#FLlitrevew, aka Research writing: how to do a literature review, led by Emily Purser, Lecturer in Academic Language and Learning, University of Wollongong (@UOWFutureLearn). Four weeks from 26 Feb (part 1).
Week 3: what drives a literature review?
So far we’ve been thinking about the literature as information. This week we’re going to shift gears and think about what you’re doing with that information.
Report or argument? Consider:
- the overall balance as a review develops, and how much description or argument there needs to be at various points within the presentation of others’ research
- the main rhetorical purpose of your writing, whether it tends to be mainly descriptive or critical, and what‘critical’ means in an academic context
- the role of questions in designing a text and developing an argument
Questioning the literature
The dominant function of a literature review is to report what others have done, answering specific questions (what, how, why?), explaining something and offering recommendations on how a problem might best be managed. They also argue – they make a case for doing further research.
An argument typically presents a series of points, organised into a logical order, and addresses questions that are very open to interpretation (is, does, should?). It leads the reader from a proposition to a conclusion, by substantiating claims with some kind of explanation and believable evidence. A review should be designed to clarify the motivation and the need for the further research you’re proposing to do, and to critically discuss the literature rather than just describe what others have done.
Questions help turn a bibliography into a literature review. Drafting a list of good questions will help you identify what you really want to know and discuss, select the most relevant sources, and design your review as an interesting discussion. However interesting a paper might be to read, you need to put it aside if it doesn’t provide information on the specific questions you want to discuss.
Listing a few questions also sparks desire to know more. Formulating questions of various kinds is a great way to start imagining the structure of your review, so start formulating a list of questions for your own review to answer. Your list of questions should include some that are quite easy to answer with available published information and others that are more open to interpretation and require discussion of various sources.
The relationship between questions and claims: how do you know when a sentence is making an arguable claim?
Questions behind statements, ie questions that motivate statements you might find at the beginning of a paragraph or section of a longer text:
- answers to a simple definition question (what is / what are…?)
- answers to a question beginning with where….
- more beginning words: how | who | when | why | should | because
Questions and purpose: questioning to drive research and interesting discussion
Listing broad and specific questions helps you develop direction and purpose in your discussion of literature and the research you are envisaging. It prepares for drafting your review, in that paragraphs can be organised around them.
Paragraphs in academic writing generally start by making a point, then explaining and illustrating it with reference to specific sources of information – the initial point or claim (the topic sentence) can be a response to a specific question that you have planned your discussion around.
Paying attention to the way texts are organised and worded can help improve your own writing. Consider how reporting differs from arguing; how a sentence might reproduce someone else’s words only, or use their ideas to say something new; how statements relate to questions; what types of questions a review is addressing – any sentence ‘could’ be written in various ways, and the choices made are meaningful. The writer’s job is to carefully consider what their aim is (overall, and at each particular stage in their unfolding text), and to word sentences to serve those rhetorical purposes.
What happens when you focus only on information, and do not consider how it could be used to say something new? Having no particular purpose in mind when you bring a bit of information into your writing might make the writing very dull (to write, and for others to read), and can easily lead to plagiarism. To avoid that, you need to not just use, or re-produce information found in publications, you need to re-purpose it. So you need to know your purpose, before you begin incorporating others’ writing into your own. You should only begin drafting your literature review after you have thought hard about its overall design, and the function of each step within it.
Think about how you might use the literature you have gathered to answer or discuss specific questions (example), then match specific readings to specific questions. This helps you see whether or not the papers you have in your bibliography are really the ones you need to be discussing.
Concepts and outlines
Articulating points and the point of planning before drafting.
A concept map helps you see not only how questions relate to sources, but also how one question relates to others, which questions should be addressed first, how one leads to another, and how your presentation might best be organised (example).
Many writers find a concept map a powerful strategy for designing a discussion of academic literature. It seems especially useful in foregrounding the argument, and positioning the literature as support material – helping many students to make their own voice loud and clear as they discuss other people’s research.
When a concept map is organised around questions, supported by references to and quotes from various sources, it then becomes easy to draft paragraphs that start with a claim by the reviewer, and then refer to other voices to explain and illustrate the point.
Start with your list of questions. Once these are on the page (or screen), you can position them in any order you like. Play around with the organisation, until you have a sense of what might work best as an interesting sequence of ideas. Branching off from each question, add the sources of information that you have already matched to that question, and will use as evidence in discussion of the question. It’s easy to draft a paragraph, when you know its purpose and place in the unfolding text.
Paragraphing is a key organisational structure in academic writing. Long or short, a good paragraph has a function. It’s a rhetorical move within a text, taking the reader from one idea to the next, and carrying the thread of an argument. In academic writing in English, a paragraph typically starts with a claim, then explains or illustrates it, and provides supporting evidence of some kind.
One thing that can make student writing seem too ‘descriptive’ is a tendency to begin too many paragraphs with the names of other researchers, rather than a clear point about their work. There needs to be a recurrent signalling through the text that it’s all about the interpretation being made by the reviewer, and the topic is generally indicated by being in first position. This is a large part of what is meant by ‘voice’ in academic writing. It’s basically the sense a reader gets of who is talking – whose voice we are mainly listening to as we read a review.
Elements of a story
The difference between presenting information and telling a story. Set the scene for further research – think about the various challenges of moving from description to telling a story that justifies new research.
What is an academic discussion? Exposition, argument, discussion…? You definitely need to write an outline of your review before you draft it – questioning, concept mapping and outlining aim to shift your mind from annotated bibliography to seeing the shape of a discussion of literature that will be interesting for someone else to read. What is a discussion in the context of academic writing? The difference between arguing and discussing, and what it means for your own reviewing of academic literature.
The research story: the shift from concept map to outline in developing thoughts about the literature, and planning a discussion (example).
Outlines: sketching a storyline: write an outline of your literature review as you currently imagine it. Shifting from timid descriptive reporting towards really engaged, interesting discussion of others’ work has to happen at several levels. This week it’s the big picture we’re focused on – the overall shape and purpose of your review. Designing a sound plan for a text that will interest and satisfy your readers involves asking lots of questions about what you are reading, and anticipating the sorts of questions your readers may have, and mobilizing the literature to help you answer them.
Once you have articulated good questions that your review could provide answers to, you need to think about how to present your topic to your readers. The same ‘information’ can always be presented in many different ways, and you need to think about what might work best for those reading your text for the first time:
- chronological: eg the development of a particular technology, starting with the first invention of it, leading up to the current situation and remaining problems and setting the scene for your proposal for further research and development
- maybe some of the problems and solutions described in the literature are more significant than others, and the points you want to make would be better presented like a story, effectively drawing the reader’s attention to your view of what has been significant; it might be regarded as simplistic and uncritical to give the impression that ‘progress’ is inevitable and smooth
- a discussion of cause and effect: with you doing detective work to piece together the elements of a story about what has happened and what it all means, who is responsible and what can be done to solve a mystery or a problem
How you decide to organise your presentation depends on the analysis you’ve done so far. Concept mapping can help visualise the shape and logic of the story you are putting together. A good review is an engaging and convincing interpretation of others’research that sets the scene for new research.
Week 4: creating a draft
When you’re writing a literature review, part of the point of it is understanding what others have done and figuring out what you think. But also, it’s about communicating with others so they can understand your research topic and how it relates to other people’s research.
Levels of language:
- as we collect material and read it carefully, and write notes to better understand it, we work out what we think, by paraphrasing and comparing what others have written
- through formulating questions and articulating points, the purpose and shape of paragraphs becomes clearer, and with a sense of those big things emerging we can pay attention to the detail of wording and refining a text that someone else will want to read
- the clearer the shape of the whole is before drafting, the easier it is to draft and edit text
From concept mapping to outlining:
- the outline is a very linear structure, that captures the flow of a document, whereas the concept map might be more fluid and uncertain about the flow of information – it was concentrating on the ideas and relevant evidence, rather than how to present an argument to a reader
- see blog post: the key points planned to lead the discussion are made in response to specific questions that were articulated at the concept mapping stage, where the literature was being analysed
Information, ideas, communication:
- effective communication: “so much more than information”
- the only way to really know what your research should be focusing on is to know what others have done, and the only way to really understand their work is to write about it, and how it relates to yours
- a literature review isn’t just about the topic, it’s about someone becoming part of a community of scholars, and it’s a particular way of thinking and communicating; the literature review is a key part of how we keep the scientific game going, so when you do one, you’re not just writing a text – you’re joining in a social activity that’s got purpose
- blog post on academic style
- vocabulary and density (blog post):
- technical, academic and everyday; Tom Cobb’s Vocab Profiler quickly categorises vocabulary in a text
- in academic literature there is a much higher proportion of academic and technical words than in normal everyday talk; research suggests we can only read quickly and comfortably when we immediately recognise almost all the words in a text
- once there is more than about 5% new words, reading speed slows down; academic discourse typically has over 10% of words that are not in common usage (sometimes as high as 40%), making it hard to read (and write) when you’re not used to it
- other features: lexical density, the number of topic words in each sentence, due to the aim of saying a lot in a short space, and abstraction
- noun groups: in academic writing information is mainly represented in the form of noun groups
- it is not generally effective to begin a paragraph in academic writing with a question; better: put the topic of the paragraph in first position and make a claim that is elaborated on through the following sentences
- the use of a topic sentence gives the reader a sense of direction and purpose
Negotiating positions and building relationships:
- who is speaking, in what way, and how are they managing other perspectives
- stance and attitude: text as dialogue and literature review as orchestration of voices; blog post
- acknowledgement and critique: the way you refer to the work of other scholars is also your way into the conversation that academic writing represents; do you think of texts as mainly information, or equally expressions of attitude and negotiation between people?
- how a text weaves information and voices together into an effective reading experience
- coherence and the flow of information: key aspects of readability
- preview, review and paragraphing: signalling direction and providing evidence; a concept map and outline are key to this; once that kind of planning has been done, it’s quite easy to fill in the details and create a coherent text; if your outline articulates a sequence of claims, these can become topic sentences of paragraphs
- paragraphs in academic writing generally start with a claim, which is then explained or elaborated in some way, and supported with evidence (references to literature) or example (blog post)
- pre-viewing and re-viewing makes written language easier to process, as it tells the reader in a summarising way what is coming before presenting a lot of new information, and then reminds them after the presentation what they just read; have you noticed how much previewing and reviewing is going on in this course? : D