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Descriptive vs. Analytical Writing

My professor said I need to “do more analysis” in my papers. I don’t know what she means. I thought I was analyzing, i.e., giving a detailed examination, but she says my writing has been mostly summaries, or descriptions, of what others have said. What do I need to do?

In the Writing Center, we hear about scenarios like this all the time.

Here’s the theory: College is a liminal space for transitioning people from being “students” to being “scholars.” As students, writers must demonstrate that they have understood the content of a course, lecture, book, etc. Scholars, however, go beyond demonstrating understanding or knowledge and make contributions to the field of knowledge; in other words, students sum up the knowledge of others, while scholars create new knowledge. Typically, high school students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of ideas. Undergraduate students continue to demonstrate understanding, but also begin to make contributions to the field of knowledge. Graduate students, on the other hand, are most often required to make contributions to the field, which requires writers to demonstrate knowledge by making new contributions to the field. These distinctions are not always true, but they often give an accurate depiction of expectations placed on writers at various education levels.  

Descriptive writing is about facts. Descriptive writing tells readers what happened, provides quotes and paraphrases from experts, summarizes the details of an event or case study, and otherwise gives information. Descriptive writing is exactly as the name implies: descriptive. It is what high school and undergraduate students are most often asked to do.

Analytical writing, on the other hand, takes those facts, quotes, paraphrases, details, etc., and then tells readers why any of that information matters. A descriptive writer answers the question, “What?” An analytical writer answers the question, “So what?” What does the evidence mean? Why is this or that quote or piece of data significant? This is the work expected of graduate students and some undergraduate students.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has written previously on the distinctions between descriptive and analytical writing, and he has shared color-coded texts to demonstrate those distinctions. Pay attention to the verbs in his sample below. The green text is descriptive; it summarizes what the writer’s interlocutors said. After providing information, the author analyzes it (the orange text), sharing insights learned from this research, comparing and contrasting previously-cited pieces of information, and explaining the significance of the prior information.

c_rt1vbuiaingag

Dr. Pacheco-Vega builds on Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say paradigm to distinguish between descriptive and analytical writing. Description is what they (i.e., other authors, scholars, experts, those we are citing) say, and analysis is what I (i.e., the writer of this paper) say in response to what they say. In the sample above, green is they, orange is I. The author first describes the data learned during research, then analyzes that data, making connections between pieces of data and sharing insights gained from a close reading of the data.

Often, when professors say something like, “this needs more analysis,” they are looking for you to move beyond summaries or descriptions of what others have to say; they are asking you to make a contribution to the field of knowledge by comparing and contrasting different pieces of evidence; considering the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments; assessing the quality, accuracy, and/or credibility of various pieces or collections of data; and/or answering the question, “why does this quote/paraphrase/piece of information matter?”

If you can move from they say to I say, you can do analysis!

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Documentation, Writing in Music

Citing and Referencing Music Lyrics in CMOS

Here at APU, music classes use both Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and APA. Generally, if you are in a music literature class, your professor will have CMOS or its student version, Turabian, listed on your course syllabus as the designated style guide. If you are writing your master’s thesis in music education, APA will govern most of your style and documentation. We’ll talk about principles for citing music lyrics in both styles. This first blog post examines conventions for citing music lyrics in CMOS.

While CMOS has several sections that address how to cite musical sources, these sections are not the only ones you will want to consult—you also need to consider the kind of source you are using as well as what aspects of that source you want to emphasize. For these reasons, there may be several acceptable ways to cite the same musical source in CMOS. If you look at the bibliographies in musicological works, you’ll find that CMOS citations can be quite complex. An author might want to demonstrate the publication history of a score, document how a recorded work was circulated, or emphasize a particular artist over a composer. Because the purpose for each of these citations is different, the citation for the same source may look different across bibliographies.

When you construct a citation, think about what makes the most sense for your purposes in using the source as well as provide enough information so that a reader can find the source you used.

Run-in Quotations or Block Quotes?

Quote and cite lyrics as you would poetry. For run-in quotations, separate line breaks with a forward slash, with a space on each side ( / ) and stanza breaks with two forward slashes ( // ). However, if at all possible, avoid stanza breaks in a run-in quote, as quotes that include stanza breaks are usually clearer as a block quotation.

If you are quoting an entire stanza, format it as a block quote. If you are citing several stanzas, then include a double return at the end of the line. Do not center the lyrics, even if they are centered in the original source. Instead, simply indent by half an inch.

Examples of run-in quotations and block quotes are in the following sections.

Notes or Parenthesis?

When using CMOS’ notes-bibliography citation system, sources for direct quotes of lyrics can be given in footnotes or endnotes like any other source material. Take the following paragraph as an example:

While George and Ira Gershwin originally composed the song “Someone to Watch Over Me” in 1926 for singer Gertrude Lawrence to perform in the musical Oh, Kay!, it is better known today as a jazz standard. Artists of both genders have performed the song, with lyrics amended to fit the soloist’s gender. However, amending the lyrics may not make the song’s gender bias any more palatable. Ella Fitzgerald sings the original lyrics, which express that it is acceptable, even preferable, for a woman not have high expectations of her suitor’s physical appearance: “although he may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ to my heart he carries the key.”1 Frank Sinatra also downplays a male suitor’s appearance when he sings, “although I may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ but to her heart I’ll carry the key,” 2 but these lyrics make the suitor appear narcissistic.

The footnotes in this paragraph are listed in the next section of the blog post.

If it makes the citation more readable, or if you are writing a short paper with no notes, the source information can be included in a parenthetical citation instead. For run-in citations, use the following format: (Author last name, “Title of Work,” verse/stanza/track number/etc.).

Because you are working with the lyrics and not the music, cite the lyricist as the author if they are different than the composer. You can amend this format if you name the author in a signal phrase. Consider the following examples:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” verse 1).

“…It is well, it is well with my soul. // And, Lord, haste the day…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” chorus and verse 4).

Footnotes and Bibliographic Entries

If you are working with musical recordings, these are usually listed as a discography separately from the bibliography. If you include them in your bibliography, then designate these sources with an appropriate sub-heading. See CMOS 14.63 for additional information on dividing a bibliography into subcategories.

Here are footnote and bibliographic entries for the works cited in the above section:

Music Recordings

Footnote:

 1Ella Fitzgerald, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist) and George Gershwin (composer), vol 3, track 1, on Ella: the Legendary Decca Recordings (Santa Monica: The Verve Record Music Group), 1995, 4 compact discs.

2Frank Sinatra, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist)    and George Gershwin (composer), track 6, on Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960 (Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc.), 2000, compact disc.

Bibliography/Discography:

Fitzgerald, Ella, vocalist. Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings. Santa Monica: The Verve Music Group, 1995, 4 compact discs.

Sinatra, Frank, vocalist. Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960. Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc., 2000, compact disc.

Scores

Footnotes and bibliographic entries for the hymn by Horatio Spafford would include the following additional information:

3 Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” 1876, in The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Wesley L. Forbes (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991), hymn 410.

Spafford, Horatio. “It Is Well with My Soul.” 1876. In The Baptist Hymnal, edited by Wesley L. Forbes, hymn 410. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991.

Lyricist or Composer?

Your entries can be formatted in two different ways depending on whether you are emphasizing a song’s lyricist or composer. Take the following stanzas from Patrick Galvin’s poem, “The Madwoman of Cork”:

Today

Is the feast day of Saint Anne

Pray for me

I am the madwoman of Cork.

 

Yesterday

In Castle Street

I saw two goblins at my feet

I saw a horse without a head

Carrying the dead

To the graveyard

Near Turner’s cross.

 

I am the madwoman of Cork

No one talks to me.

(Galvin, “Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3)

While Galvin is the poet, or author of this text, singer-songwriter John Spillane sings Galvin’s poem on one of his albums. If you were emphasizing lyrics, or wanted to draw attention to the poet, then it would make the most sense for you to put Galvin name in the part of the citation for the author. For block quotations, you can drop the parenthetical citation a line below the lyrics in order not to interfere with the text.

Footnotes and bibliographies would likewise tell your reader whom you are emphasizing. If you were emphasizing the lyricist, your entries would look like the following:

4 Patrick Galvin, poet, “Madwoman of Cork,” 1973, sung by John Spillane on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Galvin, Patrick, poet. “Madwoman of Cork.” 1973. On Hey Dreamer, John Spillane, composer/vocalist, track 10. UK: EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

If, however, you were emphasizing the vocalist, then you might want to reflect that in your parenthetical citation, and write it like this: (Spillane, “The Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3). If the text is in reference to recorded music, “stanza” could be replaced with the track number or track time instead.

Likewise, your footnote and bibliographic entries would put Spillane in the author’s section:

5John Spillane, composer/vocalist, “Madwoman of Cork,” on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Spillane, John, composer/vocalist. “Madwoman of Cork.” Hey Dreamer, track 10. EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

Both of these formats, whether they list they lyricist or the composer, are correct. Your choice tells your reader whom you are emphasizing in the text of your paper.

Scores

If you were citing the lyrics from a printed score and not a recording, you would reference the score as you would a book:

6 Daniel E. Gawthrop, “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. Behold this Mystery. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Sometimes it is helpful to know other contributors, such as librettists or which edition of the score you are working from (e.g. the full orchestral score, the piano reduction, or the choral arrangement):

7 Daniel E. Gawthrop (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist), “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery, SATB score (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist). Behold this Mystery (SATB score). Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Additional Help

For more explanations of parenthetical quotes as a supplement to notes and bibliography and how to format those parenthetical citations, see CMOS 13.64, 13.71 and 13.72.

For additional information on formatting and citing lyrics, take a look at the sections of CMOS 13.25-13.29, which specifically deals with poetry.

And of course, you can always come to the Writing Center!

Uncategorized

Transitioning from MLA to APA: Style, Purpose, and Headings

Shifting from MLA format to APA format can be a bit jarring. Because lower level classes use MLA format, you may be shocked to discover that other writing style and format requirements exist. APA formatting is required for specific audience needs within certain disciplines. Before you embark on your first journey with APA, keep a few key concepts in mind. Guidance in APA formatting, references, and in-text citations is readily accessible online and via APA manual, therefore the three following tips will address APA writing style and structure.

1. Writing with a desire to impress your professors may lure you to select flowery language, overly complicated sentence structure, and wordy phrases – all outside of APA bounds. MLA lends itself to creativity with descriptive language and a writing process to beautifully reveal main ideas throughout a paper, whereas APA format requires clear details and concise structure.

Example:

MLA: If, in the infinite reaches of the universe, there exists one being, object, or construct, and there appears yet another being, object, or construct of the same likeness, one might say there is now two of the same likeness. No being, object, or construct should be alone, but if there is only one universe, is it lonely?

APA: One object plus another object equals two objects. Objects, including the universe, do not have feelings, therefore cannot be lonely.

Hopefully this ridiculous example makes a point. Be accurate, clear, and concise. You need details for accuracy and clarity, but do not spend time with flowery language and complicated sentence structure to build up to a profound statement. In other words, do not withhold information to appear mysterious and thus create a grand entry or impress with language.  Be forthright about your subject and objectives, even throughout the introduction. If required, a hook beginning the introduction should be understandable and relatable, yet brief.

2. MLA and APA format lend themselves to differing thesis and/or purpose statements. Some professors ask that APA papers contain both a thesis statement and a purpose statement.   Thesis statements give the overarching idea or argument supported throughout the paper and may briefly summarize the main points. In contrast, purpose statements are rarely used in writing classes or English courses, which typically require arguing a position. To avoid jumping to conclusions, scientific writers often use a purpose statement instead: “The purpose of this paper is to…” The purpose statement directly states the writer’s intent, then may outline the main sections of the paper. For more information, see APU’s Writing Center handout on Thesis Statements.

3. APA format encourages the use of headings, whereas headings are much less common in MLA. Although APA format has five levels, a short paper may only need two or three first level headings. Unless specifically instructed by a professor, APA headings are used at the writer’s discretion. Headings can organize and streamline a writer’s thoughts and protect a paper’s structural integrity. A topical outline, of which you may be familiar, could be one of the easiest ways to develop brief APA headings. Each line could transfer as a particular level heading:

  I. Introduction

 Purpose/thesis statement: The purpose of this paper is to discuss the benefits of dog   ownership.

         II. Man’s Best Friend (1st Level Heading)

A. Loyalty and Affection (2nd Level Heading)

B. Play Time (2nd Level Heading)

         III. Health Benefits (1st Level Heading)

A. Stress Relief (2nd Level Heading)

B. Activity Increase (2nd Level Heading)

C. Support Animals (2nd Level Heading)

Using APA guidelines for formatting, these topical phrases could work well to divide a paper into focused sections. For further level headings, expand on one of the capital letters above (see letters A. through C.). If “Support Animals,” for instance, is a long section of the paper and includes different types of support animals with details on specific services, third, fourth, or fifth level headings may be utilized:

C. Support Animals (2nd Level as seen above)

1. Service and Working Animals (3rd Level Heading)

2. Emotional Support and Therapy (3rd Level Heading)

a. Home companion (4th Level Heading)

i. Depression relief (5th Level Heading)

ii. Anxiety relief (5th Level Heading)

b. Clinical setting (4th Level Heading)

i. Social function (5th Level Heading)

ii. Cognitive function (5th Level Heading)

The headings often correspond with paper length and complexity. If you use headings this detailed, you have likely committed to a lengthy, detailed paper. To decide on the number of headings needed, check the paper requirements and consider the amount of content you must cover / have collected. For examples of properly formatted headings, see APU’s Writing Center handout on APA Documentation or Purdue Owl’s APA Headings and Seriation.

When writing in APA format, be concise and correct while still providing the important details. This takes practice! Use direct communication, even at the start of the paper, especially as the purpose statement often references the paper itself. Finally, APA Level Headings are your friends. When you outline the paper before writing, the outline guides you, as it later guides the reader in the form of headings.

Genre, Writing in Music

Program Notes: FAQ

You’ve practiced and prepared for months for your recital. And then you find out, in addition to completing all the logistical details of putting together a concert—reserving the recital hall, requesting chairs and music stands, and recruiting a friend to be your accompanist’s page turner—you have to write something about the music you’ll be performing.

It may be tempting to treat your program notes as an afterthought, but they deserve care and time just like the other details of your performance. Unlike college papers, which only your classmates and professor read, your program notes will be read by everyone who comes to your recital! They may end up in family and friend’s collections of music programs as a memento of the event. Another student might model their program notes after yours. For these reasons, you want your program notes to be written well!

This blog post addresses some of the frequently asked questions concerning program notes that we have received at the Writing Center.

 What are program notes, and why should I write them?

Program notes provide information on musical works presented in a concert to enhance audience members’ experiences of the performance. You should write them because not everyone in your audience will be familiar with these pieces like you are—they may need some help in understanding what they are listening to.

Who is a program note for?

The audience for your program notes is the same as your concert-going audience. Your professors and applied music teachers might be a part of that audience, but you are not writing exclusively for them. You will likely have family and non-music major friends coming too. Write your program notes with these audience members in mind.

What components does a program note have?

There are many good ways to write a program note. If you’re not sure what format to follow, consider the following components:

  • The composer, and their composition spectrum: Some composers, like Beethoven or Brahms, might not need much introduction, but you may need to establish the musical significance lesser-known composers. You can detail who they are, what they’re known for, or even who or what influenced their musical styles. The important thing to remember is that your program notes are not a research paper. You do not have to incorporate all the facts you know about a composer; instead, choose facts that directly connect to the pieces you are playing. Yes, Béla Bartók was small and sickly as a child, but what does that have to do with any of his works that you may be performing?
  • The specific piece(s) you are playing: When was this work written? When was it first performed? What genre does it belong to? Who first performed it (or who made the work famous)? You do not need to answer all these questions, but use them as prompts to think about what things your audience should know about the work they are about to hear.
  • The distinctive musical elements these pieces contain: Now that your audience has a context for the piece they are about to hear, what should your audience listen for? Discuss key musical elements of the work in a way that will draw the listener’s attention to them. The program note is not a place to do a complete form and stylistic analysis of a work. But what components can you talk about that will draw the audience’s attention to its sound or how the work is organized?
  • As applicable, discuss challenges a work may present: One challenge may be that you’re performing an overly familiar work. Who hasn’t heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (op. 27, no. 2)? But many people have only heard the dreamy first movement—they haven’t heard the waltz, or the closing movement. Focus on educating your audience about the work’s unfamiliar aspects. Are you premiering a 21st century composition that you’re afraid an audience might not even like? Perhaps you can draw their attention to the work’s technical complexity, and give them something to watch for rather than listen for, such as advanced bowing techniques or quick movements from one end of the keyboard to another.
  • As applicable, provide the lyrics and a translation: If you’re a vocalist, these components will take up most of the program note’s space. Music and text go together, so it is important for your audience to understand what you are singing. If you cannot find a translation of the work, and you are not up to making a translation yourself, you can still provide a summary of what the lyrics mean.

The important thing to remember is that you do not have to “prove” to anyone that you know something in your program notes. Instead, purposefully choose facts and concepts that will help your audience appreciate the pieces you are performing. Use these questions as prompts to generate information applicable to your program.

Can I talk about my own choices as an artist? Or my own musical process?

Absolutely! What you choose to talk about depends entirely on your concert program and the objectives of your recital. If you’re a composer and the concert program consists of your music, then it is expected that you talk about your compositional choices. If you’re a performing artist, use the conversations you have had with your applied lessons instructor about the technical execution or artistic interpretation of the piece as resources for your program notes.

How long should my program notes be?

Each program note should be at least a paragraph (but two paragraphs are also fine). If it helps, aim for 100 to 300 words per program note.

Should I include citations in my program notes?

If you look at program notes from a variety of concerts, you’ll see that some include citations while others do not. It entirely depends on the program, and who is performing in it. Your ensemble director may not provide citations because he or she is the authority on that particular music—it would seem redundant (or arrogant) to cite their own published works. Or, as an artist who has prepared the piece, they can competently talk about a work’s musical style. A composer may not provide citations for the program notes because they are the authority on their own music. Performers are the most likely to include citations. In their case, providing citations is one way to demonstrate their authority as not only an artist, but also as a curator of knowledge about these works. You should follow the academic conventions you have learned for choosing and citing sources.

Where can I find examples of program notes?

Collect the program notes of the concerts you attend and perform in! Reverse-outline the notes: what does your ensemble director decide to include in his or her notes? How do your fellow students talk about their repertoire? How do the program notes for a performance major’s recital differ from a composition major’s recital? Do some of your own investigation to discover what might work best for your program and your audience.

How can the Writing Center help me with my program notes?

Our staff consists of your concert-going audience! Many of us may not be music majors (though some of us are), but we sing in community choirs, play in church worship bands, have parents or siblings who are performing musicians, or are classical music buffs just because that music tradition is awesome! Some of us may not be as familiar with Western art music, but would come to a performance if our friends or family members were in it! Ask us for our honest thoughts on your program notes, and keep our suggestions in mind when you revise them.

What other resources on program notes does the Writing Center have?

Be on the lookout for a new handout on program notes at the Writing Center! We’d also love to hear from you: What other questions do you have about program notes? Bring your questions or comments—and a draft of your program notes—to your next Writing Center appointment!

Research Tips

Research Tip: Use Google Scholar’s “Cited By” Tool

At the beginning of this new fall semester, many of us might be planning our upcoming research projects. With those plans in mind, this blog begins with my personal analogy for literature review genres: a guided tour. That analogy is presented in order to speak to a common frustration that students encounter when extending their own research projects by examining the reference listings of their main sources. Such referencing (by nature) always moves to older sources. All of these topics are explored in order to describe a tool on Google Scholar that can connect to newer research projects instead of older ones.

Reference Lists as Tour Guides

Most of your time in student research will likely involve building confidence in personal abilities through identifying your preferences for topics, key terms, publication portals, search methods, disciplinary standards, and ethical considerations. In other words: identifying your specializations. During this complicated growth, students naturally value those research writers who most clearly guide their readers through the complex materials. Those leading research authors move through their sources like an expert tour guide, focusing their comments specifically on what interests the group’s shared focus They don’t explain the whole article, but rather they highlight its relevant features in light of the larger theme. For a good analogy, think of a guided “star tour” that focuses on homes in the Hollywood area. They can slow down or pull over the mini-bus for a moment, but they can’t say very much about any individual site: there’s a tour to complete and traffic to consider.

Hopefully, you are already starting to find some preferred voices in your field. Even at more advanced stages of research, though, some students still might not have cited enough sources or might not have worked in topics where they felt sufficiently expert to have come to a level of mastery. Thus, they might fail to truly appreciate how their articles’ own reference lists provide maps to relevant research within the field. Such students overlook valuable resources for their research growth, though. If you have never done such a review, then I encourage you to immediately go to one of your most memorable sources from a recent (or ongoing) paper in order to do exactly that.

Using your best authors’ reference lists to find any texts you have not yet uncovered will eventually become an integral step in your research projects. However, even though most students eventually learn this value of reviewing their reference lists, many also give up on the practice soon after beginning it. In such cases, they might feel that this activity creates a different problem of “swimming upstream” against their need for more recently published sources. Luckily, even if you have given up on these practices before, a tool on Google Scholar should prove helpful.

Finding Reference Links to Newer Publications

Some lucky students (and now, all you readers) will then also stumble across a tool on Google Scholar that can allow you to find other, newer sources that have cited the article in their own reference lists. Thus, instead of going backward in time to older publications, you can use this tool to find later publications that continued to explore the same questions, procedures, and insights.

In the tour guide analogy above, this tool would be like having an informant inside the biggest real estate agent’s office or a listening device inside the leading escrow agency. It would help you get the hot, juicy details of what is most current in your field. It would help you to stay ahead of your competitors. If you have not begun using this tool, then I encourage you to try it out soon. Find one of your sources, and then go search for the author and some keywords from the title on http://scholar.google.com to load the article. On the search results, a link below your article will show the number of authors that have published documents citing your source. A nice compliment to any reference-selection process!

Even if you have already started to use this tool, though, you might also consider whether (and how well) you look specifically for places in a text where your authors indicate such connections.

Advanced Tip: Try to Detect Author Cues in Their Signal Phrases

As students, comprehending available data can get directly limited by our lack of knowledge about the history of interconnected research institutions or projects represented inside those sources. Names or jargon terms will be dropped that resound with the audience in a way that we students might simply miss. The in-text naming of sources that APA and other author-date sources use can make things even more unclear. However, once you have started looking at your authors’ reference pages for connections, then you might also try to notice times when your authors indicate such patterns in their own wording.

Even though their wording will always refer to past sources, the connection of these sources over time will likely fit within a specific ongoing research community, and tracking their reference connections (both backward and forward) will prove very efficient to your growth of understanding. In literature review sections especially, consider “tuning in” to the possibility of important links when authors use phrases like:

  • “We have previously established that”
  • “Once Howard (2013) noted the correlation between”
  • “Ongoing debate”

Or words like:

  • Shift, transition, advance, progress, discovered
  • development, re-examination, reconsideration

Or when they name leading institutions

  • CERN in particle physics
  • American Medical Association in health
  • International Atomic Energy Agency on nuclear power
  • CISCO in networking
  • etc.

Depending on your field, you might find this “cited by” tool and the associated observation of wording to be of greater or lesser usefulness, but try them out with your next project, and I am sure that you will be more pleased in the final quality of your reference listings than you had been on the projects you completed before you made the switch.

Write on, friends!

Doctoral Writing

Dissertation Literature Reviews: How do I Write One?

In the first blog post of this series, we talked about why literature reviews are important to the academic endeavor and how the process itself shapes a person into a credible scholar and researcher. In the second blog post, we looked at what components a literature review has and discussed how to determine its intellectual quality. Now that we understand literature reviews as a genre, we can get practical: how do we write a literature review?

Randolph (2009) outlines five steps to creating a lit review:

  1. Problem formulation
  2. Data collection
  3. Data evaluation
  4. Analysis and interpretation
  5. Public presentation

These steps should be familiar to you: they mirror the process for any research project, whether it is a term paper or a dissertation. You will go through many of the same processes as you write your lit review as well as use many of the same skills. So the good news is you are well equipped!

For our discussion, assume that you have already completed steps one through three—you formulated your research question, you found the related literature, and you’ve evaluated the literature and decided which sources you’ll include in your lit review. We’ll talk about steps four and five as three separate parts: organize, synthesize, and make an argument. These three components roughly correlate to a lit review’s what, so what, and now what components, respectively: a lit review synthesizes what we already know about a topic, tell us why this knowledge is important, and outlines what needs to be done next. I’ll continue using Wych (2012) as an example of these principles.

 Analysis: Organize

Analysis involves examining the parts of a body of literature so that we can understand its composition. Analysis answers the question “what elements does this literature have?” Analyzing a topic will often determine how the literature review should be organized. Cooper’s taxonomy lays out three organizational schemes—historical, conceptual, and methodological.

Wych (2012) conceptually organized her lit review. She lays out eight concepts, or categories:

  1. Gender typing of instruments
  2. Instrument preferences of young (pre-band/ pre-orchestra) students
  3. Opinions about which gender should play which instruments
  4. Gender influences during the instrument selection process
  5. Status of gender stratification within existing performing ensembles
  6. Perceptions of musicians in relation to their gender and instrument
  7. Theories as to why gender associations and stereotypes occur
  8. Attempts at remediation

These categories are her study’s first-level headers. They lay out the components of how gender and instrument choice are related. Wych (2012) examines nineteen articles in her lit review, but rather than sequentially giving summaries of each study (as if she was writing an annotated bibliography), she mentions several studies across categories to put them in conversation with each other. For example, an article that discusses gender typing of instruments probably also talked about how that concept influences people’s opinions about which gender should play which instruments. Wych would talk about the article in both places.

Wych (2012) organizes her lit review conceptually, but lit reviews can also be organized historically (also called chronologically) or by methodology. I’ll use an example from my own work to illustrate this point. If I was writing a lit review examining pivotal studies on music practices in Nepal with a goal of theoretical criticism, then I could chronologically organize the lit review. That way, I could examine how theories from different decades impacted ethnomusicologists’ work during those same time periods. Or, if the lit review on the same topic was more comprehensive with the goal of integration, I could organize it by common categories in ethnomusicology, such as folk music, popular music, and classical music. If the goal of my lit review was to identify central methodological issues, then I could organize it by methods: Which studies used participant-observation? Which studies used music analysis? Which ones relied on surveys? Did anyone use interviews? Were all these methods qualitative, or were any quantitative? Examining the literature in this way might allow me to demonstrate what approaches have been fruitful, and what approaches ethnomusicologists should try next.

Whichever way you decide to organize your sources, this analysis allows your reader to see what has been done in the field. But you don’t want to stop at putting like items together—your next aim is to tell your reader so what, or what these studies mean.

Interpret: Synthesize

The easiest way to tell readers what these composite parts mean is to walk your reader through an argument. Let’s examine one of Wych’s (2012) paragraphs to see how she accomplishes this:

A natural question when considering gender-based instrument association is what role the director might play in conforming to or rejecting these stereotypes. Johnson and Stewart (2004) examined this effect by….These results were corroborated by a second study investigating the effects of both race and gender on instrument assignment…These results are reassuring that instructor bias does not seem to play a major role in instrument assignment…These findings indicate that conceptions and preferences brought into the selection process by students themselves are stronger factors in creating gender-based associations than are any biases of the educators facilitating the selection process. (p. 26)

In this paragraph, Wych (2012) starts with a question that her target audience will most likely have. Starting your argument with audience assumptions is a common argument strategy. She starts with this idea to get her reader’s attention, but then demonstrates how the literature leads to a different conclusion. The phrases in bold tell the reader how they should interpret the summaries she is giving. While Wych appropriately attributes information, she is confident in her own interpretation: notice that not every sentence has a citation at the end.

We can glean two principles from Wych’s (2012) example: It is ok to include summaries of the studies under consideration, as long as your reader understands why you are talking about them. Also, you should not be afraid to tell your reader what these things mean.

Presentation: Make an Argument

You should not just present information in your literature review; you should still make an argument. The principle you learned about thesis statements in essay writing applies to lit reviews as well: have a main point about your body of literature, and support it.

The goal of the literature review will determine the thesis statement. Generally, dissertation literature reviews argue for a gap in the literature, so your lit review should justify the gap you perceive—and that your dissertation research will fill. Because lit reviews can be complex, it is ok to make several points about your literature. If it helps, you can follow a what, so what, now what format: tell your reader what you are looking at, why it matters, and what should happen next.

Wych (2012) makes this argument in both her introduction and conclusion. Here is how she re-states her points in her conclusion:

[what] It is clear through this body of research that gender-based instrument stereotypes not only exist [so what] but also are affecting the choices beginning band students make and the experiences they encounter throughout their time in public school music. Although some attempts at remediation have been made, gender remains an active influence in students’ decision-making process…[now what] Further work in this area will benefit efforts to construct an environment in which students can choose whichever instrument fits them best, free of gender-based stereotypes. (p. 30)

Just make sure you not only tell your reader what, but also so what, and what the next steps are—which in the case of a dissertation, the “now what” is the new research findings the dissertation presents.

The Writing Process

Some students think they must re-invent their writing process when they encounter a lit review for the first time. Some of the writing habits that served you in the past may not serve you when writing a lit review, thus you may indeed need to revisit them (e.g. procrastinate, stay up writing all night before the due date, then turn in whatever you generated at 3AM as your “research paper”). But that is not necessarily so. You most likely took notes while reading your literature, and began thinking about your paper as you read. You may have even started outlining your paper before you completed reading all your literature. If that is the case, then you have already begun writing your lit review!

Nevertheless, to calm some fears, I’ll talk about the writing process I usually follow—not because my writing process is the best, but because it is the process I know best.

  • Start where you are most comfortable: I always start with my body paragraphs, and I will start on whichever point I feel most confident about. I can always go back and write other points later in my writing process.
  • Pace yourself: If I only write a few paragraphs a day, then I am making progress!
  • Writing is recursive: I rarely finish one section before moving onto another one. I often find myself working on several sections of my paper at the same time. That is ok.
  • Resist the urge to edit at first: Line editing is my favorite stage of the writing process. But I don’t want to waste my time wrangling a sentence from passive to active voice, musing over word choice, or looking for prepositional phrases to cut if I’m not sure that sentence will end up in my final draft. So I first write a draft that would embarrass even Anne Lamott, decide on organization, and strengthen support before I even think of editing.
  • Make pre- and post-draft outlines: I usually have a not-so-detailed outline of my paper that guides my first draft, but before I revise my first draft, I reverse-outline it. This exercise allows me to take stock of what I actually wrote, see at-a-glance what gaps I may have in my argument, and see if I need to consider a different organization.
  • Write your conclusion, and then your introduction: Remember, the writing process is also your learning process. By the time I’ve written my paper’s body, I know what my main points are, so I can write a good conclusion that summarizes my paper’s argument. I usually discover that the restatement of my thesis in my conclusion is clearer than my original iteration, so I cut and paste it into my introduction as my main thesis statement. Only then can I think about what would be helpful to my reader before they read my argument.

In sum: your reader will read your lit review from top to bottom, but you do not have to write it from top to bottom!

Final Thoughts

The purpose of a lit review—usually to lay out and evaluate what other people have had to say on a topic and determine what research needs to be done next—may be slightly different than other kinds of papers, but the process of researching and writing a literature review is the same as writing any other academic paper. Take the time to evaluate your own lit review alongside the guidelines in these three blog posts. Now, how does your literature review measure up? Which areas do you need to revise?

References

Cooper, H.M. (1988). Organizing knowledge syntheses: A taxonomy of literature reviews. Knowledge in Society, 1, 104-126.

Randolph, J.J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(13), 1-13. Retrieved from http://pareonline.net/pdf/v14n13.pdf

Wych, G.M.F. (2012). Gender and instrument associations, stereotypes, and stratification: A literature review. Update, 30(2), 22-31. doi: 10.1177/8755123312437049

Doctoral Writing

Dissertation Literature Reviews: What Components Does a Good Literature Review Have?

In the last blog post, we talked about why literature reviews are important to the academic endeavor and how the process itself makes a person into a credible scholar and a researcher.

In this blog post, we will look at the components of a literature review and discuss how to evaluate its contents.

Components of a Lit Review: Cooper’s Taxonomy

Harris M. Cooper—a social psychologist now at Duke University who writes about research methods and research syntheses (aka, lit reviews!)—came up with a taxonomy to gauge the quality of lit reviews in psychology and education. His categories are in Table 1:

Table 1. Cooper’s Taxonomy of Literature Reviews

Characteristics Categories
Focus Research outcomes

Research methods

Theories

Practices or applications

Goal Integration

a)     Generalization

b)    Conflict resolution

c)     Linguistic bridge-building

Criticism

Identification of central issues

Perspective Neutral representation

Espousal of a position

Coverage Exhaustive

Exhaustive with selective criteria

Representative

Central or pivotal

Organization Historical

Conceptual

Methodological

Audience Specialized scholars

General scholars

Practitioners or policymakers

General public

Note. Adapted from “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” by H.M. Cooper, 1988, Knowledge in Society 1, p. 109. Copyright by Springer Science and Business Media.

This taxonomy articulates the characteristics that a literature review should have. The column on the right lists the possible choices for the components in the column on the left.

I’ve applied this taxonomy to a literature review from music education to illustrate how it works. Wych (2012) discusses how gender stereotypes influence which instruments students choose when they start a school music program. Table 2 summarizes her literature review:

Table 2. Cooper’s Taxonomy Applied to Wych’s Literature Review

Characteristics Categories
Focus Research outcomes

Research methods

Theories

 

Goal Integration

Identification of central issues

Perspective Espousal of a position

 

Coverage Central or pivotal

Representative

Organization Conceptual

 

Audience Practitioners

 

We can construct a succinct description of Wych (2012) using these characteristics:

Wych’s (2012) lit review has the goal of integrating what we know about how gender stereotypes influence student instrument choice, but she is not neutral in her approach. Her perspective is an espousal of a position: her audience—in this case, music instructors—needs to counteract the influence of gender stereotypes on student instrument choice. An additional goal emerges from this position: she talks about the central issue of counteracting these gender stereotypes as they relate to instrument selection. To convince her audience, she focuses on research outcomes as well as theories, but briefly covers research methods and study design to evaluate how we know these things. She covers pivotal studies in this area, supplemented by more recent, representative works. She organizes this literature—nineteen articles—conceptually by dividing it into eight different categories.

As Wych’s writing demonstrates, a lit review can combine several characteristics in each of the categories. So while Cooper (1988) developed this taxonomy with psychology and education in mind, it is helpful in examining lit reviews from other disciplines too.

Evaluating a Lit Review

Cooper’s taxonomy is a good starting point for thinking about the components of a lit review and whether or not individual lit reviews meet all the criteria. But how do you determine if a lit review is good? You can ask questions to determine a lit review’s intellectual quality. Cooper (1988) identifies three components of intellectual quality: (a) clarity and resolve, (b) increased explanatory and predictive power, and (c) consistency, conciseness, and elegance. Let’s see how Wych (2012) addresses these components.

Clarity and Resolve

First, a good lit review clearly articulates which of these characteristics it addresses. Cooper (1988) calls this utility. He judges a lit review’s utility by seeing if it answered the questions it asked: Does the reviewer make the aim of their review clear to their reader? Do the components work together as a logical whole? In writing center speak, does a writer clearly articulate a main point, provide convincing evidence to support their point, and organize their argument well? Good prose is much more than pretty writing—it communicates the aims of a study!

Wych’s (2012) research question is implied, but nevertheless clear: how does the perceived relationship between gender and musical instruments influence grade school students’ instrument selection when they enter a school music program? She then examines how existing literature answers this question. The concepts around which she organizes her lit review identify multiple variables related to gender that can influence a student’s choice of musical instrument.

Increased Explanatory and Predictive Power

Wych (2012) identifies several trends concerning why one gender plays some instruments more than others, and makes predictions from those trends. Consider the following: “These findings indicate that as long as this group of elementary-age students continues in instrumental music, proportions of females in traditionally male-typed instruments in high school and college ensembles should increase” (Wych, 2012, p. 27). Additionally, Wych (2012) notes a possible, useful additional study: “A replication of this study would be of value to the music education community to further track gender proportion trends through the 1990s and 2000s” (p.27). The explanatory and predictive power of Wych’s review is really strong throughout.

Consistency, Conciseness, and Elegance

Style consistency also provides cohesion to a work, and differs from discipline to discipline. Likewise, conciseness is relative: it depends on the subject, discipline, and publication forum. A discipline’s values will determine the elegance of a written work. In other words, is the lit review a pleasure to read? Does it follow the conventions of academic prose?

Wych (2012) follows APA style conventions within her lit review, as the journal in which it is published follows APA style guidelines. APA values conciseness, so Wych’s review is short: it is only nine printed pages long, including the reference list. For APA, elegance is usually equated with conciseness.

Overall, Wych’s (2012) lit review has a high intellectual quality—we have a bigger picture of the phenomenon, ways to explain it, and guideposts for further action, all conveyed within elegant prose.

 What <> So What <> Now What

Someone recently described a literature review to me as an answer to three short questions on a topic: What? So What? Now What? In other words, lit reviews synthesize what we already know about a topic, tell us why this knowledge is important, and identify what research needs to be done next. We’ll look closely at how this framework manifests in the construction of a lit review in our next blog post.

References

Cooper, H.M. (1988). Organizing knowledge syntheses: A taxonomy of literature reviews. Knowledge in Society, 1, 104-126.

Wych, G.M.F. (2012). Gender and instrument associations, stereotypes, and stratification: A literature review. Update, 30(2), 22-31. doi: 10.1177/8755123312437049