Daily Archives: January 20, 2013

Resources on Academic Writing Part I

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My own original literature review began exactly the same way. It was rambling, overly long, inchoate, disorderly…leaving readers impatient for me to “get to the point!” I had good excuses for that. After all, I had bit off an giant chunk of ideas to chew on: sociological theories of agency, historiography, feminist theory, and women’s history; all of which I intended to bring to bear on a field that by its very nature had given very little thought to any sort of theory at all: journalism history. And oh yes, I forgot, I also had to cover various approaches within communication theory as well.

Needless to say, “cutting to the chase” was a long, drawn-out process struggling with decisions to cut prose with which I had become enamored and that seemed indispensable — to no one else but me.

I went looking for something to help explain to a new client the problems with her literature review and to offer some ideas on how to resolve it, and happily came across this wonderful article, “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review,” by Justus J. Randolph of Walden University. As Randolph writes in his abstract, “Writing a faulty literature review is one of many ways to derail a dissertation.” It is also one of the many ways to cause your editor to tear her hair out!

Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. By Justus Randolph.

This article provides a terrific taxonomy of the different kinds of literature reviews, and approaches to writing them. Little did you know that there are many ways to accomplish this task, with the choice depending on your audience(s) and purpose.

Here is a table of that taxonomy, created by H.M. Cooper in “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” Knowledge in Society (1988) 1: 104-26:

Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Reviews

As you can see, there are many variations of focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization and audience. As noted in the U Illinois-Urbana/Champaign library I took this from:

This chart seems overwhelming! But don’t be afraid. All it is doing is laying out some simple questions you should ask yourself before beginning a Literature Review. For example, the first row, “FOCUS,” is asking what outcomes, methods, theories or practices your literature review is about. Are you tracking the outcomes of previous studies, the methods that have been used over time, or something else?

You don’t need a definitive answer to all these questions, but they will help focus your research.

Questions to consider:

  • Which of these characteristics seem to fit within your field?
  • What would you like your Literature Review/thesis/dissertation to accomplish?
  • Is your aim to influence theory within your field, or have specific application?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does your field necessitate a particular perspective?
  • How does your field typically organize its findings?

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Another very useful article is this one, the first chapter in a book by Eric Hoftsee, Constructing a Good Dissertation:

Writing the Literature Review

As Hoftsee notes:

A literature review serves several purposes in your dissertation. A good literature review shows

  • that you are aware of what is going on in the field, and thus your credentials
  • that there is a theory base for the work you are proposing to do
  • how your work fits in with what has already been done (it provides a detailedcontext for your work)
  • that your work has significance
  • that your work will lead to new knowledge. 

Hoftsee has some very helpful suggestions for how to organize your literature review and select the materials to include. This one is a bit simpler and easier to understand than Randolph’s, but both are useful.

Indeed, I plan to make the both of them required reading for all new dissertation clients! So get busy!

The importance of being stingy with the word “important”…

One way to improve your writing — please banish the word “importance” and all its variations from your vocabulary. Every once in a while the word and its cohorts might have a place, but for the most part it is empty and it says absolutely nothing.

Instead of CLAIMING value for a finding (or whatever else you are saying is important), DEMONSTRATE it.

Example from a client:

  • In addition, all three pedagogical projects are characterized by an articulated personal investment in the process. The importance of an articulated personal investment in the material was characteristic of all three pedagogical projects.

Which I changed to:

  • We all used a variety of approaches to enunciating or deflecting attention away from elements of our identities as a part of the pedagogical project.

This not only eliminated the word “important,” it also eliminated a lot of excess verbiage.

A variation, using one of the “cohorts” of “important”:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, is a major contribution to the field.

Which I changed to:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, revealed new insights into the body as text in the classroom.

Notice how “revealed new insights” makes clear what the contribution is, DEMONSTRATING the contribution, rather than merely CLAIMING it.

Now obviously there are going to be times when the word or similar words are appropriate. Another example from the same author:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

An interchangeable word would have been “significant” or “major.” But there’s another word that I believe serves the purpose better: “salient.” “Salient” means “most noticeable.” It has a more specific connotation than “important.” In this case the word “important” wouldn’t be wrong, but rather not quite as precise as “salient.”

Here is an occasion where the word “important” fits:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very important, particularly for students of color.

Still, another way to say it would be:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very helpful to others, particularly for students of color.

It is the “helpfulness” of the sharing that makes it important.

Another:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

This is one I’ve let slide by. But consider this instead:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged repeatedly throughout the interviews.

or

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as a constant theme throughout the interviews.

These latter two, though only slightly different from the original, still avoid the repetition of the word. Most important (grin), is that it reserves the word important to be used when it truly is important!