How (not!) to write a literature review…

My brain (my actual brain, yes!). Different parts activate during different tasks. This one was whilst working at a computer and ask you can see, there is a lot of electrical activity impulses going on.

So today, I am working on my RD4 form again and I am struggling a little. I have managed to get most of the practicalities sorted and even noted down some things that I think could be better. But the main issue is still to be tackled… LITERATURE! Now my brain is working overtime to try and get this literature right and it is true. I need to think about what I am doing and as my brain scan explains, parts of my brain need to work harder than others. In the picture of my brain you can see there are different colours – don’t ask me what these mean. But it will be different for everyone. We all think differently, do different things and work through tasks in different ways so no wonder my brain is working overtime trying to get this done. So doing something like a literature review will be a breeze for some but for other (like me) it’s not such an easy task…

Now there is a reason, or a few, that I have not yet written this section. Firstly, I am still researching and still finding new things, I did not want to begin my literature section on my form before I knew what I was going to be doing and where my research might go. I have found out some meanings of what workplace learning is, what it consists of and even sat with my supervisors and planned out the research questions we are going to address. Brilliant. But in reality, I have not found this easy and do not think I will. You see, I have not (ever) had anyone comment on my academic writing before, no bachelors supervisor nor my master’s degree supervisors, no-one whilst in education. It’s not until I started the whole process of a research degree that I have had my supervisors sit down with me and actually feedback what I have written. Now at first, I did not like this process. As I have said in previous posts I felt as though it was a dig at my writing and criticisms all round. But I now know that I am wrong. I need that someone (in my case my director of studies) to sit down with me and tell me where I am going wrong and give suggestions on how I fix this. She is right. My supervisor has given workshops and lectures on how to approach a literature review and even some of the problems that people encounter in literature reviewing. I believe I have had the lot.

Firstly, I don’t think I scoped my searching too well, and I am now finding more relevant and recent research that I should have found at the start. However, I do not feel like I have wasted my time on this. I am never going to find all of the literature in every topic relevant to mine – that is just impossible. What I need to ensure is that I am finding articles that are relevant and articles that are up to date so that I can get to the point where I can critique them and say how they relate to mine. That was my first stumbling block and what is where I begin.

Secondly, I can’t write academically!!! Well, okay, I’m not going to say I can’t (never say never and all that jazz), but it’s a struggle. I struggle with how to word things because I write as I speak, I struggle to think of academic words and I struggle to get things to make sense. And it turns out, I am not the only one. When searching on my twitter feed, there are lots of research students who struggle with this. But for me, it’s important. It is important because I need it not only for my upcoming RD4 review, but I will need this skills to ensure that I can pass my RD5 review that determines if I actually can study towards a PhD or not.

So I need help. I need help to get all of the sentencing, structures and writing just as it should be. The first thing that has helped, is getting that feedback form my supervisor. She has advised me to do a few little things here and there… and a few big things here and there to help me along the way. Here are some of her suggestions to me:

  • Do an introduction – introduce topic and what the document will be discussing. I often do not do this and my supervisor said it’s hard to know what to expect. It also difficult when not knowing what search terms have been used as the literature could be absolutely anything!
  • My navigation is absolutely shot. I need to tell the reader what is going to come in each section and explain the line of argument so that it looks like I have structured it perfectly even when I have not.
  • I also have issues with my paragraph construction – quite frankly some of them don’t make sense! I need to make a main point (with a reference), explain what is implied and what it suggests, then critique it (possibly with a reference). For me, this is not easy. I am used to being very descriptive so having to say something about a paper, then discuss it like this just does not come easy. But I am working on it and I know that it is something that I want to work on.
  • I also have issues with my vocabulary. Basically, I write as I speak so grammatically some things are not right. Now you would not think that I achieved an A* at GCSE level for English Language and achieved a good grade at A-Level too, but it’s true. So I know I can write, I just need to learn the ways of writing academically before I am able to move on any further with this research.
  • Vocabulary? But what about sentences that the vocabulary is made from? Well, they are too long. I need to keep my sentences short and concise so that the reader knows what I am trying to say. Otherwise it just tends to sound like ‘blah blah blah’ if there are too many things to digest in one go. I need to take out conjunctions and split these into separate sentences to make it more digestible to my reader and also to me.
  • To make sentences make sense, they need good grammar. There was also some feedback on this too. I need to use more plurals to ensure that there is little confusion over who is who and what I am taking about. I need to make sure my tenses are correct and get rid of my ‘what’. If you are unsure what I mean, I basically need to put the subject of a sentence first so that this is the focus of what (haha!!) the reader is looking at. Putting the subject first means that the reader does not need to remember what is being talked about and who is in the picture. They already know.

So that was some of my feedback, and there is a little more concerning some other odds and ends, but these are things like referencing techniques. As these are very subject specific (depending on what subject you study and what type of referencing you use), I cannot really comment for everyone. However, I would advise finding out what type of referencing you need and then figure out how to reference it properly. More importantly, if you are not sure, just ask. I am quite sure that your supervisor (if they are doing their job properly) will appreciate you asking a question like that. For one, you are the one in the learning hot seat and may need the help. Secondly, it will save them ample time correcting your mistakes later on if they know they have told you that before.

So as of now, what can I do? Well, there is quite a lot. Firstly, I noted down all of the feedback form my supervisor and I am keeping this as a working document. Every time I get feedback, this gets added to the list to that I know what I have been told. I can also use this as a reflection tool and keep going back and forth so that I can refer to it next time I write (or in my case, tomorrow).

I can also look online. There are plenty of resources to help me along and plenty of people who have done this before to answer my question. I have found twitter particularly helpful, especially people like @thesiswhisperer, @ThomsonPat, who regularly blog about their experiences. There are also lots of PhD groups like @PhDForum and @PhDStudents who re-tweet questions and encourage others to join the chat.

Failing that, there are academics and institutions that write about writing. I found this slideshow on my supervisor’s LinkedIn page so you might find this helpful too. There are also blog posts like this one where they give advice on writing a good introduction and literature review to hopefully help you along the way.

You can also use you own university if you need help. Asking for further training in writing will not go unnoticed and there are often specialised people who can help with this. For me, there is the Library service and also a research innovation office where I can ask for help anytime, and if they cannot help, they will always point me in the direction of someone who can.

So that is pretty much it. I have learned (so far) that my academic writing needs work, and I know it. But I know that only I can do something about it. If I don’t keep writing and keep getting feedback then only I will suffer in terms of progress as I will not make the developments needed in order to achieve the best results from my literature.

One thought on “How (not!) to write a literature review…

  1. Pingback: The first review… – Lyndsey Jenkins

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