Are you hiding behind the literature?
It’s tempting, you know. Making academic work all about what others have done. And true, learning about what others have done is one of the core activities in doing your own research. Yet do not forget, your research has a reason to exist in its own right. It must do. Why else bother? And why else would anyone seek your work out?
It’s so tempting to swing between feeling like you have to design some grand theory that explains everything, to somehow integrate all the literature in a way that makes sense; and feeling like you are utterly failing at that, and worse: your own contribution to the debate is meagre, shameful even. Hardly noticable and not worth noticing.
Listen. Your contribution doesn’t have to be of epic proportions to be of value. (Let’s forget about the heroic PhD fantasy). But it needs to be communicated, it needs to be heard. Yes. It needs to come out of hiding. The most important step in academic writing is finding out what that contribution is. What is the argument you are trying to make? That’s what we want to know. How your argument relates to the literature is always secondary. No matter how much more erudite/ profound/ advanced/ impressive that literature is.
I know that many PhDs are asked to write a literature review. I believe this only makes sense up to a point. A literature review needs an angle. It needs a question driving it. That question is what it’s all about. It is the only thing that ensures focus. Without it you are guarantueed to be lost. And your readers will be equally lost.
Finding that question, and finding the answer.
That’s what your PhD is about.
That is it.
Yes, it takes time. Clarity takes time.
It helps to, from some point onwards, start reading less and thinking more.
Focusing in, instead of overloading yourself with more angles, more data, more everything. Because there is already so much of everything.
I’m not saying do not read. You need to be informed of what is out there.
There is always a balance between learning more, and adding to your knowledge that way, and knowing when you are losing yourself in dead ends.
You could picture it as a play. Your play.
Some articles will take centre stage. They are your lead figures, your main characters. They have a lot of lines and you need to know them inside out. The lead figures are the real performers. They carry the weight, hold the space. They are what makes your argument shine, the star sing.
Find out which articles, which scholars, which schools of thought, are at the centre of your research. Learn every little thing about them. This is essential knowledge.
Then, there are couple of less important characters, and loads of extras. They are needed to beef it up, so to speak. Yes, they have their role, and they may have a few words to say here and there. But they aren’t central to the plot development. They are peripheral. It only makes sense to treat them as such. Why waste your precious time on learning absolutely everything there is to know about the extra (no offence)? It will confuse your focus.
What I am saying is read strategically. Ask yourself whether what you have just read/ are about to read is necessary to contribute to your work, or whether you are only losing yourself, distracting yourself. Read accordingly. Don’t waste your time.
Because there’s an even more insiduous way the literature may be hampering your progress: you may be using it as a tool of procrastination. A way to gloss over the fact that you ‘don’t feel quite ready’ to start writing.
If you’re reading for security – Maybe reading this next paper will make you feel more on top of things! – be brave. Put down the article. (Like you’d put down the drug.)
Ask yourself what your work needs, to move forward. (I am serious. Ask.) Then do that thing.
Think, organise your thoughts, create something. You may need to read. Maybe.
But quite likely you’ll need to jump in and write something instead.
If you’re struggling with your academic writing (maybe it’s not happening?) have a look at my free e-book Finding Your Academic Voice. If you liked this post, as always, could you share it? I appreciate it!