Getting ready to write about “the literature”


You’ve all heard that the doctorate is about making an original contribution To the literature. Well, that’s right, although what that means is not nearly as scary as it sounds.

What you may not be told is that doing a PhD is a lot about information management – finding information, cataloguing it, saving it and retrieving it in order to use it.  And one major slab of information that you need, in order to say how you contribute, is “the literature”. Yes think of “the literature” as a bid wadge of information and it’s not quite so scary.

Now, there’s a lot to say about “the literature” – and you might want to check out some of the things that I’ve written before about literatures work, But here I want to focus on using the literatures. And in particular on the kind of preparation you might do to make yourself ready for using. So a particular kind of information work.

I’m focusing here on preparatory writing.

Preparatory writing happens before you write the first draft of the literature review.  I’m assuming that you already have read a lot and entered relevant aspects into some kind of bibliographic software. You will also have made some notes about key points in each text, probably stored in the same software. And you may already have done some mind-mapping about how the various pieces of literature fit together and how they apply to your project. You’ve been managing information.

So, this here post is just another additional information management strategy that might be useful for you when you are thinking about how to organise the literature-related material you have. In particular I’m focused on how to use literatures to present the case for your research.

Today’s information management strategy is in the form of three questions. Your goal is to write an answer to each question. You should write as concisely as possible.

But you do need to accumulate the relevant texts for each answer before you start writing. It is crucial in this strategy to add in the references to each answer using your citation programme (Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley etc). Or the old time consuming way with cards or lists if you must.

Because you need to accumulate information pre-writing, you may not be able to do this exercise by giving yourself a time limit for each answer. But as you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time on each question, you could use a set of timed writing sprints, Pomodoroes, once you have your information, your references together. Or just write each answer as quickly as you can.

So, what are the three questions? Well, here goes.

  • What studies provide the warrant for your particular project?

In other words, are there any studies which actually say your research is needed? What are they? Why do they say the research is needed?

  • What studies will your research speak to?

Are there studies like yours but which don’t do exactly what yours will do? In other words, is there a gap in a key set of studies around your topic – say which and what is the gap left and why is this important?

Are there other studies which your research might speak back to? What is the ‘problem’ with these studies that yours might address?

  • What studies provide the building blocks for your study?

In other words, what literatures are you using as the basis for defining, boundary-ing, and organizing your key ideas?

Why these particular studies and not others?

There. Not so hard. But look at the benefit.

The answers to these three questions do some important work – first of all, you have now brought together the main texts you are going to write about. They are in one place, not scattered about.

More significantly, the answers to the three questions have positioned you to think about the literatures you have read in relation to your own work.

This ‘personalisation’ equates to the stance that you need in order to write your literature review. Your writing with literatures is all about what is useful to your study and where your work sits in the field. You are not writing a general review of all of the literature.  Your review is always made particular to your study.

This preparatory writing puts you in the right place to write the longer review. It may even form the structure of the literature review, but that’s something to think about once you have this preparation done.