Establishing the contributions of your academic work often means comparing it to other work from your field. In some cases, this means critiquing the work of others through a statement about its gaps or insufficiencies. This usually sets the reader’s expectations for what your work will be about: if an author mentions a gap in the research, then it makes sense to assume that their research is going to fill that gap in some way. However, it’s possible to get caught up in demonstrating the correctness of your argument in contrast to others’ and list critiques one after the other, and in doing so make your reader lose track of your point altogether. When you pile criticisms up, you end up with far more gaps than you can reasonably address and end up with a confused reader. A solution to this problem is prioritizing clarity: organizing critiques so that they do not take over your paper, and so that their purpose in demonstrating what your work does differently than others is clear.
Moving towards greater clarity involves establishing a pattern: first introducing readers to an argument made by another scholar, then pointing out gaps in that scholar’s work, and then demonstrating your own contribution which fills that gap. In doing so, it’s important to focus on only one gap at a time. Otherwise, you’d be trying to address two different scholarly arguments at the same time. Ideally, you carry on only one conversation at a time: you are establishing an idea, pointing out its flaws, and finally noting how your work fixes those flaws.
This exercise offers a technique for reorganizing your paper so it focuses on one critique at a time, so that you can avoid burying your reader in the work of others and let your paper’s own contributions be central.
- Identify sections of your paper where you are comparing and contrasting your work to someone else’s. Anywhere you are citing a source, check and see what the purpose of that source is: is it purely informational, or are you using it to point out a flaw in its reasoning or a gap in the field that your work fills? An excellent place to start looking is the literature review, if your paper has one, but this may also appear throughout body paragraphs or in an analysis section.
- When you have identified the sections where you are critiquing another person’s work, see how much distance there is between sources. Mark any place where you cite two or more sources for the purposes of demonstrating a single gap or one kind of insufficiency.
- Now that you’ve identified places where critiques pile up, try these two strategies for breaking them up:
- First, demote critiques to footnotes: if you’ve already identified one place where you can make a particular criticism, demote other, similar criticism to footnotes. In those footnotes, note that if the reader is interested in hearing more about similar arguments, they exist in the following sources. This allows you to include more evidence that supports your critique, while letting the reader decide how much of it they want to engage with.
- Second, refer to others who made the same critiques as you: letting previously existing sources do the work of critiquing for you allows you to accomplish two things. You can support your framing with someone else’s argument, which lends you more credibility. Also, you can distance yourself from the critique, presenting it as an ongoing debate rather than one you are starting. This can help your work avoid feeling overly critical while still including information you want your reader to know.
After completing this exercise, your paper should be more centrally focused on its own contributions. The criticisms you do include should be more focused, and appear more deliberate to your reader. Overall, this means that it will be easier for your reader to understand the interventions you are making and their relationship to the field.