Monday, February 02, 2009

The Point

To give writing the most important thing of all—namely, a point—a writer needs to indicate clearly not only his or her thesis, but also what larger conversation that thesis is responding to. (Graff and Birkenstein, p. 18)

I have mentioned Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's They Say/I Say before. Their basic argument is that academic writing is part of a conversation and that you are therefore always writing in response to others. Here is one especially good piece of advice that follows from this general view:

As soon as possible you [should] state your own position and the one it's responding to together, and you [should] think of the two as a unit. (19, emphasis modified)

The "as soon as possible" is directed both at your research and your writing. If you are going to spend a lot of time doing an ethnographic study of a particular organization, for example, or if you are going to send out survey questionaires to a hundred companies in a particular industry, then make sure that the questions you are putting yourself in a position to answer are also of interest to others. Think of the research you are doing and the research that others are doing "as a unit". What you have just done is situated yourself in an academic discipline.

Graff and Birkenstein offer a selection of "templates" for how to unify your response with what others are saying. The simplest way forward is to write a good clear sentence that states your thesis and then another one that states what others are saying on the same topic. You then look at those two sentences very closely. Make sure that there is an interesting tension between them. That tension is actually the unity you are trying to present clearly. Your main thesis may be the substance of what you are saying, but your point is the unity of what you are saying with what has already been said.


jw said...

Ohhh, this is good. I've actually taught the Graff and Birkenstein text before, and I'd somehow lost that idea both in my teaching and in my writing. Thanks for the reminder.

I'll be drawing this into my teaching this week (and into my writing immediately).

Thomas Basbøll said...

Any time. Happy writing.