Monday, August 17, 2009

Reading and Writing

One of my readers writes to ask me about how to organize the process of writing a literature review:

In a writing literature review, one cannot necessarily read one book and write, read another book/article and write, and so on. Because the literature review needs to be both expansive and inclusive, because it needs to be coherent and to connect all the dots, it would be almost impossible to start writing without having read most of the books on the topic in advance.

But, it seems that I take this step to the extreme by not writing anything at all before finishing all the readings. By the time I finish all the reading, I would have forgotten most of what I have read earlier. And so I would likely be faced with the same situation as before: the blank pages and the list of the books to read.

Could you tell us, then, how we can start writing and reading at the same time and build on each instance of writing for our final product?

I'm grateful for the question, which raises a very a general issue. One of the barriers to writing is the assumption that all the legwork has to get done before you can commit anything to the page. Whether we are talking about a literature review, a theory section, or the presentation of results, authors sometimes imagine that they have to do all the reading, thinking, or observing first.

Sometimes I think people should turn this problem entirely on its head: write the whole literature review before you've done any of the reading. That is, write a literature a review about what you expect to find in the literature before you go and read. Then use your readings to correct your preconceptions, seeing the actual writing of the review as a (somewhat radical) act of editing. The point of this exercise (which you are free to take as merely a thought experiment) is to draw attention to the knowledge that is implicit in already having the list of readings. If you know what you have to read, you already have a great deal to write about.

A literature review is not just a survey of everything that has been published on your topic. It is an argument for the need for your study. A literature review is not so much about what has already been done as it is about what remains to be done. There is a sense in which it does "need to be both expansive and inclusive, coherent, and connect all the dots", but it is much more important that it have a focus. And the work of establishing that focus, of defining your perspective, offers a fitting writing task in the early stages of writing the review.

One thing that should strike us about this reader's question is the assumption that it is somehow more "possible" to go ahead and "read the most of the books on the topic in advance" than to write the review. It assumes that "the list of the books to read" is somehow given. But making the list itself offers a specific research problem, one that can be described in advance of knowing what you find.

Also, the list needs to be prioritized, and your reading needs to be put into a schedule. You only have a finite amount of time to complete your reading, and you need to decide when that part of the work has to be done. So you need a much more specific strategy than "read everything on the subject in advance". Again, since this implies that you have a bunch of reasons for reading and rereading specific texts in a specific order, you also have an argument to present to your reader. Once you know why you are reading, you have plenty of things to write about. Spend your writing time (which should also be scheduled, of course) describing those reasons, working through the problem that guides your reading.

All good readers are really re-readers, said Nabokov. And a literature review is not a summary of all the studies on your subject that have been done so far; it is an argument for the relevance of your study. At the very beginning of your research you probably did some unfocused searches through the literature and got a sense of the contribution you wanted to make. A literature review is a systematic re-reading of the literature that gives you a basis to make the case for your own relevance.

PS: Ezra Zuckerman's radical formulation of the basic idea in this post is worth noting: "Never write a literature review" (PDF here).

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