On Following Rules

Over the course of my life, I have often found it difficult to follow rules or instructions that didn’t make sense to me.  This is distinct from finding it difficult to follow instructions because I don’t like being ordered around. Like many people, I dislike being ordered around. Sometimes I resist instructions or rules that actually make perfect sense just because I dislike being ordered around. But that’s not the kind of difficulty following rules that interests me here. This is about following instructions without understanding those instructions.

Throughout my schooling, I found it difficult to do things “just because.” If instructions didn’t make sense to me, then it was hard to follow them. When math classes told me to just learn the process, I struggled. As a writer, when writing was something I was forced to do, and the rules of grammar were just rules I had to follow, they made no sense and I struggled to follow them. Once I realized that writing was something I wanted to do (or at least that it was a way to communicate ideas I wanted to communicate), and I saw grammar and punctuation as helping me accomplish what I wanted, grammar and punctuation became much easier. Still, recognizing grammar and punctuation as tools to communicate does not make me sympathetic to small-minded grammarians who want to reduce grammar to simple rules. Rules can help, but they can also hinder.

My new book, Literature Review and Research Design, is very much an outgrowth of the spirit that following rules can be a problem.  In this blog post, I’m primarily in the personal side of this—the sense of motivation and purpose—and the difference between doing things because they make sense to you and doing them because someone says you have to (or should). 

Research and Rules

Research (and life more generally) doesn’t always follow rules.  Crucial to research, in particular, is a willingness to challenge accepted ideas and accepted methods.  But the willingness to challenge accepted ideas and methods has to be blended with the confidence to take action. And where does the confidence to act come from?

Rules can be a very good thing. One place to find confidence to act is by following rules: if you follow the instructions laid out by someone who came before you—someone with expertise (or at least who claimed expertise)—then rules can provide a structure that gives confidence: “If I follow the recipe precisely, I will get a good result.” This ability to follow instructions is extremely valuable in learning of any sort.

But rules need to be applied judiciously.  Rules applied in the wrong context can lead to poor results. Following the wrong rule at the wrong time can lead to error. For example, the common English spelling rule “i before e except after c” isn’t going to help you spell height or weight right. Knowing a rule, or having a set of instructions to follow is not a guarantee of success. Understanding how or when to apply a rule is crucial.

The problem I have in following rules is when I can’t see the sense of purpose.  That lack of insight makes it hard for me to understand how to apply the rules—without knowing how things worked, it’s very difficult to use the rules.  I suppose I mostly think about this in the area of grammar where I really struggled for a long time.  When writing was a task imposed by school teachers, the rules of grammar were just another structure that made an unpleasant exercise even more unpleasant. Now that I have ideas I want to communicate, those rules can help, and having that sense of purpose provides me guidance in applying the rules of grammar and knowing when to violate them.

Writers led astray

In my experience, many dissertation writers struggle because they don’t understand the place and purpose of literature and literature review in the research process. This is at least partly attributable to the fact that “literature review” can mean many different things, and following the rules to create the wrong kind of literature can be a counter-productive time sink. Having a better sense of how research proceeds can help writers avoid this problem.

At the large scale, there common conceptions of the scientific process that hold a mistaken view about what the scientist/research does and how science/research works in practice. This mistaken view plays into the problems that many researchers have with the literature review, particularly at the beginning of the research process. At a smaller scale, I think this comes from specific misconceptions about the purpose of the literature review itself.  These are not entirely unrelated, but I think it worth separating them. 

Common mistaken view of research

On the large scale, the concern that I see for the placement of the literature review in the research process is that it is common to think of research as starting with a definition of the problem.  But in research, as well as in research design, defining the question is a problem in its own right.  For research, in the large, defining a question is difficult because it is often difficult to define concepts (and there is the related difficulty of how to observe/measure those concepts—the problem of operationalization).  

Furthermore, this notion that research starts by defining a question tends to ignore some practical realities of research.  Firstly, there is the simple issue of time and growth: learning often involves discovering that the old questions we asked weren’t the right questions, and this means that over time the project definition/problem definition that seems best will change. 

Additionally, defining a project typically involves not only the theoretical concerns of the researcher, but also a negotiation with a research community—for a dissertation writer, their community starts with their professors. You don’t just come up with a project: you have to convince people to support it, and that often involves accepting their input.

These issues in defining problems are resolved with practice that develops the judgement to know which questions are worth asking, a confidence in the choice of theories and methods, and a way of convincing other members of the research community to support the work.  But these issues of defining a research problem/question complicate the use of literature review—or at least certain kinds of literature reviews.

Common confusion about “literature review”

And on the more specific scale, there is the question of what a literature review is and what it is used for. The phrase “literature review” can refer to a wide range of different activities. On the one hand, “literature review” can be a process of gathering and reading literature and learning from it. On the other, it can be a presentation of material to an audience. Different types of literature review suit different contexts. In some contexts, working on the wrong type of literature review can be wasted effort or even a positive barrier to progress.

A lot of people approach the literature review as partly a task of reading everything of potential relevance and partly a display of that wide range of sources and ideas. This is, I think, a fairly common view of what a literature review should be. It is a view that probably causes a fair amount of grief.  If your purpose is to design your own research project—something that requires focus and commitment despite uncertainty–then tasks that spread your attention across many competing ideas will be a terrible distraction, and possibly a source of growing doubt.

Choosing when to follow the rules

The way I see it, the dissertation project is primarily about learning to make your own choices about how to manage your work and your efforts. You choose the project; you choose how to study it; you choose who to present the work. (Admittedly, all this occurs in the context of a community that may exert a lot of influence over what you can do, but still, the goal is to work independently.)  Among the choices are those of which rules to follow and when.

Sometimes I think that the most crucial personal factor that determines success as a researcher is a degree of blind self-confidence—a strong belief in the self, so that the questions and uncertainties that deter those who are less certain do not slow or stop the researcher.  Every researcher faces uncertainties. Some researchers carefully survey each uncertainty as a serious obstacle. Others roll right over those doubts with blind self-confidence. While a researcher needs to be able to learn from criticism, and to learn their own problems and problems with their research, a researcher also needs to be able to put aside doubt in favor of action. But I don’t want to make this about self-confidence, but rather about having a sense of purpose.

The clearer you own sense of purpose, the easier it is to make the choice to follow rules or not. Or which rules to follow.

In the case of dissertations and literature reviews for dissertations, there are a lot of people out there propounding rules for behavior that will allegedly lead to success (in the literature review specifically and the dissertation more generally)—including me—so maybe the question is: which rules will you choose, and why?

My recommendation for a place to start a literature review: look at the American Psychological Association Publication Manual’s discussion of the introduction to a scholarly article, and especially the “background” section of that. (This is based on the 6th edition. The 7th edition was recently released, but I do not yet have a copy.) 

How to Escape the Literature Review Trap

Recently, I’ve been wondering why I didn’t name my book “Research Design and Literature Review” (Instead of Literature Review and Research Design).  To me, the heart of the book lies in prioritizing research design over some abstract  and poorly defined notion of “literature review.”  In retrospect, this seems ironic because the book grew out of my own attempts to define “literature review” and so I was focusing on an abstract and poorly defined notion of “literature review” rather than on research design.

The book had its inception in notes I wrote as a dissertation coach/editor for a researcher needing to finish a literature review. But there was some significant question as to what was needed.  The questions that we worked on together were ones that I had already encountered with other dissertation writers, and the notes that I wrote felt to me like the heart of a potential book. It felt like an opportunity to write something that could help people, especially dissertation writers like those that I had worked with over the years. In particular, it seemed like it could help people struggling with a set of related problems in dealing with the literature—a set of problems I have recently been calling “the literature review trap.” But, in a way, with that name, I also trap myself into thinking about “literature review” instead of the matter that is really crucial: research design.

The Literature Review Trap

Basically, the literature review trap is spending time and effort trying to deal with the literature instead of spending time and effort focusing on your own project.  There are three main manifestations of this: 1. thinking that you need to read more before you start your own project; 2. giving up in despair because you think you’ll never read enough; and, 3. writing extremely long literature reviews that don’t help you focus on your own project.

There’s a lot of literature out there, and with only a little effort, it’s easy to find new material that you could read that might be relevant to your project. This is especially true if your project is not clearly defined, because the fewer the limits on your potential project, the fewer the limits on the potentially relevant literature.

And the more literature that you read, and the more time that you spend reading literature, the greater the likelihood that you’ll learn a new idea that inspires you to go in a new direction.  It’s not that I want to discourage discovery, exploration, or learning from your readings; it’s just that finishing a project means committing to some plan, and sticking with that plan until it’s completed.

Research Design

Deciding what to do is hard. Making plans is hard. Committing to plans is especially hard if you aren’t sure whether the plans are good or not.  These are all general statements that apply to writing a dissertation.  It’s necessary to commit to a project and to stay focused on that project despite problems that come up. Yes, sometimes there are problems so serious that a project has to be abandoned, but at the beginning of the research process—at the times when the literature review trap is most dangerous—the real danger is not some problem that might derail a project, the real danger is to fail to commit to a project at all.

If you say “I’m doing a literature review to lay the foundation for my research,” it’s too easy to slip into thinking about other people’s research and other people’s projects, and then put off working on your own project.

It’s easy to think “my project isn’t good enough,” or some variation on that, especially early in the process when you’ve only started to define your project.  If you try to put it down in writing, you might well think how naive and silly it all will seem to your professors.  But only once you’ve put it down in writing can you start to set limits and to get other people’s feedback about how the work appears to them.  

Research and research design happen in a community

For all the stereotypes (and frequent realities) of a researcher toiling away alone, research and research design are not things that a researcher does alone. This is particularly the case for a dissertation writer who has to answer to his or her professors.  But even researchers who are at liberty to choose their next project work within a wider community of ideas–the ideas that have shaped an individual’s research and career are some sort of response to the idea that they have seen expressed elsewhere. Maybe the response is a wholesale rejection of a paradigm—the heliocentric solar systems is largely a rejection of a geocentric universe—or maybe it’s a small addition to an accepted paradigm. Whichever it is, every researcher is essentially responding in some way to ideas they have heard others express. (Saying “here’s a totally new idea” is implicitly saying “here’s an idea that no one has previously expressed.”)

A dissertation project, in particular, needs to be approved by members of the relevant research community (i.e., the professor(s) supervising the project). In the long run, the only way to avoid getting reviewed is to not submit any project proposal.  This can be comforting until you reach the point where your school starts threatening to kick you out for not making sufficient progress.

Invest less in being right; invest more in getting feedback

The literature review trap lies in spending too much time looking at what other people have read, and not enough time in developing individual projects.  Reading more (or writing about literature more) often feels like a good way to protect yourself from your own limits and to protect yourself from the critique of others.  If you have diligently studied, how can you go wrong?  Throughout students’ careers as students, diligent study is usually what’s expected, and it’s what usually leads to success as a student. This makes it potentially reassuring to read more: “If I have done all my readings, how can I go wrong?”  But, as I’ve said elsewhere, reading other people’s works can be a big distraction from your own project, especially if you haven’t defined your own project yet.

The idea of getting a project proposal rejected as ridiculous is frightening to many. But getting that feedback also provides the opportunity to learn how to make a project less ridiculous.  Every time you give a new draft to someone for feedback, you have the opportunity to learn what would be right for them. And while research shouldn’t be designed to please other people (you have to trust yourself to do good original research), it should be designed with an eye towards convincing people that it is worthwhile—after all, if you want anyone (from your dissertation readers to editors/reviewers for publishers/journals to actual readers) to care about the work you did, it’s reasonable to start looking for ways to present your work, and to start practicing the presentation by submitting proposal drafts.

Instead of trying to prevent error by reading, try to learn from the errors you make while writing about your ideas.

Invest more in identifying the practical dimensions of a project; invest less in theoretical exploration

There is no amount of reading that will eliminate theoretical doubts.  Theories are works in progress, not resolved with certainty. This is true from a theoretical perspective: while we may be able to prove something is false, it’s much harder to prove something is true. And it’s true from a more empirical perspective, for one, lots of literature discusses its own limitations, and for two, how much scholarly literature have you read that is universally accepted in your field? It’s common for scholars to discuss the limitations of their own work, so reading one single work may not lead you to certainty, and reading many will probably lead you into some disagreements. Many publications start from a place of “this research corrects previous research,” and publications that gather a lot of notice are likely to be disputed by someone. (If you want to write something that no one will disagree with, circulate it to as few people as possible.) So reading may give you good ideas, but it will hardly ever give you certainty.

Instead, focus on laying out the practical dimensions of your project.  What do you need to do? How much work is appropriate in your context? By focusing on the practical dimensions of the project, you will move more quickly towards completion, in part because you’ll have a better idea of what “completion” means in your context.  For many writers, setting the scope of a project is terribly difficult. It’s easy to try to do too much—not too much in terms of it being bad to be ambitious, but too much in terms of how much effort is necessary to complete a work and get credit for completing the work. If you could get your degree for two years’ work, isn’t that better than spending five years on the project? 


Dissertation writers can lose a lot of time dealing with the literature in their field while not working on defining and refining their own project.  There’s a lot of literature out there; there’s an expectation that scholars be familiar with the publications in their field; there’s a lot of doubt surrounding the choices that must be made to design a research project that can be completed.

But completing projects is good. The way to complete your project is to focus on defining it—what are you going to do for your independent, original work? How and why is it valuable?  The literature can be a valuable tool for this process of defining your own project, but it’s only a tool, and it’s available when you need it. Don’t delay working on your own project to read first. Define your project first, get feedback, and then, if necessary, you can do readings to deal with weaknesses in your original plan and presentation.

Some History of My New Book

Several years ago—at least five—I was helping a dissertation writer with her dissertation literature review, and it wasn’t exactly clear what kind of literature review was expected. In the course of that endeavor, I wrote up a bunch of notes that seemed to me to be a good kernel of material for a book on writing literature reviews.  After a lengthy journey, that basic idea and those basic questions finally resulted in the release today (December 16, 2019) of my book Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. (Amazon; Routledge)  In its final form, the book actually present a return to issues that I had abandoned for most of the book’s development.

Moving away from “Literature review”

One of my first moves as I wrote was to move away from “literature review” per se, and to focus on the more general question of how a researcher/dissertation writer uses literature.  This was generally prompted by the fact that there are a lot of people who don’t write anything explicitly titled a “literature review.”  Scholars in the humanities and liberal arts often are doing work in which interaction with other literature is so embedded that it’s not really useful to have a “literature review” per se, because so many separate issues are raised that each earn their own brief discussion of relevant literature. 

And it seemed to me that the worst problems of dealing with the literature—including problems writing a “literature review”—were more about dealing with the literature in the process of designing and developing an independent research project.  Probably the most common problem with the literature is to say “I haven’t read enough yet,” and then to burn several months reading. That problem is closely related to people who fall into despair, saying “I’ll never know enough; I might as well give up.”  Neither of those are explicitly “literature review” problems, but they are closely related to the problem of writing a very long literature review that still needs “just a few more” additions. So I moved away from a specific focus on literature reviews.

The self-help spin: Getting the Best of What You Read

At the time I began the book, my main project and main efforts were directed toward finishing my first dissertation-writing book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research.  It seemed to me a neat idea to make the book on using literature a companion, and to follow in the basic tone of the other, so I wrote the main drafts with the working title Getting the Best of What You Read (the subtitle wandered a bit—trying variations on the “practical perspectives” them of my previous), which was the title under which I proposed the book to publishers.

Realistically, a large part of my argument is essentially a big “you have to believe in yourself,” and my aim as a writing coach/dissertation coach is generally to help people help themselves, so I feel pretty good about looking at the book as a self-help book for graduate students.  In addition to encouraging dissertation writers to believe in themselves, I emphasize the importance of using what you already know—which is more of the general “help yourself” motif than any really deep academic consideration.

My competition: Systematic literature reviews

When it came time to propose the book to publishers, I had to explain who was going to be interested in the book and why there might be some hope that people would buy the book, and in particular. Publishers want books that will sell, and one question they ask is what books are competitors.  When writing the proposal, then, I had to identify competitors, and the books that seemed closest to what I was working on were the books written about literature review.  On a certain level, these books are my competitors, inasmuch as they often argue that what they are describing is how to do a literature review for a dissertation. On another level, I view these books as simply talking about something else: what they describe is not, on the whole, the specific kind of literature review that interests me. And their concern—often with systematic methods for literature review—was, in a way, fundamentally at odds with what I wanted to teach.  The problem of “I need to read one more article,” is not a problem that is banished by a systematic literature review—all it takes to recur is for a researcher to learn something new that inspires a different perspective on the problem they had been considering.  Instead, I argued in my proposal, what the dissertation writer needs is to develop a practice that allows them to learn and develop new perspectives while also making progress toward completing a dissertation project.  This was, in many ways, a return to some of the main ideas that I explored in my doctoral dissertation, though I was not yet making that connection quite as clearly as I have now come to do.

Back to Literature Review

When my book was being considered by Routledge, they offered a contract conditional upon my changing the title.  They wanted the phrase “literature review” in the main title because they wanted it to hit when people search for “literature review.”  Their concern for the phrase seems entirely reasonable to me, and also seems, to some extent, a product of the way I pitched the book to them (as competitor to “literature review” titles).  And, as I was no longer self-publishing, I felt the connection to my previous book less important. So I agreed to alter the title.  Their initial suggestion seemed rather bland to me, and after some consideration, I offered the title that has been adopted: “Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice.” I’m satisfied with this title because it captures the ideas that seems to me to be at the heart of it: the problem that a lot of people have dealing with the literature and with carrying out literature reviews in their dissertation process has to do with where literature review fits into the process of designing and developing an independent research project. I would go so far as to say that approaching the literature wrongly can lead to big problems for dissertation writers, especially if fueled by the idea that a systematic literature review is a good place to start work on a dissertation.

A longer return: Back to design theories

My graduate work was in the field of design theories and methods, and I was primarily concerned with how people envisioned their work, and how that vision shaped their actions.  These theories had been central to my work helping dissertation writers—I had for a long time recognized how research shared many characteristics with design.  But it was not until I was searching for a new title that I explicitly started thinking about “research design.”  Using that phrase obviously made an explicit link back to the design theories and methods that I had studied.  In my dissertation, one important theme was the sense that at the highest levels, the best designers needed to rely on practice to help them build understanding and judgment that carries them through the places where systematic methods don’t help.  This notion, indeed, was captured in the subtitle of my own dissertation: “From scientific method to humanist practice.”

Once I had made this connection explicit, the book suddenly felt like a return to these old ideas.  I did a substantial rewrite to refocus on the idea of research design, on the difficulties of research design, and a how a research can benefit from being approached as a practice, and the literature as a particular tool within that practice.

Not a Summary

If I could have fit all the ideas in the book onto one page, I wouldn’t have written a whole book.  There’s plenty more I can say about the book.  Do you have any questions about it?