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by Arnold Wentzel

This is the final part of the series on ‘Creating the Literature Review’. Here Arnold puts it all together and shows how a literature review can be written up as an argument.

PART 4: EXPANDING AND ORGANISING THE WRITING

In Part 3, I explained how to create the structure and flow of the literature review. But it is still just a skeleton, and needs more substance to become a writing plan.

Technique for expanding the literature review content

Every assumption that emerged from the process thus far is a claim that needs to be argued. One way to develop the ideas is by conducting an imaginary conversation with a ‘friend’ or a talk show host who responds to every claim you make with an open-ended question designed to elicit more information. Ensure that your ‘friend’ avoids closed-ended questions because these lead to answers that close down the conversation.

The process is simple: you state your claim, and then imagine an open-ended question that it might evoke. For example, if I state that ‘risk can be managed’, then a very likely question-response would be ‘can it really? How?’. Some questions will have follow-up questions, which is fine as long as they follow each other logically. More complex literature reviews will have sub-sections branching off from some assumptions, but the process is very similar.

Below I show the unfolding of the process from the example given in Part 3.

Claim Response (trigger question)
Success is best measured in terms of money Why money and not something else?
and such success is only
meaningful if you can achieve it before middle age Why is youth so important?
but fortunately this is possible because
there are methods that guarantee financial success Like what, and how do you know they work?
which can work because
Australia is predictable enough How do you know this? And why is predictability necessary?
so that people following such methods
will live long enough to apply this method and enjoy their results. Why do you say that?

Each question-response then triggers writing about that claim, revealing what to write about and keeping it focused. The writing plan is created through each claim, its trigger questions and its connecting sentences (shown in italics above). These connecting sentences need not always be argued, but they do need to appear with some elaboration between the claims being connected. These connections are very important – it is often in the connections between ideas that we create meaning and new insights.

When writing according to this plan, each trigger question is used to open up the conversation. Imagining a person asking logical follow-up questions then guides the exploration of each claim, and at the end the talk show around the claim is closed down with a conclusion and a connecting sentence that leads to the next claim. There are templates that novice writers can use to open up, explore, close down and connect conversations (e.g., Graff & Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say). 

Technique for organising the writing of the literature review

Once the writing plan has been created, it needs to be written with the aid of credible sources in the literature. A matrix like the one below can help by listing the sources vertically and the sections horizontally. Work out which section each source contributes to, as one might identify which talk show guests one might draw in at certain talking points.

The nature of success Methods to achieve success Achieving success in Australia
Source1 X
Source2 X
Source3 X
Source4 X X
Sourcex X

In the example above, when writing the first section one would refer only to source1 and source3 to provide details that can be used to answer the relevant trigger questions of that section. Once all the trigger questions of that section have been answered, source1 and source3 are put away and source2 and source4 taken out to talk about the trigger questions of the second section… and so on.

While writing, I think it is important to trust the writing plan and resist the temptation to continuously go back and read the previous sections and paragraphs. The writing plan will maintain the focus and the connecting sentences will ensure coherence, so give yourself permission to just write. In my experience, not only will you write much faster, but you will also be able to look at your writing objectively when it comes to the editing phase.

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Writing a good literature review can be a creative process which deepens the understanding of the writer and the reader. In this series of posts I’ve offered an approach to writing literature reviews that focuses on its argumentative quality. Literature reviews written in this manner delve deeply into the research question, contributing to the originality of the research instead of being a mere appendage, thus becoming a pleasure to read and engage with.

 

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