Ezra Zuckerman and the Literature

I was recently asked for advice about how to write a literature review and, as always happens when this subject comes up, Ezra Zuckerman’s advice leaped to mind. “Never write a literature review,” he says. “They are boring.” It’s the last of his ten “Tips to Article Writers”, which he published online about ten years ago. I decided to go back and have a look at the whole thing, and it didn’t disappoint. It is very, very good advice. In fact, it’s such good advice that we should think seriously about treating them as more than mere “tips”. I think we should consider them as possible norms for research writing.

Ezra’s tips are a great way to specify what it means to say that scholarly writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. It is not the art of impressing strangers with your intelligence or turning the world as we know it on its head. It is certainly not best understood primarily as the means to tenure. When you are writing an article you are trying to make a contribution to a few dozen people whose names you know and whose opinions you respect. You are opening your research to their criticism and challenging them to see the world as you do.

One of the themes that runs through “Tips to Article Writers” is a respect for the knowledge that your reader brings to your paper. The so-called “literature review” is really a theory section, and this, in turn, is best understood as the basis on which to construct a “compelling null”. Indeed, the null should be compelling enough to be worth saving. “The author’s job is to explain to the reader that s/he was right to believe x about the world, but that since x doesn’t hold under certain conditions, s/he should shift to belief x’.” Too many papers reject a null that is so ridiculous that the reader you actually want to reach, i.e., talk to, would see it as an affront. Don’t write as though you’re the only one who has thought carefully about the subject and everyone else should just feel lucky to finally be told what to think.

This also forces you to give the reader substantive, not merely “aesthetic”, reasons to accept your conclusions. It’s not the beauty of your theories that should compel us to adopt your point of view but the truth of the claims that your theories help you to make. Too often, Ezra tells us, “the contribution tends to be hollow because the end of research (figuring out how the world works) is sacrificed for the means (telling each other how much we like certain ideas).” All which are reasons not begin with the state of “the literature” but with the state of the world. Think of you and your readers (your peers) as people who are working together to solve a real problem. Don’t think of your writing as a way of getting into the good graces of some group of people who have the power to determine the course of your career. It’s bad for your style.

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