ask a scatterbrain: writing an annual review piece

I’ve been asked to write an article for the Annual Review of Sociology. In fact I was asked to do it last year, but had to postpone because I couldn’t get around to it–which is what’s worrying me this time around too. It’s a daunting task to digest and organize (not to mention find!) all the recent, relevant literature relevant to a topic. For anyone who’s done this before: any advice on keeping on top of the workflow?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

7 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: writing an annual review piece”

  1. Yes, sorry, I should have noted that – I do have a wonderful graduate student coauthor on it, but am still feeling like the task requires rather more organization than I typically demonstrate :)


  2. I’ve been fortunate to be the junior coauthor on two Annual Review articles. It seems that there are a lot of ways that people approach the task. But, one thing that seems necessary is to decide somewhat early in process what will be outside the purview of the review, and that might mean not discussing an important subfield. Also, in the instructions to authors, ARS gives the reminder that this should be an overview and critique of the most influential and important work on the topic. And perhaps it makes the task less daunting to know that there is no way to cover everything, including less influential or important papers, within the word limit anyway.


  3. Many many years ago, the last time I wrote one of these, I did it alone and did not get it done the first time (due to having a baby and slamming into the finite time wall). The second time, my first draft was a solid technical/theoretical review of the cutting-edge literature (at that time), leaving out the “old” collective action stuff that had been done to death, if you knew the literature. Reviewers were upset about my failure to address that older literature, so the revision started back at the beginning for beginners, before picking up what I saw as the “real” literature, although it did give me a chance to say what I thought about the old debates. And made it overall a stronger article, IMO.

    Lesson learned? I’m not sure, except that the main readers of these articles are grad students, so it is important to provide a broader context before getting down to brass tacks. I agree with cperchesk, too, that you have to decide that some high-volume but peripheral literatures are not in the scope. It can be helpful to mention what is in those literatures and point to a review or two.


  4. I was a graduate student co-author on an ARS piece a few years ago. I did the majority of the research and writing. The faculty member I worked with, however, had a good idea of what he wanted the end result to look like – pulling a single guiding idea out of a large body of literature. So it stayed focused on the idea – that even though language and rhetoric about a phenomenon (organizational restructuring) change, the phenomenon itself continues to appear over time and history. Sticking with that idea through the gathering and parsing of literature allowed me to group like-things together and eliminate things that didn’t fit into our word limit.


  5. Foodgirl – you just gave away your identity!

    I’m doing one of these for the 2010 issue. It was much, much more challenging than I’d originally thought it would be. In the end, I decided that it was okay to miss certain streams in the literature in order to make my own point and make a semi-coherent thesis. As a result I ended up changing the original topic of the paper and making it a narrower (but better) contribution. I’d also add that focusing on some of “less influential or important papers” is a privilege of being an ARS writer. It’s your one opportunity to draw attention to research that you think may have been somewhat overlooked.


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