Common problems

  • Getting "buried"
  • Losing your way/focus - "How do I know if I'm getting anywhere?"
  • "What should I take notes on?"

Keep in mind possible purposes for reading/reviewing something:

  • To develop foundation knowledge you will be utilising or building on (organise around learning goals?)
  • To develop skills in methodology / to be able to justify methodology
  • To identify deficiencies so that you can justify the need to do some research

The writing process is difficult and messy because:

  • You're trying to coordinate many sources
  • You're trying to convert a "cobweb" of ideas into a linear sequence
  • You may be trying to handle language and ideas you are still yet to fully master

Write many drafts

It's a bit like sculpting - first you block things out and then you make successive refinements

Having an overview can help:

  • develop a "mind map" before you start
  • or just start writing (often helps clarify your thinking) then produce a "table of paragraph contents" to provide an overview
    • look for repetition
    • look for common themes
    • think about whether there is a logical way to progress through the ideas - tell a story / make an argument

How much background should I provide?

The following questions might help you to decide this:

Why does the reader need to know this?

All writing should be purposeful. "Because it's background" is not a good enough answer. Why do they need to know that particular background?

Is it because the work is seminal (i.e. original and influential)?

It is important to distinguish between papers that launch an area of research or do something important (are highly cited) and those which "merely" fill in the details ... unless those details are relevant to what you're going to do!

Is it because you're going to build on, improve, extend, or "demolish" their work?

E.g. To challenge a common assumption in the literature, you don't have to list every paper that's ever made that assumption, a representative list will do. You are only trying to convince the reader that the assumption is common.