Tag Archives: Literature reviews

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

After a recent discussion of reverse outlines on Twitter, I had a flurry of visits to my reverse outlines post. The Twitter conversation concerned reverse outlining as a way to help with literature reviews, so I thought it might be useful to spell out that connection more explicitly. A reverse outline is a great way to address the most common flaws of lit reviews: poor organization and poor articulation of research goals. These two issues are closely connected, but I am going to discuss them in turn.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe how poor organization bedevils lit reviews; the sheer volume of the material makes organizational difficulties near inevitable. The organizational scheme that you must devise is also a genuinely conceptually complex task. It is not like organizing your sock drawer; organizing your lit review requires a deep understanding of your project and its connection to the existing literature in your field. While a reverse outline won’t magic away difficulties, it will help you to confront the limitations of your early drafts. The beauty of a reverse outline is that it prunes away the distracting details, allowing you to see the underlying structure.

Let’s look at a sample reverse outline in order to get a sense of how this might work. As you likely know, the unit of analysis in a reverse outline is the paragraph. We number each paragraph and then ask ourselves some basic questions: What is the topic? Is there a topic sentence? Does the whole paragraph have thematic unity? For a more detailed explanation of this process, you can go back to the original reverse outlines post.)

Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The research into X
• However, there are also a few sentences on Y.
• No topic sentence found (although this might be okay if the whole paragraph functions as an introduction to a particular topic).

2. The historical background to X
• No topic sentence found.
• The paragraph is purely chronological with no thematic starting point.

3. The work of Singh and Johnson, who also study X
• No topic sentence found.

4. The main study that Singh and Johnson were responding to
• No topic sentence found.

5. The work of Gordonberg, who works on Z
• There is a clear topic sentence on Gordonberg, but no mention of Z or any link to what came before.

When we look at this reverse outline, the absence of detail helps us to see some basic problems. The truth is that many of us could have found those problems in the original if we’d read it. But chances are that we would have missed those problems in our own writing, the familiarity of which tends to lull us into a kind of editorial somnambulance. In my experience, that sleepy acceptance is often accompanied by an underlying uneasiness, but discomfort alone doesn’t break the spell. A reverse outline can be like a bucket of cold water. Often my first reaction to my own reverse outlines is ‘huh?’. Why did I put those things there? Those points are in the wrong order! That is the completely wrong organizational approach to that material! It may not be as bad as all that, but the evident weaknesses of the outline give me a sense that whatever I was trying to accomplish may not yet be working on the page. I can then start to rework at the outline level without being distracted by familiar chains of words or complex details.

Revised Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The importance of X, Y, and Z to my research project
• This paragraph will serve as an introduction to the subsequent discussion of X, Y, and Z, so may not have an obvious topic sentence.
• This paragraph may be short or long—or may even need to be broken into multiple paragraphs—depending on how difficult it is to establish the relevance of this topic to your research.

2. The research into X
• This could be more than one paragraph, of course, depending on the amount of material.
• The first version had a historical background paragraph; if that topic does warrant its own paragraph, think about whether you will be giving similar historical background to Y and Z. Another possibility would be that you need a combined historical background to X, Y, and Z; it is very common to speak about the historical background in a more unified way before dividing the field into its important sub-fields. As a simple example, consider the following sequence of sentences: ‘Serious scholarly attention to [topic] began in …’/‘For the next twenty years, scholars tended to …’/‘By the mid-1980s, however, a serious rupture began to emerge about …’/‘In subsequent years, the scholarly approach was often divided into X, Y, and Z’.
• What about Singh and Johnson? Were they included as an example of the work done on X? Are other thinkers being included? Why are they so important? Is the study that they are responding to important for you or is it just important for them?

3. The research into Y
• Try to follow whatever pattern you have established with your discussion of X; the length can vary, but the reader will expect X, Y, and Z to be treated in a roughly parallel fashion. If that parallel structure proves hard to sustain as you are writing, you may need to revisit your initial structural scheme.

4. The research into Z
• The discussion of Z should follow the broad pattern established in the discussion of X and Y.

As you’ve probably noticed, the modifications in the reworked outline also address the second common flaw in lit reviews, the tendency of authors to obscure their own research goals. Singh and Johnson may be significant researchers in their own right, but the reader can always go directly to them for their research. What the reader needs from you is a clear explanation of the way that the existing research serves as a backdrop or source or inspiration for your own. The reworked outline is stronger because it is better organized but also because it links each paragraph into the broader agenda of the author.

In their valuable book Helping Doctoral Students Write, Kamler and Thomson give a great collection of student metaphors for lit review writing (pp. 32–34). In my thesis writing course, I usually read those metaphors aloud to students and ask which one most closely represents each of their experiences. My favourite is the image of someone trying to put an octopus into a bottle. A reverse outline can be a way to convince your octopus to coordinate all its limbs in service of your research plan.

Putting it in Your Own Words

My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.

Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:

Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?

A: You condense it!

Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!

As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or strong verbs. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.

It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.

To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.

For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly  literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.

Links: English as a Lingua Franca, Commercial Manuscript Editing, Literature Reviews and Social Media

Here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the use of English as a lingua franca outside of English-speaking countries. It discusses many interesting issues–such as the cultural dimensions of communication–before concluding with a highly provocative point about the future of English. Although it is often assumed that being a lingua franca is a sign of linguistic vigour, some scholars suggest the opposite: that the English that is spoken as a global lingua franca may actually be a much reduced language and thus a vulnerable one.

This article from  Nature discusses the role of commercial manuscript editing. The author does an excellent job highlighting the various practical and ethical issues associated with commercial manuscript editing services. In doing so, she also tells us something about the priorities of scientific journal editors. These editors want manuscripts that they can send to reviewers without worrying that flaws in the writing will get in the way of assessment. But, interestingly, the flaws that worry them are not just grammatical; they are just as concerned about a poor mastery of the conventions of research articles. Novice academic writers need to understand what a manuscript must accomplish if it is to be considered for publication. The assessment ‘weak writing’ can be used to describe anything from punctuation difficulties to a poorly articulated methodology to improperly presented data; understanding the importance of all these elements will allow writers to see that the work of improving their writing will have to proceed on many fronts.  

Lastly, here is a blog post from The Thesis Whisperer about the similarity of literature reviews and social media. The specifics are Australian, but the general ideas about literature reviews are broadly applicable. And the social media analogy is clever. You really don’t have to be friends with everybody or every article!