There’s an easy way to chart your course through it.
There are two things you need any time you are stuck in writing. You need to set the course and steady the course.
If you are stuck while writing a literature review,
then each of these things– set the course and steady the course– have particular ways in which you can do them easily,
and each have their particular threats to doing so.
I think you’ll recognize the threats, so let’s start there, and then get to what you can do to quickly set the course and steady the course for a lit review.
Threat number one: Where do I start, what needs to be there?
When you are at the drafting stage and it’s time for the little song and dance we call the literature review, often you can get stuck because there are a whole bunch of things you could bring up in an infinite variety of orders.
Your knowledge is here in your head more or less simultaneously. How do you get it out in a legible line on the page?
What choice do you have besides just going in historical order? What if that’s not interesting enough for your genre, discipline, or most importantly, for yourself?
And the answer is:
And by story I mean plot.
Even if we go in historical order, that is not a story or a plot. That’s just sequence and it doesn’t communicate enough. A good literature review or review article, you’ll notice, may sometimes proceed in historical order, but it’s also communicating something far more, and that far more is a story.
So think in the elements of story plotting and you’ll know how to proceed.
And boiler plate story plotting works great. Remember you want simple and easy, because you are stuck. If you are not stuck, then just go for it. If you are stuck, find your protagonist, their goal, the conflict they face and the obstacles or even mustachioed villains they face.
Here’s how things move in a boilerplate plot.
Joe Sloppyburger lives his life, wistful about his past rockstar dreams, working in the post office every day, trying to support his family. He hates to slog through life sometimes, hates a particular dog on his route, and wants to get to a point where he can pay the bills and even have some money for his kids to go to college.
Then one day the dog he hates speaks to him as he drops an Amazon envelope into the door slot of it’s house, and offers him a deal. I’ll give you stardom if you give me your soul. And Joe, thinking of his children and how they deserve a stable future, says yes.
But then, as his rock career picks up, he starts having doubts about whether it’s really happening, or he is just imagining it and instead playing a broken guitar in the park with no pants on. Which is real and which isn’t?
He tries this, that, and the other thing to find out. He’s got to figure it out so that he can secure his children’s future…
I know you are dying to know what happens next, but let’s get back to you!
So…the elements of this plot are:
Here’s how it was or is,
Then something comes along and changes everything
If you respond to that in this way, that problem comes up
This problem is a serious conflict
There are ways to try to overcome it
And then new possibilities (or in the case of boiler plate, an ending) are arrived at.
Character– Conflict– Resolution.
So how would this work in a literature review?
The theme, topic, question, issue is your character.
But there are problems for your hero. Problems in the world, in the data, in challenges from other intellectual directions, or a challenge you pose to it.
There have been attempts to answer these challenges.
But they revealed new challenges.
And there were responses to those challenges.
And they revealed new possibilities or, in some genres, but not many, new conclusions.
The number of steps challenges confronting your protagonist can vary, but the basic structure is
Character — Conflict — Resolution.
You are telling a story that moves from an unsatisfactory and unstable status quo to a new realm of possibility.
So ask yourself, what is your protagonist?
It could be more or less your goal, if the literature review is heading toward some argument about the next phase. Or it could be simply “understanding x” and the challenges and attempts along the way, always thwarted somehow.
In an article I recently read, the protagonist was: a mode of anthropological ethnography that is based more in sense experience and less in textual and conceptual knowledge.
That is the hero of the literature review. And it starts in the post office job of an interpretive anthropology that depends primarily on concepts told to ethnographers and unable to process bodily or embodied meanings.
It wants more, but can’t get that, in it’s current situation. But then it meets phenomenology. And certain authors start trying out this new way.
But there are problems with that, and subsequent authors try this. Another group tries that.
But “I” think this is the way, and here’s what we face, what we might gain, and what needs still to be resolved.
There is a hero, there’s a conflict, and this becomes a story that has it’s redemption, even if only partial and temporary at the end.
It’s like characters and challenges, but its ideas, approaches.
Write your blockbuster thriller redemption STORY.
Most of the people having an easy time with literature reviews are just intuitively in touch with a sense of story.
Or even if it once was easy, but now you are stuck, chances are you intuitively knew your story before and right now the only problem now is that you need your sense of plot.
So identify your hero, the conflict, and the resolution or next stage. That will set your course!
How to Steady the Course against Procrastereading
That’s all fine as long as you do it. But will you?
The other major obstacle when we are stuck is that there’s just too many possible literatures, and you might even feel “I don’t know enough.”
Interestingly, whether you know too much or (according to your inner party pooper) not enough, steadying the course is the same.
You need to stay on the course of your simple plot, and not get bogged down into the rabbit-hole of reading.
There’s a time and a place for reading, even while we are writing.
But that fact does not magically make procrastereading not a real thing.
And it’s going to happen.
You are going to go to a citation, glance at a page, then start reading a paragraph, which turns into a page or two, which might reference many other readings or make you think of them, and then your looking them up and reading them, which leads to more…
And that practical glance just became a two-hour blackout that you just woke up out of,
and you see your page…
and there’s like two sentences written in two hours.
No matter what, you’re going to feel inadequate.
Fun fact: the number of things written by humanity is greater, by some degree, than what you have read so far.
You have to steady the course and have a way to control this look into the vast ocean of what’s been thought before.
Once you have your basic simple course set, then next thing is to do it simply and stay on track, keeping track of the time that you are telling the story and how much time is spent reading.
It’s not that you don’t want or need to read, it’s that you need to know and choose for yourself how it’s going to play out, and that what needs to get written, gets written.
So staying on course during literature reviews means keeping your writing and reading time as separate as possible, and tracking the amount of time you spend reading and the time you use to move your story forward in writing.
When you are ready to tell the story of your hero, keep track of the time you use to do that. When you are reading, keep track of the time you spend on that. Know what’s happening! The light of awareness will help you to snap out of the spell, out of the awe at the amount that has been written, and get back down to specific moves in your story.
Remember, at bottom a literature review is a sketch! It’s not a realm of pure potential that exists in your brain and not on paper, and it’s not a fully fleshed accounting of anything.
And if you need help with setting the course and steadying the course, at the moment the Academic Writing Bootcamp has spots open now, but these spots go away this December 4 when we start. In the bootcamp you get lots of ways to chart your course, like special trainings on outlining and revision, on brainstorming and crafting first draft text. And it’s followed up on with steadying the course, with serious coaching and peer accountability, with techniques that keep you on top of things so that things don’t go out of control and you can finish your work during busy times, and still have a life.