Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Why is Writing a Literature Review Such Hard Work? Part One

Yes, a literature review means reading a lot. Yes, a literature review means sorting out how to bring the texts all together, summarising and synthesising them. And yes, there are lots of ways to do this.
But this post is not about any of these important and essential literature processes. No, this post is about the knowledge work that underpins the processes, knowledge work that makes your literature review successful, or not.
The literature “review”, as it is called, is not simply about reading and sorting and then writing. It’s not really a “review” per se. It’s critical evaluation, categorisation, and synthesis. And using writing to help. And then constructing the text. Authoring. This is all about thinking – and writing. And thinking and writing are not two distinct things.
In literatures work, writing and thinking are inseparable. Just as it’s hard to separate out the colours in a marble cake, it’s the same with thinking-writing about literatures. Thinking and writing are melded.
When you work with literatures and write your “review”, you are doing very difficult conceptual and authoring work – you are extending and consolidating at least six domains of knowledge. Yes, six. They are:
  • Substantive knowledge from your discipline, or disciplines. This is sometimes called subject or content knowledge and it refers to the actual topic of your research – history, physics, psychology, geography and so on. When you read, you are building on what you already know about your subject, reflecting critically on it, adding to it, and perhaps reframing the ways in which you think about it. Knowledge about your discipline also means learning its language, the very specific terminology that is used to shorthand concepts. Knowing your discipline may also require you to learn particular ways to write – see (3).
  • Knowledge about your readers – supervisors and examiners – and the scholarly community that they belong to. Disciplines have particular ways of explaining what they do, have been, and are, to themselves and others. There are key texts, writers and moments which are generally taken as important. Your readers are familiar with these texts, people and events, and they expect that you will be too.
  • Knowledge about the kind of text that you are writing – often called genre. You are expected to follow the conventions of writing about, and with literatures to suit the genre you are working in – a paper, report or thesis. The conventions may be shaped in part by your discipline – see (1). But in essence the literatures “review” is where you locate your study in its field. You aren’t writing a long book review or an essay showing everything you know. It’s usually an argument.
  • Knowledge about the kind of rhetoric that you have to use. Rhetorical knowledge is not the same as knowing about grammar, it is a given that your work has to be grammatically correct and your citations accurate. Knowing about rhetoric means understanding the ways in which language is used to construct an argument for your work, through explaining the work of others. There are some traps here, the most common is writing a laundry list. A long listicle of your reading is problematic because lacks the kind of meta-commentary that is needed to guide the reader through your interpretation of the field, and the texts most relevant to your research. You have to know how to write without laundry-listing.
  • Knowledge about the process of writing. Writing process knowledge is built up over time, as you develop your own set of strategies to diagnose issues with your texts, and to revise and edit. You build up a set of strategies that work for you, as well as a set of criteria that you can use to judge the quality of your own work. You come to understand that writing a thesis or paper may also very well involve un-learning some processes that have up till now, worked OK.
  • Knowledge about scholarship and you as a scholar. Writing about and with literatures is part and parcel of forming an identity as a scholar – you make yourself as this or that kind of researcher through who you cite and how you write about them. But you also build your understandings of the ways in which the academy functions, and take up an ethical stance, through writing yourself in relation to the work of others. And you develop a writing “voice”.
So it’s no wonder that writing a literatures “review” is so tricky. There’s a lot going on. You are learning, using what you already know and authoring at the same time. This is complex work which can’t be rushed.
And understanding what’s involved, what you need to know, the six domains you’re working with, can be helpful.
Part Two, on why literatures reviews are hard, looks at locational work. That’s coming next week.
Further assistance:
See more on literatures work on my wakelet collection.
Graf and Birkenstein’s They say, I say, is a very helpful introduction to the rhetoric of writing about other people’s texts.
Image by Simpson Petrol on Unsplash

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