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This content is taken from the University of Wollongong's online course, Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review. Join the course to learn more.

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, as we will explore further this week, 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.

If you’re a critical reader, you may have lots of questions about this course, such as:

  • how is a literature review an argument?
  • do technical reviews also need to answer and discuss questions?
  • why is there so much emphasis on reading and preparation rather than just writing?

If I were writing a review of educational literature to justify research around this course, I’d want to anticipate and provide answers to a long list of questions like these. You can ask questions about anything - and a critical reader does. They want to know not only what is, but what is not presented, and why. They recognise that whatever we are presented with, there are possible alternatives, and every sentence, paragraph and text represents many decisions.

Most of the time you’re probably reading academic publications just for the information you need, and are not noticing how those texts are put together. But paying attention sometimes to the way texts are organised and worded can help improve your own writing. It’s worth considering 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 – because any sentence ‘could’ be written in various ways, and the choices made are meaningful.

Whatever you want your review to be doing at any given point, readers can only get a sense of your purpose from the countless lexical, grammatical and organisational choices you make in composing the text. We might agree that an argument is a series of logically connected points, substantiated by evidence of some kind - but what’s a ‘point’? It’s just a statement, or claim, that someone can agree or disagree on. It invites discussion. Even when a claim is presented grammatically as a fact (X = Y), there’s always the possibility that it’s not quite true, and a critical reader is immediately thinking: but how do you know? says who? where’s the evidence?

The following sentences are from a review article by Cummings et al (2016). Some are quoted, others modified. As you read them, think about whether each sentence reports or makes an arguable claim, and what kinds of evidence might be used to substantiate the claims:

  • It’s hard to learn how to write effectively from sources.
  • Researchers have long acknowledged that learning how to write effectively from sources is a challenge for most students.
  • Students learning to write for academic purposes find it difficult to integrate source material effectively and appropriately into their writing.
  • Educators have long recognized that students learning to write for academic purposes find it difficult to integrate source material effectively and appropriately into their writing.
  • There is increasing evidence that writing effectively from sources is an ability that students need in order to engage in academic studies.
  • You will not be able to engage in academic studies unless you can write effectively from sources.
  • We decided it was time to synthesize the available research, and establish what it reveals about how students develop ability to write from sources.
  • We limited our focus to studies of learning, development, and instruction in educational settings.

Is one way of wording better than another? That depends entirely on the purpose being served in the particular context. 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. Professional writers do this well - student writers are still learning to think consciously about the potential, and different, purposes of each paragraph and sentence within the text they are writing.

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.

Conversation starter

  • Do you have any questions about the design of this course?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to think about texts, paragraphs and sentences in terms of their function within a wider discourse, or unfolding text?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong