Collaborative writing: Half the effort and double the motivation

collaborationI love collaborative writing.

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that so early on in the article but I can’t help it – it’s really cool.

What I mean by collaborative writing is producing a piece of text like a literature review between 2 or more people. If you’ve never tried it, I would give it a go. The reason I like it is that all the typical problems associated with writing almost completely disappear. If that sounds too good to be true then it may well be. Collaborative writing represents a whole new set of challenges to overcome, however if you’re aware of them in advance, it shouldn’t be so tough.

So, first with the benefits

Motivation
It’s easy to be motivated when you’re writing with other people for a number of reasons. Firstly, not feeling like you’re doing it alone is a huge help. Then there’s the fact that you don’t want to let your collaborators down by slacking off and not producing your fair share. Finally, within the group of writers, it’s easy to come up with stimulating writing challenges to help get you over the finish line. An example might be a daily writing competition to see who can write the most words.

Accountability
It’s easy to let your writing goals slide when you do them alone. However, if you write with a co-author then there is a huge sense of responsibility to do a good job for them. You don’t want to let them down and this forces you through the tough times when you might be tempted to take it easy. When writing with someone else you are far less likely to slack off

Ideas
Instead of banging your head against a brick wall you can bounce your ideas of your collaborators. The synthesis of the literature review will go a lot quicker and will generally be more inventive/interesting than if you had done it all by yourself.

Workload
The workload is generally much less. It is at least half the amount if you write with two people if not more. This is because the idea generation and planning time are generally much more effective (*emphasis on generally – see the problems later on). Then of course you only have to write half as much (*again, unless you encounter problems)

Fun
Writing with other people tends to be much more stimulating than writing alone. Chatting and discussing ideas becomes an integral part of the writing process which doesn’t really exist when you write alone.

Forming formal connections
If you are strategic when you write your collaborative texts then you can form an official connection in the eyes of your academic peers. For example, if you want to be associated with a particular group in a particular field, then you can reach out to collaborate with them on a mini-review. Publishing something like this demonstrates that you have a number of important skills and connections. It demonstrates that you can find collaborations and work outside of your given field.

Get more publications
If you write an entire lit review yourself and publish it then you have one first author publication. If you write two halves of two lit reviews then you can have one first author and one second author publication. If you plan it properly you could even have a last author publication and a first author publication. This is very good for your CV when you’re graduating.

Demonstrating you are a team player
It’s there in black and white. If you’re looking for a position after your PhD and you need to demonstrate that you can work well as part of a team and take the lead, just point to the review(s) that you co-authored.

You learn so much
By writing with someone else you are really forced to consider the structure of your text and to analyse the way your co-author writes. This is great for your review but also for your learning and development as an academic writer.

BUT.. it’s not always straight forward

here are some problems (and solutions)

Personal differences
When working with other people, things like writers’ block and motivation problems fall back and personal differences come right to the front. If you have problems with people not doing enough work or not working as a team then it can destroy the whole project.
Solution: errrrrrm. This is pretty serious. How do you resolve personal conflicts with colleagues? Well I can tell you that some people never do. That’s not to say that personal differences can’t be overcome but you have to be aware before you start, this is probably the single biggest threat to your writing project. I think before you start it is important that there is a project leader who is responsible for the major vision and direction and that this is clear to everyone from the beginning (this should probably be you by the way). It’s also important that you choose people who you can work with. This is pretty difficult but at least don’t try and work with people who you know you can’t get along with.

Workload
So previously I talked about the workload being less. Well, if the collaboration works well then this is true. However, it’s not always the case. It is possible that disagreements and poor organisation during the planning process can increase the workload. It can also lead to duplication of chunks of text which is never a good feeling.
Solution: If you run into problems when meeting and talking with your collaborators then try to give your meetings a more formal structure. Plan an agenda beforehand so everyone knows what has to be discussed. Also record the outcomes and goals for the next time you meet so that everyone is clear on what they have to do.

Fragmented structure
This is a common symptom of collaborative writing so I’m including it here, although I think I covered the solution in the “personal differences” section. When several people contribute to a review, it can look like several different sections were just thrown together. This doesn’t make for good reading.
Solution:The trick is to have someone as an editor for the process (again, I would suggest that you do this). The editor will take the lead and will be responsible for contributing written text, but also formatting and editing the document to give it a coherent structure.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

100% yes you should. If you only do it for the experience it is totally worth it. You learn so many different skills that are critical in academia.

What you think? Any success/ horror stories? Please share in the comments.

Crowdsourcing your motivation with Academic Writing Month

acwrimo_literature_reviewWow, it’s nearly November already and I’m reminded of how quickly time flies.

November is always a great time of year for writers, ever since National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started in 1999. Anyone from around the world with a novel inside them will sit down and write a 50,000 word draft of a novel in 1 month.

Tough?

Possibly, but with thousands of success stories there must be something to this digital community writing thing.

So, several years ago, the guys at PhD2Published devised a diabolical scheme to get academics in on the action too – the result was Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo).

The result was an entire online community of people taking to Twitter and other social media outlets to write and share. People would share success, encouragement, tips and even failures so that they could be put back on track. And more importantly, the result was a lot of finished drafts of manuscripts and theses.

Cool right?

So all you have to do is commit to a writing goal that you will complete by the end of November and try to write everyday as well as sharing your progress. I think it’s a good idea to stretch yourself here, set a goal that is not going to be easy and will make you feel like you have achieved something special. Imagine what it would be like to tell people after.

If I say, I wrote this paper in a month… it doesn’t sound so impressive. If I say, I wrote my entire thesis in a month… that really does sound impressive.

The reason is that I think you are more likely to succeed with large writing goals during AcWriMo than at any other time of the year. The motivation you get from the writing community either directly or just by knowing that they are there is huge. You might as well try something big. If you fail then it’s not a zero sum game – you’ll still be close to your goal at the end.

You can read more about it here and declare your writing goals on the Academic Writing Spreadsheet so everyone can see
http://www.phd2published.com/2014/10/14/announcing-academic-writing-month-2014/ 

(accountability is very important to success).
This is the main hub for AcWriMo and you can take part here and on Twitter using the hashtag #AcWriMo. However, if you want to be a bit more private and less digital, that’s cool too. Just make sure that as you participate, you do include an accountability element to your writing. You have to tell people about it in order to get the full motivational effect of AcWriMo.

So are you in? Beginning the 1st of November let’s commit to overcoming that big writing goal.

The difference between text on a word processor and text carved in stone

7272110088_1b5f85dc90_zI apologise again for appearing flippant with my title. I can’t help it sometimes but the truth is that this is critical issue.  If I’d have understood it earlier, I probably wouldn’t have had any trouble with my literature review and maybe I would never have started the blog.

When you first start out and you manage to write a complete paragraph, then a page, then a chapter – it is a BIG deal.

No question.

No argument.

It is huge.

What I used to do, and what many people do is to equate the achievement with the words on the page themselves.

This is a crippling mistake.

The success in having written something is paradoxically not from having written it, but having organised your thoughts, ideas and a mountain of literature to synthesise an argument.

If the the words got deleted right now. The ideas and arguments would still exist in your head and in the scrawled notes in the corners of the papers.

The ideas and the synthesis are golden and should be celebrated and liberated. The words on the page however, can often act as a prison.

We are scared to delete or change text as it represents a huge backwards step. However, deleting and changing text is exactly what we must do to improve.

This is why this post is so important to me. When we have some success in writing the literature review, our fear and reluctance to take what seems like a backward step can drastically reduce our chances to improve.

So the idea I want to get across is that your words are not as valuable as you think they are. Your ideas and your arguments are what is important. It is possible to make the same idea and arguments clearly using drastically different texts of varying lengths. The important thing is that the ideas and the arguments are strong.

This rarely happens at the start of a project and so it is important that we have the freedom to change them when we need to. Strictly defending our original draft is a way to greatly limit our freedom.

So what should you do?

Firstly, you should learn how to cut text out of your draft or “kill your darlings” as the Thesis Whisperer puts it. While this is hard, Inger presents a genius way to soften the blow by pasting the deleted text into an overflow document. This means that you can go back to them again if you need to so it doesn’t feel like you’re really deleting them.

Secondly, you should develop two new habits, writing regularly and re-writing regularly. Writing regularly is very important (i.e. every day if you have a writing task to do and every week even if you don’t). This quickly takes the sting out of writing and makes what you have written less precious and more easy to edit. You should also get into the habit of re-writing sections of your own text. I don’t mean re-write everything, but it’s a good idea to practice re-wording what you already have. This can help you develop an new style or voice and help to convince yourself that that can always be an alternative to the way you have just written.

Finally you should develop a good way of storing the information for your literature review independently of your written text. This really helps with re-writing and seems like a lot of work – but it depends how you do it. For me, I like to plan using mind maps and literature review matrices. It is possible to store all the pertinent information for a literature review in these two forms which are much easier to edit than text. If you have a good plan, writing, deleting and re-writing is only a question of expression and is never about gaining or losing ideas. This makes it a lot easier and less painful to edit.

One of the main problems that new writers face is the inability to edit and change text, however, it is crucial to improvement and success. Hopefully these strategies will help to you let go of the editing anxiety and improve.

Good luck!

Find out where to start and how to define your scope in 1 simple move

literature review hqWhere do I start? It’s the million dollar question and I get asked all the time. Well recently I discovered a great new way to begin your literature review. This method is simple and generates tens if not hundreds of leads for you to check up on. It also tells you where to focus your reading i.e. what is most important and it also gives you appropriate ideas for the scope of your literature review.

Academic conferences

Shut up Ben! I’m not going to a conference – even if I had the money (which I don’t) there isn’t a conference organised on my subject for another 2 years.

Valid points. Conferences are great ways to absorb the current state of the literature almost by osmosis. If you get an opportunity you should definitely go. However, this doesn’t help most people right now – and that’s what I want to do and why I haven’t really mentioned conferences…until now.

There is a way to take advantage of a lot of the information from a conference without actually going.

Online conference schedule

Go to google and type in your subject followed by the word “conference”, “congress” or “meeting”. See what comes up, you’ll either get events that are going to happen soon or events that have already happened. What you want is an abstract book or a list of speakers/poster presenters for a good conference that isn’t too far away from present day. Look on the conference websites for this list. If not, find a contact for a conference organiser and ask if they can email you a copy.

Once you have it… bask in its glory

This booklet is gold dust. It is magic and you could (if you wanted to) base your whole literature review on it.

So, here are the questions I get and how the conference book can help:

Where do I start?
Take the names of the speakers and search for them in your database. Treat the “keynote” speakers as being the most important.

To continue, look at the poster presenters and the bibliographies of the papers of the main speakers (as well as who cites them).

How do you define the scope?
The scope of your lit review is a very fluid concept but the conference book is full of ways to define it if you’re stuck. You could for example use the conference as your scope and write your literature review based on the presenters there. You could take different sessions at the conference and use these as your scope.

Why?

Because the organisers of the conference have already gone to the trouble to do it for you. These guys are experts in the field and in the conference book they tell you – “this is important and worth a whole conference/session”. You can make adjustments to the scope to make it better fit with your interests but it’s a really great place to start.

I’ve been reading and writing about the literature review for over 3 years and this is the first time this has ever occurred to me. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long – it’s so simple, what do you think?

How long is a lit review sentence?

how long is a literature review sentence

Have you ever thought about how long a sentence in your literature review should be? When I started writing I didn’t at all. I didn’t care and I thought it didn’t matter. A sentence is as long as it needs to be right? The important thing is that you convey your idea so the length is irrelevant.

Well, this isn’t entirely true

While it’s not the deciding factor, the length of your sentences has a huge impact how easy they are to understand. As a general rule, longer sentences are more difficult to understand.

Why can’t we understand long sentences?

I mean, we’re educated right? Long sentences shouldn’t be so much of a challenge. I used to think that long sentences were difficult to understand because there was too much information in them but I doubt that is the case (although some people will be scanning your lit review so long, ambiguous sentences will be difficult to understand and very annoying to the reader).

The thing is, there are more ways to mess up a long sentence and make it mean something other than you actually intended. This means that an unknown reader could misinterpret what you wanted to say – EVEN if it actually looks fine to you and makes perfect sense.

It’s happened to me many times. “Clarification needed”was  scrawled in red in across my draft. It was always associated with long sentences and the easiest solution was usually to convert into shorter ones.

So, shorter sentences are easier to interpret. This means that we should only write in short sentences right?

Wrong!

Unfortunately it’s not that simple but it’s easy to explain. When we write shorter sentences we are normally improving how easily the text is to understand. However we are also doing something the the speed with which your unsuspecting reader consumes your text. Shorter sentences are read faster.

 

So if you write only in short sentences the reader will go speeding through the text like a machine gun ripping through bullets and the odds are they will miss some important elements.

So… What’s the answer?

As a general rule try this:

Write in short sentences and periodically break these up with a longer sentence to purposefully slow the reader down. It is useful to do this at points in the text that warrant a little extra care from the reader, like  a conclusion for example.

Once you mastered this try experimenting with your sentence length and see how it affects how people perceive your writing. With experimentation, you will develop your own style and your own way to improve how your writing is consumed.

For another great post on this topic check out PhD Talk here.

Productivity gimmicks: Good or Bad?

smart watch gimickThere is so much productivity advice out there. I talk a lot about productivity here despite the sole purpose of this site being to help you with your literature review. Let’s face it though, productivity is very important. If we can squeeze more out of what we have, whether it’s time or energy, then we should be able to achieve better results in whatever it is we do. Sounds great right?

So in that case can gimmicks ever be good? Let me first clarify what I mean by a gimmick. I mean a productivity trick that catches your attention because it is new or different from the way you work already. It may be something quirky and outrageous or just different from what you do now. With a gimmick, the main attraction tends to be how different or new the thing is, and not necessarily how effective it could be once it’s been implemented.

It doesn’t sound so great right? So let’s hear why,

The case against Gimmicks

Simply, they usually don’t work in the long run. They can often be time consuming because you have to understand how to implement them and stop working while you get going with your new productivity system. They can serve as a great procrastination aid because you can fool yourself into thinking you are working or at least “investing” your time now for more productive work later. This rarely works out.

The thing with gimmicks is not that they are bad or they don’t work as productivity systems in general, but that the thing that attracts us to them is simply the fact that they are different.

But… maybe they can work under certain circumstances? I personally love trying out new productivity systems. Sometimes it’s for the bad reasons I listed above, but many of them have worked out for me.

The case for Gimmicks

I said in the case against that they don’t usually work in the long run. However, gimmicks can often work very well in the short term. How often have we all tried a new productivity hack and stuck with it for a week or two before letting it fall by the wayside? I know I’ve done this a lot, but were they failures? Well ultimately, yes they failed, but when I think about it, I also got 1, 2 or maybe 3 weeks of useful productive work out of them. This is great. If I said to you that you can have 3 weeks of super productive work you surely wouldn’t turn it down.

So this is why I like gimmicks. While not so great in the long term, I’ve consistently found they work very well over the short term.

And I mean consistently. This is funny right, no matter what the gimmick, they always work in the short term. I think this is because no matter what productivity trick we choose, we are desperate to be more productive in our work. We have a desire to be productive. When we go looking for our productivity gimmick we begin building up motivation and hope that we will achieve what we want to.

Then, finally when we start using the productivity gimmick we take of the hand brake and let a flood of motivation, desire and hope spill out onto a newly paved road.

It’s hardly surprising they work given that they are acting as a release valve for all our pent up frustration and energy.

But I also think it’s worth trying things out and seeing how they work for you. The Pomodoro technique was a gimmick to me, that’s how I found it. However, it’s the productivity system that I use the most and I’ve been using it consistently for the last 10 years.

So the moral of the story is this: know what you are getting into with new and gimmicky productivity tips. Don’t kid yourself if you are just procrastinating and don’t expect to change your life. However, if you need an injection of pace for a few weeks, a new gimmick may be just what you need.

Exercise to help develop your writer’s voice

Can you hear me?The writer’s voice. For me it’s the holy grail of academic writing. I always look to Pat Thomson’s blog for advice on this topic and also just to draw inspiration from the way that she writes and really takes control of her subject.

The writer’s voice is how position yourself in the text that you write. It’s how you make your writing unique and it’s how you convey your own ideas and interpretations on what you have read.

It’s how you write an amazing literat ure review and avoid dull, lifeless laundry lists.

Mastering your own voice is tough and takes time but it’s really worthwhile. Even the basics will help to take your writing to the next level.

Recently I was working with a friend on the writer’s voice and we came up with a little exercise that really helped us to see the “voice” element in the work of others.

So the exercise took place over the course of a week so that it wasn’t too time intensive and we had a bit longer to think about it, you could speed it up though and it would probably just take an afternoon.

The Exercise

Monday
Choose a paper between us and read it thoroughly.

Tuesday – Wednesday
Identify elements of the writer’s voice from the paper and discuss. Again, this is difficult to define and is somewhat subject specific however, as a rule of thumb, I look for anything that prevents the text being a laundry list (i.e. dry statements of fact one after the other) and anywhere the author expresses an opinion or makes an argument.

Thursday-Friday
Where you have identified the voice elements in the text, try and imagine parallel situations in your own field, even if they are hypothetical. Then try and to write arguments about your own work but in the voice of the writers that you have just been studying.

 

This is a really basic exercise and one of the strengths is working with another person. This forces you to have a dialogue and formulate your ideas about the writers voice properly. It should also give you more confidence in your writing to know that you are not working on it alone.

Once you’ve repeated this exercise a few times, you can start to identify styles and ways of incorporating the writers voice that you like. Then you can start to try and use them in your own writing.

It takes time to develop a good writer’s voice but to me, it’s like going to the gym. After a week, you’re not going to be at your peak of fitness but you’ll be on the right road and you will be better than before you started.

Lessons from Nobel Prize winners

Nobel Medal
So people on my email list know that I work in Sweden, but they may not know that I work at the Karolinska Institute. This is a really cool place to work for many reasons, however the biggest is that here is where they decide the Nobel Prizes each year for Medicine and Physiology.


As a result I have been privileged enough to see lectures given by Nobel Laureates as they prepare to receive their award from the King of Sweden. I can tell you, this is really inspiring!


It inspired me to write a post recently about what one of the laureates said about the Literature Review .


It also inspired me to write another article for Inger Mewburn at the Thesis Whisperer. I’m really proud of this article. I wrote it several months ago and as it has been published and I re-read it, I find that it stirs all the motivation and inspiration I felt when I first heard them speak.


So can we win Nobel Prizes with our research? Maybe, maybe not. However, I think that taking lessons from these Nobel Laureates will not only dramatically improve our work but will help set us apart from everyone else.


If your interested in reading the article here is the link below. Please leave a comment over on the post to say hello and to let me know what you think. It’s really nice to get feedback from you :)

http://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/06/11/when-are-you-going-to-win-a-nobel-prize/

Are you running on empty with a leaky battery?

battery low
Although it seems like it, this post is not about exercise – check through to the end to see why.

I was tired. All the time. My mind was a kind of haze, especially when I wanted to think about writing. I would go to bed early thinking that I could recharge my batteries and yet, the next morning I felt exactly the same. I would spend time relaxing, from watching TV and browsing the internet to going out with friends. I was exercising and I wasn’t physically tired, just mentally drained. I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I was totally exhausted.

I’m constantly experimenting with the way that I work and looking back on this time, it seems pretty clear what the problem was.

I never shut off

I thought exercise was the answer. I remembered times in my life where I had lots of energy and I always associated it with exercise. But I was exercising and I felt tired. Then I realised that it wasn’t the exercise itself, or it wasn’t just the exercise. The way that I regained my mental energy in the past was by running… outdoors… without headphones.

EUREKA

I should start running again! So I did, and IMMEDIATELY I had more energy. I don’t mean in a day, or a week or a month. I mean that I went for a run and when I came back – my mojo had returned.

So the running was special. This never happened when I exercised in the gym, surrounded by people or with my music on. It only happened when I went outside. When I ran it felt like the wind was blowing through my head and clearing everything out. I would have random thoughts out of nowhere that applied to all different parts of my life and work. When I finished the run – I was ready to face anything! Everything that had piled up before now seemed manageable. It felt like I had run away, seen my problems from a far and now I was coming back with a renewed sense of perspective.

Running was how I discovered this, but like I said, it wasn’t the exercise per se that worked. For me, running is a form of meditation. Running is a way for my brain to escape for a while.

Back to the exhaustion

So, I was exhausted. I was exercising and relaxing but I was still exhausted. The problem was, as I said before that I wasn’t shutting off. My mind was always occupied. I finished work and watched TV or put some music on. I’d check the internet on my phone whenever I had a spare second. My brain was constantly being pulled in one direction or the other, but it was never allowed to just sit and do “nothing”.

Your brain will do amazing things if you just let it. I thought I was relaxing but I wasn’t relaxing my brain – not properly. I was feeding it junk food and letting it get out of shape.

Are you suffering like this?

Do you ever disconnect? Do you ever feel like I do when I go running? Do you ever meditate? If not then there’s a strong chance that you are closing in on mental exhaustion.

Make a change – clear you head – find your own way to meditate

And do it every day. For me, I found meditation through running. I know other people have found it in different ways such as preparing and drinking a cup of tea or coffee, or smoking a cigarette. Have a think about your routine and see where you could find a space to disconnect for 10-30 minutes. If I don’t go running I just sit and meditate.

Now I when I use the word meditate I know I’m using it with a certain amount of ignorance. I’ve never studied meditation or its use in spirituality and religion so my method is very simple. I just set a timer for 10 minutes, get in a comfortable seated position and close my eyes. I just sit there and try to think about nothing. I don’t resist thoughts popping into my head, I just don’t dwell on them and make sure that they can escape easily. The goal is always to have a completely empty mind.

I’ve never achieved this but the effect of meditating is similar to that of running. It’s like your brain is talking to you and telling you what you need to do. Without this time your brain can’t function properly and it’s not long before frustration and exhaustion set in.

What do you think? Do you agree? Is it nonsense? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Literature Review Bias: do you have too much or not enough?

literature review loaded dieBias in the literature review is common and has obvious negative connotations. If you are biased, then you are not fairly representing the literature. To me, this is to be one of the biggest problems facing writers and my 1:1 clients. I think if you understand bias in the literature review properly, or at least address it, you can totally transform the way that you think, write and even read academic papers. If you understand bias you will be less stressed about what you have to read as you’ll be better equipped to asses the relevance of papers and the quality of your literature review will increase dramatically.

But not all bias is bad

Shall we look at the two extremes?

Student 1 has an idea of what the literature will show after being in a field for some time before sitting down to write a literature review. They then proceed to (unintentionally) confirm all of their hypotheses and preconceptions about their field by selective searching for, reading and interpreting papers that prove them right.

Student 2 is incredibly paranoid about biasing their paper and wants to remain totally impartial. They include every reference they can find about their chosen topic and steer well away from making any subjective statements that haven’t been clearly stated previously. In essence, they write an enormous laundry list that accurately summarises a mountain of literature but fails to synthesise new ideas or inject any writers voice.

So which is better, student 1 or student 2?

It’s a ridiculous question I know. Both students represent totally different kinds of bias. The first student is bad because they have unintentional bias in their literature review. The second student is bad because they have omitted intentional bias.

Let’s split bias up into different categories to clarify this:

Bad bias

Prejudice

Good bias

Scope
Voice

Prejudice

Prejudice is when we have a preconceived notion of what we will find in the literature, therefore, we only find information to support our preconceived ideas. This sounds appalling at first but it’s very subtle and most people are guilty of it to some degree, whether they know it or not. The way I get around this is to use scientific hypothesis testing. I start very early in my literature review with a concrete and prejudice idea of what I think the literature will tell me. Then, I set about trying to disprove this idea through the literature. As soon I disprove it, I modify it and start trying to disprove my new idea. This means that I am always conscious of my prejudice and I’m always trying to get rid of it. While I try though, it serves as a pretty effective research tool.

Scope

Scope is intentional and predefined bias to limit the content of your literature review. I refer to scope as the literature review question, ie. what are you asking the literature? What is interesting and unknown at the moment that the literature could give you new information about? The scope represents intentional boundaries to stop your literature review sprawling out of control and to stop you dying under an avalanche of papers. Even in comprehensive literature reviews, scope is important. It is also important to define the scope with your supervisor as early on in the project as you can. Even though this may change during the lit review depending on what you find, narrowing your focus will really help you to find a smaller number of quality papers instead of trying to evaluate hundreds of thousands of crappy ones.

Voice

Voice is a pretty uncomfortable topic for most writers. It very hard to define and much harder to implement. However, work that lacks writers voice tends to be bland and the synthesis always looks incomplete. The writers voice can seem like bias because we are subjectively including our own ideas about the literature. However, this kind of bias is essential if we want to produce something new and interesting from the literature review, and not just a laundry list. It’s a part of the synthesis that helps to generate new and exciting ideas from the literary conversation.

My favourite way of thinking about voice is the way Pat Thomson puts it in one of her metaphors for writing the literature review. As a writer, imagine you are hosting a dinner party and you are inviting all the authors of the papers you want to cite. Your job is to host a good dinner party and make sure the conversation remains stimulating and flowing. This means you have carefully seat your guests, but it also means that you must interact with them and talk to them in some way. The way you would talk to guests at your dinner party is the same way you would use writers voice in your literature review. You draw out relevant arguments and statements from your guests and arbitrate an information exchange before evaluating what has been discussed.

Take home message

So make sure that you consider bias. I hope I’ve given you some things to consider here but if there is one take home message then it is this:

Understand bias in your literature review and your writing will improve… a lot.

So use the ideas I’ve given you here and think about how they apply to you. Then march into your supervisors office and say, “I don’t want to prejudice my writing but I want to limit the scope so I don’t write a laundry list and I want to include my writers voice to help with synthesis”. Talk with your supervisor and reach an understanding of how bias will influence your project.

Not only will you write better but you’ll be less stressed because you won’t be under the same pressure to read “every paper”. Instead you’ll be filtering papers a lot more to find the right match for your literature review criteria.

Let me know what you think in the comments and if you think this is as important as I do, please share.