Academic writers often lose themselves when writing about literatures. It is easier to be textually confident when writing about what you did yourself than to summarise, synthesise and assess other people’s texts. Particularly if those texts are produced by more experienced and well regarded writers. It is even more tricky to put your analysis of the literatures to work in your own interests.
Anywhere in your text where there is a discussion of other people’s work is a prime site for revising and refining. Advice often confines the focus for revision on a literature “review”. But you are likely to have used literatures all the way through your text – to establish context, to locate your work, to show what you have used to build your study and analyse its results, to establish your research design, to explain the contribution.
Whether you have a standalone literature chapter or a section of text, it can be very informative to look for a pattern of writing in which you disappear. The disappearing writer syndrome is a product of a particular approach to literatures work – you discuss other people’s work first, usually in the form of a laundry list, and then briefly refer to your own. The brief reference to your work often lacks specificity.
Here’s an example of the disappearing writer
A number of papers examine how Art can develop students’ creativity. These include a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020), the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project which identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011), the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017). Art’s benefits to creativity have been detected in students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019). A study from Israel used students’ performance in other art forms (performing arts) as an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003). Others suggest that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). Commentators have contentiously suggested that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). The research highlights the value on creativity of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), the students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001). My research draws on this body of work.
It is clear from this paragraph that the writer has read, summarised and synthesised a body of work about art education and creativity. Key points have been established. However, the author and their research comes last in the paragraph – other people’s work is discussed, their own comes a distant last.
Furthermore, if we look at the verb following the author and verbs allocated to other writers, we can see that the writer is drawing on, while others have detected, used, suggested, contentiously suggested and highlighted. The verb ‘drawing on’ also shows the writer beholden to the work of others, rather than being a confident selector and user.
What’s more, we don’t have a clue what of the above literature has been used in the writer’s own research, and how. We simply know that it matters, somehow.
It is not necessarily a problem to devote space in a text to another person’s writing. There will likely always be some writing in literatures work which does discuss a key writer or two and their works. But discussing one author especially germane to your study is not the same as showing how a particular group of texts have informed your research.
So what to do? Step one. Read for this pattern – a big listicle of other people’s work followed by a vague reference to your own – when revising. Found some do this? Step two. Try the easiest rewriting tactic – simply reverse the order of things and put yourself first. This switch automatically requires you to manage the introduction and discussion of the literatures texts more authoritatively, and with more detail. Rather than disappear, the writer comes first.
I have begun to rewrite the listy paragraph using the put-the-writer-first strategy.
My research investigates the ways in which Art education contributes to creativity. There is already evidence that there is a strong correlation between art education and creativity: a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020) of the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (see also Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011; the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017)). Researchers have suggested that: students’ performance performing arts is an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003); students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation leads to creativity (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019); and that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). There has even been a suggestion that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). Most pertinent to my research topic is research which suggests the value of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001); I built these insights into the research tools I used ( see Methodology and Methods)
Your text won’t look exactly like this of course. This is not a sentence skeleton. And this is a far from finalised draft. It is simply the next stage of drafting.
But you can now see the argument moves in the redrafted paragraph – this is my research, there is evidence to show that my research in this area is warranted, I have used some of the research as a building block – and their effect. The paragraph is about the writer’s research.
Switching the author to the front of the text has shifted the focus away from other people’s work to their own research. And note the authoring verbs which show that the writer is taking researcherly actions – investigating and using – activities on a par with those whose texts are discussed – and making evaluations through the use of a qualifier – most pertinent. In a literatures chapter these moves may occur over a long series of paragraphs rather than one. In a journal article, there may be very few.
However, the switcheroo move to find the disappearing writer often works for rewriting both long and short engagements with other people’s work.