So much more than information.
Now that you’ve done a basic outline for a discussion of key literature on your topic, it’s time to develop a draft, and consider what makes a text effective. Writing a complex text like a literature review is never done in one sitting – it is an iterative process. Depending on the research it supports and frames, it might take years to fully complete, but the earlier the process begins the better. As we have heard, 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. Awareness of the broader context is one of the things that makes any communication effective. Whether it’s a talk or a written text you’re presenting, to do it well you need to know who you’re talking to, and what we’re all doing here.
It’s easy enough to recognize at the macro scale that a literature review is doing much more than simply presenting information, but it’s maybe harder to see what’s going on at the micro level of sentences – what choices are being made in the construction of every paragraph and sentence within a text. But it’s essential to look closely, because it’s the small things that bring larger things into being. Your attitude towards the literature you present has to be encoded into the sentences you write, and the text you produce has to provide a good reading experience for others. So once the outline is done, it’s important to think carefully about how we present information, so that it ‘connects’.
The importance of understanding how language works at the micro level can’t be overstated, when the activity we’re engaging in has no existence except through language. It’s only through language that we develop understanding of other people’s research, ask questions, identify gaps in current knowledge, and justify further research. So we need to talk and think a lot about how language has to be used to make it all happen properly.
On the blog this week I’ve put a post about ‘academic style’ - playing around with it a bit, to illustrate what it is and isn’t. You don’t need to worry about academic style too much when you’re at the planning stage of developing a text, but once you start drafting your review and refining the text, you have to think about it constantly.
- Do you find academic discourse a bit strange?
- How is it that we just know when a text is written for an academic context - what is special about the language choices at paragraph and sentence level?
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