Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Reading for Yourself

Let's take an easy case: writing a literature review. (We'll ignore for a moment the fact that you should never write a literature review.) During this process there will, needless to say, be a lot of reading. And there will also be a substantial amount of writing; in some cases a whole paper or chapter's worth of prose is required. This morning I want to push back against the image of a process that begins with ignorance of what the literature says, and produces, over a number of days, a written review of that literature. This image falsely suggests that "the literature" is a simple, physical object that one just has to look at and describe, like taking an inventory. That it is just a matter of honestly writing down "what has been written".

Your first task is to learn something about the literature yourself. You are not just reading the literature on behalf of your reader; you are reading it to inform yourself about what it says. Ultimately to inform yourself about the world you are studying. While reading the literature, you are taking notes to keep track of what you are learning about each book or article in the tradition you are reviewing. These notes are part of your records and are not intended to communicate anything to your peers. It is important not to set this task up as something you are doing because your reader (or editor or supervisor) has demanded it of you. You have read the literature for the same reason that you are doing, have done, or will do your original study: out of curiosity about something in the world.

It is only once you have satisfied your own curiosity that you are in a position to tell your reader about it. At this point you are not simply reporting on your reading; you are communicating your understanding of the subject matter, based on your careful review of everything that has been written been about it, to the reader. Indeed, you are presenting your view of that literature to a reader that is presumably familiar with it, at least at some level. Preparing for the writing of the review, then, is much more about making decisions than making discoveries. You can't plan the discoveries, even though you plan your reading (you can make list of texts to read). And that's why you can't really "prepare" your writing for the next day the day before. The basis of your writing forms at an entirely different pace. From day to day you merely write on that basis.

This of course also goes for writing up your field study or the results of your interviews or your data analysis. In all cases, you need to divide your process into two moments: one in which you discover the truth and another in which you decide what to say. The truth you communicate should have some lasting value (keep in mind that it will be probably not be published within a year of writing it down), so it should not be a very recent discovery. It should be something you've got your mind pretty well around already. It is perfectly normal, of course, to discover, in the act of writing, that you didn't really know what you thought you knew. But to make that discovery you have decide what you're going to try to say first.

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