Can you write too much about literatures?


Yes, yes, yes. Too much literatures is a Real Thing.

Of course you have to write with, from and about literatures. You need to situate your work in a specific field, showing what texts you are drawing on and what you will contribute to the field.

In other words, you use literatures as the building blocks for your own research – you don’t have to start from scratch. You use literatures to work out what meaning you will make of specific terms. You use literatures to find the appropriate conceptual framing for your research design and/or to make sense of the data you’ve generated.

So you have to read widely to work out what’s relevant to your work. You don’t know straight away. You scope what literatures are out there. You get a general sense of the history of the field, its key players. And you narrow down your search and reading to find the work that will specifically inform your own study.

It might be helpful to think of doing literatures work as going to the library. First of all, you have to locate the right row(s) of books. After a general recce to see what’s there – and this might mean picking up several books and reading a bit to gauge their usefulness – you home in on the particular shelves that refer specifically to your topic. And you read this set of books pretty thoroughly.

But some of this set of books may be surplus to requirements. But you don’t know that, or which, till you’ve read them. Some might duplicate an argument. Or take a line that you decide, once you’ve read a lot, that you don’t need or don’t agree with.

So you already know what this practice means. You very often read a lot more than you actually use. In fact, every time you start on a new topic, you have to educate yourself about the broad area first in order to pick out what is relevant to your particular study.

But this post is about the writing work that follows.

Writing too much about literatures is almost always because writers have not made enough hard choices. They think that just because they’ve read shelves worth, every single text needs to go in. They need to empty their bibliographic data base onto the page, into a chapter. And so they need to write something about everything.

Nooooooo. Enter the too long literatures chapter or section.

Too long literatures chapters and sections are deadly dull. And they gobble up words that could be more usefully spent on your own work. Writing about literatures is about putting SOME things in, and omitting or removing OTHER things. Your job is not to tell your reader everything there is to know about x or y. You only have to tell your reader about the literatures relevant to your research.

To repeat. Dealing with literatures means you get to make a judicious selection from all of the possible texts. You have to choose what is most relevant. And this means you have to focus on four key actions:

  • You have to leave some things out. Yes, even though you read and noted them, some texts don’t make it into your writing. Which means you need some criteria for choosing. Now, systematic reviews always spell out the criteria and process of choosing. Other forms of review also make choices of literatures to work with but the criteria are often much less explicit. However, regardless of the type of literatures work you’re doing, it’s a pretty good idea to think about and write down why you are including and excluding particular texts.
  • You have to develop some big themes and sub-themes. This means establishing patterns and grouping texts together – perhaps around methodology, results, style of argument, chronology, location and so on. Within each of your identified themes, there will also be sub-themes. It can be helpful to think about theming as building up piles of books. The library is empty so you are able to allocate a table to each theme, and then you can make piles on each table of significant sub-themes.
  • You avoid writing the laundry list. When you write about the themes and sub-themes you’ve identified, you don’t deal with each text in turn. X does this. Y says this. The themes and sub-themes are your narrative top line, and you need to connect them to your work. So here’s a trick. Imagine you are guiding someone else around your library tables. You don’t pick up each individual book in a sub-theme and talk about it. You talk about the table theme first and how it’s relevant to your topic. And then you go through the sub-themes, explaining what this pile of book and then the next contributes to your study. You pick up some of the books and wave them around while you’re talking. It’s only when a book is core to your research that you hold it in your hand, and perhaps open it, summarising what it says and maybe even quoting from it. And you know that some of the books in the piles get left out. You can’t talk about them all. Some books are just background. They don’t need to be lifted out – they are a support act to the texts that you think are more useful.
  • You write more about some texts than others. So for instance, while you can’t ignore the big picture, it may not be so important for your particular project. If so, you can deal with the big picture pretty succinctly, choosing just a few of the most representative texts to indicate your take on the field. Or perhaps there are strands of work around one of the themes that you need to recognise, but they aren’t what you are doing. So you need to write about them, but not as much as you write about the texts that are strongly connected with your own work. You write most about the texts that are most important to your study.

And a final caution. Thesis writers generally have to do more work with literatures than book writers. And journal and chapter writers simply don’t have the words to deal with a load of literatures unless of course that is all they are writing about. Do check the genre you are working in at the same time as you apply the four inclusion/exclusion moves to your writing or to your revising.

The moral of this post – if you find yourself with too many words, go back and check your literatures work. You can generally save words here.

Better though not to be in the too many words camp right from the start.