I’ve been asked to say more about the laundry list literature review. The laundry list is often called ‘He said, she said” – as one of the most usual forms of the laundry list is when most sentences start with a name. And the laundry list is a problem. It’s hard to read and not very fit for purpose.
So, what does a laundry list look like? Below is a page of a published book. It is taken from a chapter reviewing the literatures on neoliberalism in ‘the university’. It’s a laundry list. I have:
- underlined in red the sentence where the author says what they are trying to do (you might call this a topic sentence)
- circled the sentences that feature a scholar as the subject of the sentence.
Now let’s see what’s going on in the writing. The second paragraph on the first page begins with the author’s intention – to establish that it is difficult to define neoliberalism. They then offer two supporting pieces of evidence for this contention – one from Ferguson and the other from Bell and Green. But is the point of this paragraph to say who said what? Well no. It’s the various interpretations of the term that matter, not who was responsible for them.
Let me re-draft these two sentences to focus on the author’s intention.
Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005).
What is now made clearer in the re-draft is that this is actually not yet a paragraph. I’ll continue by adding in further information from the next two paragraphs.
Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005). Neoliberalism is also almost always derogatory when used to refer to economic/political policy (Fish, 2009) which produces austerity through the rationality of markets, entrepreneurialism and competition (De Lissavoy, 2014). The term is also associated with ‘bureaucratisation’ (Hibou, 2015), processes of rationalisation and professionalization, driven by the quest for neutrality, objectivity and professionalization, which govern key aspects of everyday life.
So that will do as a new draft. It can be worked on further later.
The next paragraph should move on from the need for clarity to offer the definition that the author will use. Now let’s look at the next page.
Let me try a bit of a rework on that too.
How then can the term neoliberalism be understood? Barnett (2005) suggests that it refers to the discreet alteration of the class-driven reform of the state to benefit free markets. Neoliberalism is a form of ideologically driven policies and government that supports privatisation, the free market and increased competition.
You can see that I have left Barnett here as a sentence subject. It is not that you never write about an author. The reason I have left Barnett here as the sentence subject is because he is The Key Scholar that the author uses for the definition that informs their book. While we might not agree with them or their definition, when we read Barnett in the sentence, we are clear on what authority the author’s work rests. ( The same is also true for scholar Springer at the top of page one. Springer is also a key source for the author.)
And note, my new second paragraph splits the author’s current third paragraph. I’ve turned three non-paragraphs into two. But perhaps they need some further evidencing/referencing. Yes, it is pretty obvious that my new second paragraph in particular needs a bit more work – more evidence and argument would strengthen the case being made as well as showing the breadth and depth of reading in the field. You see, once you get away from the he said she said list, you get to show that there is a quantum of evidence for the point you want to make, rather than a less than persuasive single citation. (And note that in re-drafting I have got rid of the ‘therefore’ sentence – this is where the author has tried to reinsert their own post-listing voice and interpretation.)
In sum, my redrafting has:
- collapsed three paragraphs into two, each one makes their own move in the argument. The first point is that there is confusion about the term neoliberalism, the second offers a working definition of it.
- avoided the repetitive use of he says, notes, proposes etc.
- changed some klutzy expression – I moved into brackets the cumbersome double reference – Bell and Green drawing on Latour – so it’s now not too tricky to read.
- made the writing more authoritative – I removed the abrupt shift into the author’s own view via ‘therefore’ – the entire two paragraphs are now the author managing the discussion of the substantive topic.
- moved some sentences from passive to active voice – see paragraph two in particular.
- highlighted the most important work that the author is using – Barnett
- produced an argument – I’m not simply reporting summaries of other people’s work, but have made two points supported by evidence.
And the two paragraphs are now ready for further polishing.
If you go on reading the second page, you’ll see the listing pattern repeated. The author’s next paragraph is about how neoliberalism has permeated the university, as is the one after. I’m afraid the first paragraph on page two doesn’t even have an opening sentence about the topic – instead there is a give away sentence about writers. And then comes the list and the author inserting themselves at the end trying to make their point.
The same process of de-listing and re-writing that I’ve already done could be done here. You might even like to try rewriting this text yourself, particularly if you are still working on how to move away from listing.
But the original wasn’t a disaster. It’s not that the author doesn’t know what they want to say. They do. They have grouped the relevant literatures into clumps that move through a tacit argument. And they do have a point to make. It’s really that the text could have been much better.
But that’s the laundry list issue for you. By focusing on writers rather than the substantive issue under discussion, authors end up listing and then trying to draw things together. They write paragraphs that aren’t really paragraphs but collections of sentences lacking a sensible opener and closer. Laundry list writers don’t really manage the argument – their case is nowhere near as clear as it ought to be. And when this pattern of listing goes on and on – as this one does for an entire chapter – it becomes a repetitive and dull read. In this particular book, this is the only chapter that is so dreary; the rest is much more readable.
It is no accident that it is the literature chapter where such problems occur. Listing is often an issue in thesis literatures work. If you currently have a laundry list in your literature review, then see it as a draft. It’s not too late or hard to rewrite it – you just need to take charge of the text.
Don’t let other authors hog the lime-light. It’s your work and you need to tell it how it is for you.