The research story

Outlines – sketching a storyline

So your next assignment is to write an outline of your literature review, at least as you currently imagine it. Trying to write a literature review (or any other complex text) without an outline is like building a house without a plan – it will be very confusing and frustrating, the result might be very easy for someone to knock down.

This course encourages you to think of the literature review less as a presentation of other people’s research, and more about your interpretation of their work, and how it relates to your own research plans. 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. Maybe you are writing about the development of a particular technology, and it seems sensible to take a chronological approach - starting with the first invention of it, and leading up to the current situation and remaining problems. This could be a good way to set the scene for your proposal for further research and development.

On the other hand, maybe that aspect is not the most interesting way to discuss the literature. Maybe some of the problems and solutions described in the literature are much more significant than others, and the points you want to make would be better presented like a story - with challenges overcome by extraordinary research teams. That could be a more effective and engaging way to draw the reader’s attention to your view of what has been significant, and the nature of the design challenges that have been recognized, analysed and overcome by various researchers. It might be regarded as simplistic and uncritical to give the impression that ‘progress’ is inevitable and smooth, some developments were actually accidental, and others leave people with more problems than they solve.

Maybe your topic lends itself to a discussion of cause and effect, and you see yourself as doing detective work – an investigation that carefully pieces 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 organize your presentation depends on the analysis you’ve done so far, and this is where concept mapping can help visualize the shape and logic of the whole story you are putting together. But whatever the discipline, a good review is an engaging and convincing interpretation of others’research that sets the scene for new research.

Blog

The next post on my blog illustrates the shift from concept map to outline in developing thoughts about the literature, and planning a discussion.

Conversation starter

  • How do you imagine the shape of your literature review at this stage?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong