A lot of students often have to do essays just like in academia, writing a paper for a conference or for journal publication is run of the mill. One of the things I did not have when I did my undergraduate was a specific course devoted to research methods, but my MSc modules were all research and theory hybrids which threw me into a space that pushed me to learn and adapt quickly.

I lost a lot of my undergraduate portfolio to a strange and sudden computer crash right after I finished my first degree which took all of my work and left me with nothing when I was asked for examples of my work, not even a copy of my thesis was spared, but through my MSc I kept things in different places so that when I transitioned and again with another IT woe, my laptop needing a replacement was not as painful and data loss was not as bad.

So the moral of the story is put your stuff on an external drive all the time, in my time it was floppy discs and of course when the new desktops came along without floppy drives….. ah well, it was equivalent to the pain of discovering DVD/cd drives are also on the way out and akin to the sudden snatching away of tape players. Apparently, we move with the times and innovation is key….

It is a bit of a shame really as it spells a shift away from servicing the market most likely to need a computer for more than glam, glitz and what not. For those of us who use computers to create academic work etc…  I mean Data CDs are cheap and handy and easy to use but yes…. get an external drive with a few Terabytes of space and don’t place all your hopes on the cloud and or your hard drive besides which not everyone wants to listen to music on the cloud. Some of us still have tapes and CDs and we like them.

For fear of deviating, someone asked me what the most important part of their undergrad/grad dissertation should be yesterday. In principle, the goal was which parts can be written or prepared before data collection and analysis.

In my view, the first thing to do when ideas are brimming before choosing a topic for dissertations is a literature review.

But for fear of giving half an insight, I should really start at the beginning as its not the first time I have been asked this question.

Writing articles, essays, and dissertations

So, you must write a report, paper, essay, dissertation, or thesis, well fret not, you won’t just be writing it, you will be doing it, which probably sounds more worrying but is not.

I see the preparation and doing of a dissertation or thesis as the opportunity to be a little self-indulgent with a topic and direction in scenarios where almost every other unit is chosen or structured for you in Master’s and Undergrad study.

And when it is a paper or report or essay, it is actually a good bit of fun to break the goals or expected outcomes or marking rubrics into small bits which you then attempt to meet in good part using literature.

If it is a dissertation, then a good starting point is to think about what you have been studying topically and the field you are studying in and to consider what element or aspect or topic or subject or issue or phenomenon has caught your curiosity, had you wondering or overall sounds to you like being somewhat under discussed.

You will probably end up thinking of a couple of things and you can use a mind map (topic for a different article) to decide what you are thinking of and what you might want to discover or learn or uncover or investigate. Whether you want to gain insight or prove or disprove and or measure or perhaps find out how, why or what about something.

But has someone else done that before?…..

That is what existing literature is for.

In a somewhat similar way to being asked to ‘engage’ with literature or knowledge or ‘demonstrate’ knowledge and understanding when writing a report or essay, existing literature and reviewing literature play an important role that grows as you progress through academics. There’s even that special place where you can couch analyse and write retorts to academic articles to either criticise, refute, or take jabs at your peers’ work some of which when well founded and grounded in evidence is noble but would otherwise be a rather inappropriate thing to do.

So, you have a topic for your dissertation, or you are about to write an essay?

Start with what and then think literature. You want to know if anyone has investigated this before and you want to discover what it says, what is absent, and what you could add to it depending on whether you are writing an essay or doing a dissertation.

You also want to define boundaries to set out what you know, what you want to know, whether what you want to know is useful to others and how it will be useful and to who.

This article is about literature so I will not go into theoretical approaches here and it is an entire article on its own.

The connection between literature and topics

If I had a topic I wanted to research or a paper or essay to write, my first task would be to coin key phrases that are related to the topic at hand and to use these as search parameters.

For example, if I had a topic ‘the process of Tea making in South America’ then my key phrases could be as simple as ‘tea making worldwide’ ‘south American tea’ ‘making south American tea’ ‘tea and south America’ ‘processing tea in south America’ etc. I would then head to google scholar or semantic scholar because these two platforms often index a large array of academic papers and are a good place to start.

So, what then if you find articles, how do you find out if they are useful or not.

I usually read the abstract, then the conclusion, then the discussion and if it sounds helpful, I read the method and introduction.

What you will find is that journal articles tend to weave literature into the entire narrative, but sometimes there is a clear segment for literature review although it is not that common.

There are a couple of ways a paper/article/existing work around or about a topic can be useful to you.

  1. It can provide you with material that helps you finetune the topic e.g., you discover that tea making in south America has been researched by lots of people but that maybe Aztec tea (not sure if that is a thing, purely fiction) has been researched a lot but Mayan tea (again very fictional) has not, so your topic could change or shift or swing that way.
  2. It could change your topic e.g., sometimes a particular topic is over researched and staying with that choice not only shows a lack of creativity, but it also puts you in a place where it is a lot harder to prove you are doing anything special or new, after all a thesis/dissertation is about creating new knowledge
  3. It could help you to summarise the thoughts you have and improve your understanding of a topic, which is particularly useful if you’re writing an essay. And you will likely benefit then from infusing summaries of the article’s goals and message into your own work while avoiding copying it word for word which is not the done thing at all.
  4. It could help you develop a better insight into a phenomenon or idea even if you end up later not using the knowledge in the article, which will do well in boosting your trivia capacity, but will also improve your ability to sift and analyse information from sources that are written in different styles for different audiences.
  5. It could reinforce, emphasise, highlight, or support findings you make from your own work and research e.g., perhaps you have heard there is a difference between Aztec tea made with spring water and Aztec tea made with tap water other than mineral content variation, maybe taste or appearance or quality, and you want to test that.
  6. You will probably also want to be able to talk about making South American tea in general because nobody reading your paper knows all there is to know and a gentle authoritative helpful introduction with meaningful information is quite recommended.
  7. It could help you curate and compile a summary of existing knowledge relevant to your research that helps a reader understand the context of your work and the context of your knowledge creation.
  8. It could be helpful in future when you write about something else. In principle not everything you find is useful then but often they could be useful later.
  9. It is very helpful for developing insight into the methods others have used, motivating you to use similar or other methods you think are better or more suited to learning more about the topic.
  10. It builds a good basis for understanding and explaining your own work or understanding of a topic to others who may very well know about and expect to see you mention other articles and research.
  11. It supports space carving and niche definition which is helpful when you discover a specific, special, or new element you want to add to what knowledge (articles/research) already exists or a specific aspect of existing knowledge you want to challenge or improve or contribute to.
  12. It enables vertical searching, and maybe this isn’t the right term, but by this I mean reading one article, focussing on the cited works, and then reading those cited works to sort and sift out what may be useful. Sometimes what an article you are reading found useful or noteworthy may be different from what you find, you could as it were hit pay dirt which is important if you are doing research in an understudied area or simply floundering when looking for relevant literature.

There are probably a lot of other uses for literature, be it journal articles, conference papers, books, essays, news columns, editorials, speeches, stories, talk / proceedings transcripts, novels, plays, films, or videos but I think I have covered a few.

Summarising a paper into a review

A really good way to work your way through all of this and decide on what is important and what is not is to use a rhetorical precis approach.  A rhetorical precis approach is a beneficial method for preparing to write a literature review and it is very useful for finetuning ideas and deciding which papers or articles to cite and include in your essay or work because the result is four sentences that tell you or should tell you what the text says and does. At the very least it is a very helpful way of summarising papers and managing literature.

Academic writing requires an acknowledgment of what exists, understanding of what it means and your own assertion of how it relates to your work. It is important because may want to make assertions of knowledge or contributions to knowledge or highlight how well you understand a topic or area of discussion. Besides this summing up the understanding you have of an article, paper, chapter, or book and structuring how that work that exists is linked to yours and what you are saying or doing to agree or disagree with it and why are important for understanding what you are doing or trying to do.

In simplicity, structuring a rhetorical precis involves writing out four sentences

The first sentence gives the Name of author, genre, and title of work, date in parentheses; a rhetorically active verb; and a THAT clause containing the major assertion or thesis in the text.

The second sentence should explain how the author develops and supports the thesis.

The third sentence should be a statement of the authors intention or purpose, followed by the reason for this intention i.e., an “in order to” phrase.

The fourth sentence should describe the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.

This is one of those ones where a visual guide sometimes helps, so I have compiled what I could find with what I know and what I do sometimes. You can download and use the template attached to summarise articles. It is a merging of two articles one from Cave Creek unified school district and the other Cabarus county schools and the author attributed in both is Micah Jendian. I have also added some bits and changed quite a few bits in the template here, so it is not quite the same as other similar guides, but it is helpful, nonetheless. This is a good starting point until you discover there are other ways of managing references other than Microsoft such as Endnote or Mendeley and similar, something of course which is best left for another article.