SWET Toolbox: Academic Writing Book Review

They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Burkenstein. New York: W. W. Norton, February 2014, 352 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-90534-2. (e-book here)

Reviewed by Winifred A. Bird

Several years ago, I happened to pick up this book from a free-box near a college campus in California. The compact volume, which provides dozens of templates for rhetorically impersonating a seasoned scholar, has proven surprisingly useful for me as an academic translator. I suspect it may also be of interest to other beginning and intermediate practitioners of this craft.

Coming from a news-writing background rather than a scholarly one, I find that academic translation is almost like moving between two foreign languages.  Academic writing follows its own conventions, and the failure to observe these can betray one’s outsider status as fatally as a misplaced “a” or “the” in the English language. This is not to say that I share the apparently widespread belief that scholarly writing must be dry—to the contrary, I think it should be as clear and engaging as the best magazine stories (I suggest reading environmental historian Brett Walker as a model of what is possible)—but academic papers nevertheless have a formal rhythm all their own that must be learned.

They Say, I Say offers many shortcuts for doing so. Written by University of Illinois English professors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, the book argues first that accomplished academic writers “rely on a stock of established moves,” and second that “these moves are so common that they can be represented in templates that you can use right away to structure and even generate your own writing.” As translators, we of course are not pulling sentences from thin air, but we still must choose terms, fill in missing subjects, and supply transitions in a manner that seems natural and appropriate to the context. That is where these templates come in handy.

For example, Graff and Birkenstein provide 30 ways to introduce a quote (“X refutes the claim that…” “X himself writes…”), 10 ways to express cause and effect, and a host of strategies for comparing the findings of various studies. None of the templates is especially novel, and some come off as simplistic. Still, having them in one place is useful when, for instance, the source text has used 例えば for the tenth time and a bit of variation is urgently needed. For a Japanese-to-English translator, some of the most interesting sections of the book are those that discuss how to handle standard views, implied or assumed points, and ongoing debates. These strategies can help us transform the maddeningly vague references that some Japanese scholars favor into passable English rhetoric.

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