The 20-Minute Lit Review -->

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The 20-Minute Lit Review

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Jeff Zuckerman
By Jeff Zuckerman, Dissertation Specialist and CSS Faculty Member        

At a dissertation intensive earlier this summer, a student—let’s call him Daniel—asked me to give his literature review a quick look for APA style and anything else that caught my eye.

“I’ll be glad to go through it,” I said eagerly. I really was happy to read Daniel’s revision. He had already impressed me with his clear writing in an earlier draft. Now, after several days of fine-tuning and hard work, he was ready to show me what he hoped was the final draft.

After skimming the entire literature review in about 20 minutes, I suggested a few places where Daniel could have organized things a little differently, and I explained a few APA style and punctuation corrections I had made.

“So that’s it?” Daniel said, a little sadly.

“It read well!” I said. “Those really were the only problems I saw!”

“In other words,” he said, “I put 3 months into the literature review, and you just read it in about 20 minutes.”

So much hard work, and here I was with a cheap-sounding compliment and a dozen or so corrections. As Peggy Lee sang, “Is that all there is?”
 While I’d like to say I spend hours and hours reading every word of every literature review, I don’t. (And if you’ve heard me at a residency challenge you to bury a swear word in a block quote to see if anyone notices, well, so far, I haven’t.) I would like to think your chair reads every word of every draft of your literature review. Maybe he or she does. Maybe not.

After having read more than a thousand dissertations, I find that most students get tripped up on later drafts by fewer than a dozen common errors. Those mistakes jump off the page at me and my fellow form and style editors. And once you learn to avoid those common problems, chances are your reader will soar through your work rather quickly.

Then why bother going to so much trouble if your reader is going to spend less than a half hour on your literature review?

First, this was close to a final draft. Daniel’s chair had given him a lot of developmental feedback along the way, and in the earlier draft I had mentioned some areas that needed a bit of a bath to wash off some confusing passages.

Second, as a Writing Guy I’m reading more for style than for content. By style I’m referring not just to APA: I’m also reading for confidence and authority. And Daniel’s literature review had all the hallmarks of someone who knew what he was talking about.

The draft was well-organized. It had a point. It told a story, starting with a great big issue related to the business of education, narrowed down at the end to a specific research problem that he planned to address with his research study. It was concise—as an overall package, from paragraph to paragraph, and from sentence to sentence.

Daniel’s use of references was solid, varied enough that visually—meaning the number of citations, the freshness of the cited literature, the scarcity of direct quotes, the attention to APA style details—I could see the breadth and depth of his knowledge. As the reader, I trusted this guy knew his stuff.

And those three months of hard work really did pay off. When Daniel does get to form and style this fall, I’m sure he’s going to pass with flying colors. The editor who reads his work for the first time will engage with the text, and he or she will be Daniel’s biggest cheerleader.

Bottom line? It might feel like endless drudgery and revision in the early going. Follow your committee chair’s guidance. Pay attention to APA style. Earn your confidence by unveiling your knowledge of the topic. If you’ve done a good job, your reader might just skim your work, too, in just 20 minutes.

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