Below are the materials for an in-class writing exercise students in my 100 and 300 level composition classes complete as one of their first steps in the major research essay, which I call He Said, She Said, I Say: A Researched Argument. I distribute and discuss these directions a week in advance and project them on the board while the students write. The students complete this exercise after we’ve reviewed the research essay directions and they’ve selected a research question. I distribute the directions for the writing exercise a week in advance.

Pre-Class Preparation

For the Project 3 researched argument essay students start by writing in response to a question that’s been posed on a New York Times series called “Room For Debate.” In the series the editors pose a question and a variety of outside writers respond in a varied forum of short articles. Before coming to class students are assigned to read and take notes on the articles in response to the “Room for Debate” question they have chosen. We start class with a short note-taking activity that helps students to create a visual representation of many perspectives in response to the research question they are investigating. In the writing exercise, students imagine that they could literally participate in a conversation with the authors of their sources. They select three of the authors who wrote in their “Room for Debate” forum. Then students write a dialogue portraying themselves in conversation with these authors discussing the debate question.

The Scenario

The New York Times editors know that you are writing an essay in response to one of their “Room for Debate” questions, and that you’ve just begun the process of researching this topic. In order to help you understand the many sides of the debate, they thought it would be helpful for you to go to lunch with some of the experts who weighed in on your “Room for Debate” question. They’ve reserved a table and are footing the bill, as long as you spend the time discussing the debate.

Your Task

Imagine that you really could sit down and chat with these writers. How might the conversation go? For this writing exercise, you will write a dialogue that portrays this conversation. A dialogue is a genre of writing defined as, “a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.” Remember these experts feel strongly about this issue, and will try to persuade you to agree with them. They might even disagree or agree with each other. You should respond to them with your questions or opinions as well.

In this dialogue, you should:

  • Choose at least three of the writers published on your “Room for Debate” Page to include in your lunch-time conversation.
  • Portray yourself in conversation with them—asking questions, responding to arguments, and expressing your own opinions.
  • Clearly frame the debate or question you are discussing.
  • Make sure that in your dialogue it’s clearly established what each person’s position is, and why.
  • Base what each person says in the dialogue on what you learned in the articles each wrote. That means that you won’t simply make up, out of the blue, how these people would discuss the issue. You’ll use their writing in the “Room for Debate” series as evidence for portraying these people in conversation with each other.
  • Use a mix of direct quotations, summaries, and paraphrases to construct the conversation. Make sure to frame the quotations, just as you would in any other type of writing. So you or one writer may quote another person’s writing back to them. Or a person might quote themselves.
    • For example, if John Smith wanted to quote an intelligent thing he had written, he might say, “As I mentioned in my article for the New York Times,‘Ice cream is the best dessert.’ By that I mean…”
  • Unlike other writing tasks, you don’t need to include a works cited page or in-text citations. You should use clear signal phrases.

How to Prepare

I expect the work you complete in class to reflect 45 minutes of writing, so you should be ready to write as soon as you sit down in class. To prepare, you should:

  • Read all of the articles on the your “Room for Debate” question. Decide before class which of the authors you want to attend this hypothetical lunch.
  • Bring as many notes, on your computer or on paper, as you find useful. You are encouraged to consult your notes during class.
  • You can also reference the articles in your “Room for Debate” forum while writing.

Why are we doing this? What are the learning goals?

We’re using class time to do this to achieve a few things.

  • First, it pushes you to gain an understanding of the debate you’re about to enter. You might end up writing about some of the arguments that will make it into your final paper.
  • Second, this also serves as “pre-research,” meaning the reading, thinking, and writing you do will help you to gain a basic understanding of an issue that will help you to identify what you understand and what you need to research.
  • Lastly, this is an exercise that encourages you to think about the paper you’ll write as part of a larger conversation with many voices. This is the idea that the authors of our textbook, They Say, I Say, often discuss. Successful writers don’t exist in a vacuum, where they write as though they are the first and only person to discuss an issue. You’ll work towards inserting these “voices” into your formal paper, along with your own voice and perspective.

How to Format your dialogue: Place the speaker’s name (choose last or first, but be consistent) in all capital letters on the left, followed by a colon, and whatever the speaker is saying.

For example:

HARMS: Thank you for joining me for lunch today. I appreciate that you made time to discuss the university’s future in MOOCs with me.

MITCHELL:  Of course, it’s no problem at all. I love the opportunity to talk about this issue.

Setting the scene:If you want to give information about the scene, like how a speaker says something or what a speaker does while speaking, you can include it in italics within parenthesis.

For example:

HARMS: (Pushing the check towards MITCHELL) I can’t say I’m convinced, but you brought up some good points in defense of MOOCs.

Another way to describe the scene: You can also include a brief description of the overall scene at the beginning of the scene. You are not required to do this, but it may help you envision the setting, or have fun with the writing process. In a conventional play, after the title of the play there is a description of the set in italics.

For example: In the Oval Room restaurant, HARMS sits at a window table looking out at the White House as MITCHELL approaches

Warm Up (10-15 Minutes): Visualizing the Conversation

Before writing, I usually lead students in a warm up exercise to help them prepare for the debate and envision the spectrum of perspectives in the debate they are entering. Below are the directions for that warm up. 

Step 1 (1 minute): Everyone needs a blank piece of paper for some note-taking we are going to do. I suggest you turn it sideways in landscape, but you choose how you want to set it up. As we do this, your goal should be to not only prepare for the dialogue writing exercise, but also to gain a sense of the broad spectrum of perspectives and arguments that exist in response to your research question. Remember that eventually in your Project 3 Essay, you will formulate and support an argument of your own, so for now begin to observe and engage with the arguments others have made.

Step 2: Write your research question as stated by the New York Times at the top of your paper. If you plan to change the framing at all for your research essay, add below that question your modified version. You may need to consult your research question proposal or the “Room for Debate” forum page.

Step 3: Draw a line across your paper, and label it with the three types of arguments that our textbook authors identify as common responses in effective academic persuasive writing.


​Yes, and…                                                 Okay but                                       No, because

(Agree with a difference)                                                                 (Disagree, but explain why)

(Simultaneously agree and disagree, while making an argument)

Step 4 (5-8 minutes): Place an X on the spectrum where you determine the arguments of each of the authors in your “Room for Debate” forum would fall. Label each X with the author’s name, and beneath the label distill their argument down to a brief nutshell summary. This can be a fragment sentence of just a few words.

Step 5 (3-4 minutes):  Look at the positions plotted along the line. You should have created a visual shorthand representing the broad intellectual conversation you are entering. Are there any valid perspectives or positions that were not represented in the Room for Debate forum, but you think are valid? If so, add those to the spectrum, and briefly describe the position in a few notes underneath.

Step 6 (2 minutes): Look at the broad range of positions. Circle those that you find yourself drawn to or compelled by. Leave a note about why you find this response compelling. Then, circle those you find weak of less than compelling. Leave yourself a note about why you find the response weak or lacking.

Step 7: ​Lastly, identify which respondents you plan to portray in conversation with each other in the dialogue activity. Choose at least 3. Make sure you understand their argument well enough to portray their perspectives and potential responses to the arguments of others.

Debrief: We are going to spend the rest of the class doing the in-class writing exercise for today. You can consult the notes you just took during the debate, and hopefully as you write your Project 3 essay.


I keep coming back to this activity because I am always surprised by the originality of thought and positive feedback I see from students. I find that it is a very productive use of time and achieves many things.

  • First, it pushes students to truly commit to their research question and minimizes the amount of students who come to me hoping to change their question mid-process.
  • Secondly, in preparing for this activity students complete the kind of basic “pre-research” that helps to gain a basic understanding of the debate they’re entering and to begin to recognize how to move forward with their own research.
  • Thirdly, it helps students to envision their research and writing as part of a broader conversation that is occurring in their discipline and that they can contribute to with their own unique perspective.
  • Lastly I find that the dialogue genre allows students to write in their own voice, and they often use this as an “experimental ground” for trying out ideas or arguments that end up in the final research essays.

Overall, this activity is an interesting  intellectual challenge for students that asks them to bring multiple sources into conversation with one another, and to insert their own voices as well. Afterwards students feel more oriented in their research, and have worked to see themselves as participants in an ongoing conversation that exists in a context broader than their specific question or this class.


2 thoughts on “In-Class Writing Exercise Directions: Entering the Conversation

  1. I really enjoyed your story “Fragile Bodies” and your ideas when using the Times “Room for Debate.” I teach high school AP Language and Comp. and I was wondering how you get your students to not ‘copy’ ideas from the ‘comment’ section.

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