helpful here to use a gardening metaphor. A template offers student writers a compositional structure to discover and then express their argument or idea. It does not demand that they stake out a certain position or that they employ a particular idea. A template is not a seed. A template provides the compositional pot and rhetorical soil in which the writer can plant his or her own ideas with a better likelihood of successful growth.

So, now that I have addressed the discomfort some of us may feel at the thought of introducing templates or formulas to a writing center session, I want to highlight some of the benefits of doing so.

First, offering templates can help a tutee who is stuck in the research phase get at what the texts they’re reading are doing as opposed to just what they are saying. By putting into a short phrase the project another writer undertakes in an essay or article, the student writer is thinking through the other writer’s purpose.

Second, templates can help a writer clarify his or her purpose. This is true at both the largescale and smallscale. Considering what others have written and how your ideas depart from that help a writer think through why she’s saying what she’s saying.

Third, templates help students new to the academy by demystifying what it is that instructors are asking them to do by taking an approach, making an argument, and situating their position among other ideas. Those are relatively high level concerns in writing. Formulas show the bones around which an argument is structured. Even when students don’t immediately understand the complexity of taking a nuanced position, having the fill in the blanks demystifies the way one idea is related to another.

Fourth, the templates in They Say/I Say are adaptable to many kinds of genres, subjects, and levels of writing. They are therefore relatively easy to make into a handout. I asked Graff and Birkenstein which of the templates in their book seems to be the most helpful for student writers, and they replied that the naysayers template—(“while some may say that BLANK, I maintain that BLANK”}—is a great one for helping students’ writing. “In our view,” Graff and Birkenstein say, “no piece of advice can be offered that more easily improves limp or inert writing than asking oneself what others say or might say in opposition to one’s argument and then answering it.”

Finally, the directness of the fill-in models recommended by Graff and Birkenstein enables tutors to offer tutees short sentences or phrases that package rhetorical moves (they say/I say; it is widely thought that ___, but in this paper I will argue that ____; etc.) in surprisingly straightforward ways.

For all of the reasons to use argumentative templates in the writing center, I do want to acknowledge that there are limitations to uses of the text.

The danger of introducing the templates is that the student may lack the theoretical and practical background explanation about of writing as joining a conversation. In the case where there either isn’t enough time or the student does not quickly grasp the concept, the fill-in-the-blank formulas may not help the student. It’s necessary to do more than just hand them a list of possible useful templates. But with a little bit of concise explanation about joining a conversation and considering how others may respond to or disagree with the writer’s position, this risk can be mitigated.

By adding rhetorical and compositional templates like those promoted by Graff and Birkenstein in They Say / I Say, writing center tutors can take a directive and yet still student-centered and generative approach to helping new college writers enter the academic conversation.


Janel Atlas is a writer, editor, mom, traveler, teacher, reader, runner, and lover of chai tea. Her book They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth (Rowman & Littlefield 2010) has been read by many bereaved parents and is recommended by pregnancy and infant loss experts around the world.