Day 9: The narrative of a literature review

Over the next few videos, I’m going to focus exclusively on writing (because this is one of the most common things academics struggle with).

Taking literature reviews, for example, just trying to summarize a huge mountain of literature won’t work. But if you have an understanding of some basic principles of narrative then it becomes much easier.

It’s not about summarizing individual papers and what people did or said, but about understanding what the literature is responding to and using that to set up a context.

The literature responds to two main things; the specific research problem or question and the existing literature around that problem.

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When you set up that context, everything else can find it’s place (though of course there’s a bit more to it than that).

See also:
How to write a compelling literature review

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13 thoughts on “Day 9: The narrative of a literature review

  1. Great video, James. Wish I saw this 2 months ago. I could have avoided summarizing all those articles and research papers.

  2. Thanks for this and all your other resources and videos James. I’m starting a PhD in October (although it feels like I started the moment I got accepted in March!). Having been in ‘industry’ the last 8 years since completing an MSc the idea of going back into academia fills me with both excitement and anxiety. These resources are incredibly helpful and comforting, especially when I begin to over complicate things!

    • Thanks Michael!

      If you’re just starting out, the two main things I’d advise are to 1) Talk to people and find out what they do and 2) start getting practical experience with your research methods as soon as possible. You probably won’t get much useful data in your first year, but it’s all about building your skills from the start

  3. Thank you, James – these have been extremely helpful and very timely as I’m in the middle of writing right now!

    I noticed the slicker graphic, too. You’re leveling up!

  4. I have been following your activities since beginning of my PhD. I can’t thank you enough for the advice. Please, did you discuss literature review in details? I will be glad if you could help me with the piece.

  5. This is very helpful. I feel as if I am in a battle with my literature review and need to shape it around a clearer backstory and avoid getting lost in detail with detail important but not at the cost of the narrative!
    I look forward to further videos on writing

    • Hi Wendy. With regards to detail, you have to be very selective. Some areas of the literature should be treated briefly (with almost no detail but a few references to refer the reader to sources with more detail). This allows you to give more detail in other areas where relevant.

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