Zettelkasten Forum

Book Recommendation: They Say/I Say

Hello everyone. I'm coming out of my cave again to write a long post recommending a book: They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. I think it could be useful to many people here, especially those who are unsure about what they should include in a Zettel. It helped me get a better idea of how to structure a single note in a way that's useful to me (i.e. for academic research in the humanities and social sciences broadly, and philosophy in particular, with the goal of producing academic papers and other nonfiction writing). But I think it could be useful to anyone reading or writing argumentative non-fiction. At best I think it could help combat a somewhat relativistic tendency I've noticed in online ZK/PKM communities.

Generally when a newbie comes along and asks how they should take ZK notes, there are many replies along the lines of: just take notes on what is interesting to you/on the ideas that a book "sparks" in you/on what "resonates." While it's true that you should be researching topics that interest you, I worry that this advice can lead to a sort of impressionistic note-taking that invites misreadings and confirmation bias and that rarely allows us to challenge our preconceptions. I've had this worry for a while, even wondering if the ZK method itself might encourage this impressionistic approach to note-taking. The only alternatives I found initially were along the lines of Adler's advice in How to Read a Book, where you construct a detailed, objective outline of a book's structure with little regard for your own interests. This seemed like overkill, unsustainable drudgery, and hard to port into a ZK. And besides, there are few books I (or anyone, I think) would want to read that comprehensively. But I think I've now found an alternative, or middle ground between interest and accuracy.

Recently, in a seminar, a professor of mine recommended the book They Say/I Say to the class. She told us that it's helpful for academic writing at all levels and that she still references it when she's writing paper abstracts. It's an undergraduate composition textbook (and definitely reads like one). It's main focus is on how to structure academic writing, but I think it also offers a powerful framework for reading and note-taking. I think this framework can serve as an alternative to that more impressionistic note-taking advice while still adhering to the injunction to take notes on what you're interested in. Graff and Birkenstein actually discuss a version of this impressionistic note-taking problem, which they term "the closest cliché syndrome": it's where someone mistakenly attributes a familiar cliché to an author who is in fact presenting a more complex view. They say their approach can help combat this syndrome.

On the surface Graff and Birkenstein's advice seems simple and obvious, but I think it's one of those simple and obvious things that needs to be stated explicitly and often. Here is how they summarize the central point of the book:

"If there is any one point that we hope you will take away from this book, it is the importance not only of expressing your ideas (“I say”) but of presenting those ideas as a response to some other person or group (“they say”). For us, the underlying structure of effective academic writing—and of responsible public discourse—resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind. Broadly speaking, academic writing is argumentative writing, and we believe that to argue well you need to do more than assert your own position. You need to enter a conversation, using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own views. For this reason, one of the main pieces of advice in this book is to write the voices of others into your text."

Again, the idea is simple: a claim or idea in isolation, even if it is true, has little significance unless it is presented as a response to a view that other people hold. Typically this is in the form of disagreement (Some say X, but I say not X), but it can also appear as full agreement (perhaps for as yet unappreciated reasons) or agreement with qualifications. Where this really gets powerful is when you use this template not just for your own writing, but to interpret and take notes on the writing of others. Chapter 14, "What's Motivating This Writer?: Reading for the Conversation" takes up this idea explicitly. Most nonfiction writers are not shouting truths into the void; they're writing in response to what others have said. Reading with the goal of both clearly identifying the author's position and the position that they're responding to gives a concrete and productive structure to reading notes, with the added benefit that it tends to get you invested in the conversation yourself. I highly recommend reading the whole book, or at least Chapter 14. But if you don't want to, here are a few examples of what this note-taking structure can look like in action.

Examples in The Wild

Here's an example that Graff and Birkenstein use from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. They chose this example because of Butler's reputation for being a difficult and obscure writer. Nevertheless, we can extract a they say/I say structure. These are the opening sentences of Gender Trouble:

"Contemporary feminist debates over the meaning of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence."

You can likely already see the "they say/I say" here. Here is Graff and Birkenstein's strict paraphrasing of Butler's position:

"They say that if we cannot define 'woman,' feminism is in big trouble. But I [Judith Butler] say that this type of trouble is precisely what feminism needs."

This paraphrasing is a very rigid implementation of their structure. They offer a less rigid paraphrase as well:

"While many contemporary feminists believe that uncertainty about what it means to be a woman will undermine feminist politics, I, Judith Butler, believe that this uncertainty can actually help strengthen feminist politics."

Obviously this paraphrase is vague, but I think it's productively vague. It presents Butler's position in a basic, meaningful structure that can be expanded on. It immediately occurs to me to ask: Who are the "contemporary feminist critics" who believe we need to clearly identify the essence of womanhood? What are their arguments for this necessity? How will Butler argue that the uncertainty will strengthen feminist politics? These questions can lead to a more focused reading of the book, and answering them could either produce new notes to link to or expansions of the current note. They could also lead to other questions or potential objections to Butler.

Even though it's from a difficult text, this Butler example seems hand-picked by the authors. So I decided to test their structure on some random books of varying difficulties that I pulled from my shelf. It worked surprisingly well.

Here are the opening sentences of a paper called "Sexual Perversion" by Thomas Nagel:

"There is something to be learned about sex from the fact that we possess a concept of sexual perversion. I wish to examine the idea, defending it agains the charge of unintelligibility and trying to say exactly what about human sexuality qualifies it to admit of perversions. Let me begin with some general conditions that the concept must meet if it is to be viable at all."

Sure enough, there is a "they say/I say" structure. I could paraphrase Nagel's general position as follows:

"Many people might think that the notion of sexual perversion is unintelligible or incoherent. However, Nagel claims that human sexuality is something that can be perverted and that this notion of sexual perversion can teach us more about what sex is."

Obviously this is cursory. I haven't read Nagel's entire paper, so I don't know his arguments or his construal of the view he's arguing against. But again I have productive and critical questions that likely will be answered in the course of the paper: Who thinks the concept of sexual perversion is incoherent? Why do they think it's incoherent? How does Nagel combat those views? What exactly can be learned about sex from the concept of sexual perversion? I can even bring in external concerns as well: sexual perversion has historically been used to negatively characterize homosexuality. Would Nagel's concept of sexual perversion include or exclude homosexuality? After reading the paper with those questions in mind, I'd likely be able to come back to my initial note and beef it up and possibly add more connecting notes.

Here's a slightly more difficult example from the essay "Fact and Value" in Hilary Putnam's Reason, Truth and History. I've had to abridge it to isolate the they say/I say structure:

"Understood in a sufficiently wide sense, the topic of fact and value is a topic which is of concern to everyone. [...] If the question of fact and value is a forced choice question for reflective people, one particular answer to that question, the answer that fact and value are totally disjoint realms, that the dichotomy 'statement of fact or value judgment' is an absolute one, has assumed the status of a cultural institution. [...] I'm going to rehabilitate a somewhat discredited move in the debate about fact and value, namely the move that consists in arguing that the distinction is at the very least hopelessly fuzzy because factual statements themselves, and the practices of scientific inquiry upon which we rely to decide what is and what is not a fact, presuppose values."

I've cut out quite a bit (the entire passage is about one and a half pages and goes more in-depth about the cultural pervasiveness of the fact/value distinction). This shows that sometimes the they say/I say structure is not immediately evident in the first few sentences. But it seems easy to paraphrase Putnam here:

"Both philosophers and the general public tend to hold a strict distinction between purely descriptive statements of fact and normative statements of value. Putnam objects to this position on the basis that the distinction is problematically vague. It is vague because both facts and the practice of scientific inquiry that we use to discover those facts already presuppose certain values."

Again this is cursory, but in a way that helps formulate good reading questions. I won't list the ones that occur to me here, but it should be easy to see what sort of questions they would be.

Lastly I wanted to stress-test this by using it on the most difficult work of philosophy I've come across yet: Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. Surprisingly, it was relatively easy to find a they say/I say structure. Here is the opening paragraph of Deleuze's introduction to Difference and Repetition:

"Repetition is not generality. Repetition and generality must be distinguished in several ways. Every formula which implies their confusion is regrettable: for example, when we say that two things are as alike as two drops of water; or when we identify 'there is only a science of the general' with 'there is only a science of that which is repeated.' Repetition and resemblance are different in kind—extremely so."

This opening is fairly jarring and obscure, but the structure is there. Here's my attempt at a paraphrase:

"Deleuze claims that there is a tendency in philosophy to understand repetition as an instance of generality or resemblance; that B is a repetition of A because B resembles A or because B and A fall under the same general category. Against this, Deleuze claims that repetition should not be defined in terms of resemblance or generality, but should be strictly distinguished from them."

Still obscure, but hopefully it's clear enough to generate further questions. Who thinks repetition is generality and why? Why is it important to distinguish the two, and how? How should we understand a repetition if not as two instances of a general category? Etc.

I could keep multiplying examples, but this post is long and I think you get the idea. Though my paraphrases here technically have two "ideas"––a "they say" and an "author says"––I'm taking them to be sufficiently atomic for a single Zettel. Perhaps, to abuse a metaphor, I could say that these atomic notes have both a positive and negative valence: what they assert and what they reject. I guess the "they say" could be split into a different note and linked, and if I do have or take notes expanding on a "they say" I would link them as examples of the opposing view, but I think having the "they say" present in the note gives an important context and significance without limiting the link-ability of the note in any significant way (the "they say," after all, is what the author actually takes him or herself to be responding to, and not just a connection I noticed myself). I also like this approach because it takes away some of the anxiety of having to have a perfect understanding of an idea before making a Zettel about it. So long as you can fit the idea into a they say/X says structure, you have a minimally meaningful note that you can easily expand on later.

I hope this has at least caused you to think a bit more about how you structure your own reading notes. If you've liked what I wrote here I definitely recommend you check out the book. Graff and Birkenstein go into much more detail and discuss many more "templates" or structures than I did here.


  • Ahrens mentions this in his book: search out and question opposing views of the very things you either read from others or contrive of your own volition. Any person who actually wants to learn and discover new things is ostensibly engaged in this process anyway are they not? That's not to say that we all don't suffer from "memory sins" a la Schacter but the point remains.

  • Perhaps a related idea is "The four-sentence paper: a template for considering objections and replies" (2015), by Dennis Earl, the abstract of which is itself a four-sentence paper (he is "practicing what he preaches"):

    "They say that argumentative writing skills are best learned through writing argumentative essays. I say that while this is excellent practice for argumentative writing, an important exercise to practice structuring such essays and build critical thinking skills simultaneously is what I call the four-sentence paper: the exercise has the template They say..., I say..., one might object..., I reply... One might object that the assignment oversimplifies argumentative writing, stifles creativity, promotes an adversarial attitude, or that students can't consider objections well anyway. I reply that a simplified form of argumentative writing is fine for beginners, especially since the template is ubiquitous in philosophy; that any assignment template has room for creativity; that considering objections is consistent with good manners; and that despite some pitfalls of trying to defend a thesis and consider objections, students are capable of considering objections well with proper instruction and practice."

    A much earlier 1979 article in the same journal ("When to begin writing" by Sheldon Richmond, in Teaching Philosophy, a journal that I have found to be a gold mine of knowledge-organization ideas) has related though less formulaic advice:

    "I suggest that beginners write immediately, treating every version as drafts for future improvement. This advice encounters three problems. First, how to write right away; second, how to overcome the defects of writing now—sloppiness, repetition, confusion, and superficiality; and third, how, as teachers, to convey this advice. The solutions for the second and third problems are simply applications of the solution to the first problem, which is to write as if engaged in a dialogue: focus upon a question, state alternative and competing answers, and have a critical discussion of the answers. One can improve upon flaws in one's writing by using the dialogue-framework to assimilate and accommodate comments on drafts, and this is the solution to our problem of overcoming the defects of writing now."

  • Adding to my previous comment: What I like about Sheldon Richmond's advice that is missing from Graff & Birkenstein's "They say, I say" structure (at least as presented by @Taylor; I haven't read the book), and that is missing from Earl's four-sentence elaboration, is the centrality of questions: "focus upon a question, state alternative and competing answers, and have a critical discussion of the answers" said Richmond. Focusing on questions helps avoid what Jeff Conklin, teacher of dialogue mapping, called "the answer reflex" by seeking the questions behind the answers.

    When I add to my note system, I try to keep in mind the dialogue mapping ontology: questions, alternative and competing answers, and arguments that support or attack the answers. (This ontology is also roughly what Richmond recommends.) So if something is an answer, what question does it answer? What are alternative and competing answers? (Donald T. Campbell called these plausible rival hypotheses.) What are arguments for and against the answers? How could the question, answers, and arguments all be questioned? Any note, and anything in a note, can be considered part of a dialogue map; the ontology suggests how the dialogue map could expand. Building the note system is expanding the dialogue map.

    So the minimum ontology that I keep in mind is always: questions, alternative and competing answers, arguments that support or attack the answers, leading to further questions about the questions or answers or arguments, leading to further alternative and competing answers, etc. etc.

  • @Taylor, thank you for posting this review. It's interesting where parts of the zettelkasten method find synergies. The They Say/I Say of the title encourages a dialog, an important consideration in zettel writing. This is something worth striving for. Create zettel that isn't just "they say" nor just, "I say" but strive for a realistic balance rather that balance is 50-50% or 27-73%.

    I have the audiobook version. I'll have to put my zettelkasting headphones on, and that a hike. At least I'll have to listen to Chapter 14.

    There was a thread a while ago where we recommended papers to each other. I got some great ideas/zettel from those. Maybe we should start something like this again?

    @Andy, this article has piqued my interest. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, and my university doesn't have a login. How are you gaining access?

    @Andy said:
    A much earlier 1979 article in the same journal ("When to begin writing" by Sheldon Richmond, in Teaching Philosophy, a journal that I have found to be a gold mine of knowledge-organization ideas) has related though less formulaic advice:

    Will Simpson
    My zettelkasten is for my ideas, not the ideas of others. I will try to remember this. I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon, I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • @Will said:

    @Andy, this article has piqued my interest. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, and my university doesn't have a login. How are you gaining access?

    I once browsed through all the bound back issues of Teaching Philosophy at my university library. I took lots of notes, but I don't have copies of the articles, unfortunately.

    One more comment about the importance of questions that I mentioned above: @Taylor mentioned that he had been studying Deleuze, which reminds me that Deleuze stated the importance of questions very well in his 1977 Dialogues with Claire Parnet:

    "Most of the time, when someone asks me a question, even one which relates to me, I see that, strictly, I don't have anything to say. Questions are invented, like anything else. If you aren't allowed to invent your questions, with elements from all over the place, from never mind where, if people 'pose' them to you, you haven't much to say. The art of constructing a problem is very important: you invent a problem, a problem-position, before finding a solution."

    As important as it is to consider alternative and competing answers ("They say, I say") to questions, it can be even more important to step back and ask about the questions themselves: "Why is this question important?" A question is not necessarily important merely because some famous Professor Bigwig asked and answered it. People could spend their entire lives using the "They say, I say" structure to take notes on what famous professors said to each other, but why does it matter? Deleuze nailed this one: We have to be allowed to ignore as irrelevant (with good reason, if challenged) a question and all the various answers to it: not "They say, I say..." but "I have nothing to say about that—but here is a more important question..."

    One of the many virtues of dialogue mapping is that it makes the questioning of questions, or else the sidestepping of questions, explicit.

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