Writing course: The Literatures



So next to The Literatures. Literatures, a broad term covering anything from the scholarly works to popular texts, social and print media and policy texts. But always including the scholarly materials relevant to the research being reported in the paper.

Who was in the workshop? Everyone!!Everyone came back, except for one person who had a sick child and thus a good excuse, but someone who was sick yesterday joined us from a distance learning centre in the middle of the country.

What happened? The workshop began with a general discussion about The Literatures section. It went like this…

It’s important when writing a journal article to resist the temptation to cut and past something from your research proposal. (Or a finished thesis, but that doesn’t apply to the people in the writing course, as their PhDs are largely by publication). It seems so easy and simple just to lift something from the writing you’ve already done… But this could get you into trouble. That’s because the work that The Literatures do in a journal article is not the same as the work they must do in a research proposal.

In a research proposal the literatures help to establish the need for the research to be conducted. They support and situate the warrant for the study. However, in a journal article the literatures must not only work for research that has actually been done, but also for the specific research that is the focus of the paper. The paper mightn’t be reporting on all of the research – it’s very common for a paper to focus only on a slice of a bigger research project. If this is the case, then the literatures used in the paper are only those that relate to that particular research slice.

In an empirical journal article The Literatures are:

• Always used to show what is already known about your topic and thus to indicate the space/debate/gap/opportunity that you will occupy
• Generally used to indicate what key ideas from the literatures you will be building on
• Possibly used to define terms or key concepts
• Maybe used to outline your theoretical toolkit

Now, a caveat. In a theoretical paper, the literatures are used throughout, as they are in a think piece or a literatures based paper. And methodological papers may include some empirical material and so they may or may not have a specific literatures section.

While it’s good to know what work The Literature is to do, it’s equally good to know how you can get it wrong. The biggest mistakes that people make in The Literatures section in a journal article are:

• Writing out a laundry list which fails to indicate what are the texts most germane to the work, why, and how they are to be used
• Writing that is very descriptive rather than evaluative
• Writing a section that is too long and too detailed (this will probably be read as a cut and paste from a proposal or thesis even if it’s not)
• Leaving out key texts in the field.

(I have quite a line of patter about each of these which I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine!)

We then went on to consider three metaphors for approaching the literatures.

(1) Howard Becker’s notionof literature work as making a table.
You don’t have to make the table from scratch. You don’t start by cutting down the tree. Some things can be brought ready made so you can use them and not have to start from scratch.
Becker’s table metaphor points to the importance of including in The Literatures section the things you are taking from other people’s work – these become the building blocks for your contribution.

(2) Pierre Bayard’s notion of the collective and inner library.
Bayard argues that you have to understand where books are located in the library and in relation to each other. Some of these books are more important to you than others – the inner, as opposed to the collective larger library.
Bayard’s metaphor allows us to see that you have to situate your work in the field generally, but also work specifically with those texts that are most germane to your topic – your work will use the contents of these texts, sit next to them, speak back to them, question them, confirm them…

(3) Barbara and my metaphor of the dinner table, where we suggest that the literatures in the journal article can be thought of as a select dinner party with the guest list composed of people who can’t be left out, and those who are going to be most interesting to talk to. As dinner party host you also control the conversation and of course, you don’t assassinate or poison the guests but conduct any disagreements in a civil manner.
Our metaphor points to the need to be highly selective in the journal article literatures work, for the discussion of the literatures be designed to be highly focused and led by the writer. We also point out the importance of having an appreciative stance to other people’s work.

The workshop participants then looked at the Literatures sections of four published journal articles. We also examined what references were included in the Introduction and what was in The Literatures and the differences between the two. This was helpful as we could see quite a variety in approach even in the small selection we had. But the situating work was being done in each one, even if the papers and sections were structured in different ways.

The participants then had two thirty minute periods to write The Literatures section. They began by making a bit of an outline to get the order of contents right, and then had to write to each part.

Some people discovered that they actually didn’t know all of the texts that they were going to need – so they put in some holding markers that they could come back to when they had chased up what was missing. While these gaps were frustrating it was also helpful to see them because participants then had a clear idea of what they needed to read before the second draft. And two people found that they needed to go back and revisit their Introductions, to move things from one section to another. (This was good!! Writing a first draft is often like this, it involves some rethinking along the way.)

I offered some individual time to people to discuss their particular papers and that is already being helpful, I think, particularly for those people who need to clarify exactly what their specific contribution is going to be.

Next we look at Methods and everyone not only has to finish off The Literature section and post it to me on the intranet, but also to think about the following questions:

• What is your researcher ‘stance’? What tradition of research are you positioned within?
• What is your methodology?
• What methods did you use?
• What ethical issues did you encounter?
• Where did you do your research with whom, how many, how often… ?
• How was your data analysed?

Write on eh…