Literature Review

When writing a literature review, one of two things is supposed to happen:

  1. You know nothing and learn everything. You start off with a mental structure of what information you need to learn, and systematically review the literature to fill in the details (citing references as you go). You end up with an orderly, complete review of the literature and a solid understanding of the field.
  2. You know everything and just need to write it out. You start off a master of the material and already know what you’re going to write, and either already know or can easily find the applicable references to support your claims. You end up with an orderly, complete review of the literature that provides a solid understanding of the field for your readers.
  3. My extensive association with graduate students is leading me to believe that both these instances are incredibly rare. What typically seems to happen is more like:

  4. You know just enough to know that you don’t know anything. You don’t know enough to structure a systematic search, but you try anyway and write in a disjointed manner with each new reference sending you off on tangents, and when you have enough built that you just barely see the structure you should’ve been aiming for all along, you realize that either you missed a big gaping hole and frantically go searching for the missing key foundational reference, or that something you read for recreational side-reading is actually key evidence and you can’t remember for the life of you what the paper was. You end up with a wobbly, mostly-coherent review and have your fingers crossed that you aren’t missing anything too vital.
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