Organizing Your Book Or Article Is Like Designing Your Living Room


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In class this morning I gave the analogy that organizing a literature review was sort of like interior decorating--at least that is how it works the way that I do it. Here's what happened:

Malaysia had just asked if, in a research project about students' perception of campus safety that we were doing as class, it would be worthwhile to include students' parents' perception of campus safety. I wanted to ask, "Does that seem relevant?" when I was struck with the perfect analogy.

"How many of you do interior design?"
Nobody raised their hands.
"What about any design whatsoever?"
"Does anybody paint?"
Nobody did.
"But certainly you organize your bedroom, right? Like... you choose where the desk should go and why the poster should be beside your bed and not next to the window?"
Heads began to nod slowly.
"And sometimes you decide, after a few weeks, that you don't like where your dresser is positioned so you move it in the middle of the night."
Now they were nodding more enthusiastically.
"That's how it is when deciding what stays and what goes in our article," I explained.

I described how I organize my books and chapters and articles and speeches and so on using this intuitive sense. I pointed to the six categories we were hoping to explore in our projects, and explained how we could probably predict how the categories might fit together--such as how we would probably want to explain what "campus safety" was before giving examples of what it looked like. We might, however, decide later that it would be best to tell an illustrative story before introducing campus safety. The story would provide the context for understanding the significance of what campus safety is.

I gathered from their expressions that they were beginning to piece it all together. So I added, "if you think it might end up being relevant, then include it. We can decide later whether or not to keep it."

Indeed, this is precisely what I do when I write. I always resent having to throw something out that I had written. It makes it difficult to write on those days when the words aren't coming. "I'll probably delete this later," I think. But I remind myself that it is all part of the process.

One of my biggest gripes when I am reviewing articles is that the author did not spend enough time getting a feel for their living arrangement, so to speak. It is almost as if they set the couch, television, coffee table, and area rug up in a line so that it could all be seen from the hallway, but nobody could actually kick their feet up on the couch. Other authors stuff 15 couches into their living room, stacking them on top of one another. Or maybe there is a single couch, which is facing an empty wall. And so on.

So spend some time relaxing in your next essay or book chapter. Let its final organization dance around in the back of your mind. Ask of each paragraph: "Does this belong?" and, if so, "Does it belong here?" Et cetera.


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