Your Literature Review Doesn’t Have to Be a Yawn
“A literature review?” I thought bedazzled as I came out of my thesis supervisor’s office.
Why would he ask me to write a literature review for a prestigious journal when I hadn’t published any scientific papers yet?
My initial surge of adrenaline wore off as I envisioned myself hunched over my laptop for months writing a literature review.
I had written literature reviews for my courses before, but I was never proud of them.
I always felt like I should have read more articles before turning in my papers.
But writing a literature review was, to put it mildly, boring and overwhelming at the same time.
First, I felt like I was drowning in information.
How could I summarize 50-100 articles into one cohesive paper?
Second, reading literature reviews from others made me want to take a nap.
Literature reviews were stuffed with information as if the authors just wanted to cram as many papers as they could into their bibliography.
So, while I was honored that my thesis supervisor chose me to write a literature review for publication, I wasn’t looking forward to the next 3 months.
I started writing my literature review the same way I wrote all my previous papers.
I alternated between reading and writing until I had about 40 pages of text.
Then, I hit serious writer’s block.
For a whole week I stared at my screen, scrolling up and down without adding any new information.
My literature review draft appeared to be a random collection of ideas.
It had no beginning or end, and I didn’t know how to start editing it.
What was I even writing about, and how did it differ from all the other literature reviews?
Finally, after a week I had an epiphany:
“If I couldn’t read through my own writing, how could I expect others to read it?”
I started wondering how I could make my literature review interesting (what a concept).
I would be more motivated to write it, and my colleagues could read through it without falling asleep.
This slight change in perspective, completely shifted my writing experience.
Instead of cramming in as many references as possible so it would seem “well-researched”, I took a new angle on my topic.
“What would I want to find out from this literature review if I was the reader?”
Instead of just summarizing as many papers as I could, I put an emphasis on recent publications.
I pointed out gaps in our knowledge and cutting edge results emerging in our fields.
During some moments I remembered why I came to grad school in the first place.
I remembered my passion.
I felt like I was putting together a puzzle, and I was driven to find the missing pieces.
I must admit that I was nervous when I hit the send button.
My literature review was different from most others in the field.
I am also not a native English speaker.
So, when my supervisor asked me to see him a few days later, I was prepared to re-write my literature review.
Instead, his eyes lit up when he saw me and said:
“Wow, Dora I didn’t know you could write so well!”
(I didn’t either…It must have helped that I enjoyed the writing process)
This boost in confidence came in handy a year later.
During my first week as a postdoctoral fellow my supervisor asked me to write a book chapter (literature review) on a topic I had little expertise with.
But by then I knew that writing a literature review doesn’t have to be boring.
If you enjoy the process, your readers will thank you too.
5 Steps to Your Best literature Review…
without all the drama
Step #1: Focus on Structure, Then Content, Then Style
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your literature review, take a deep breath.
You don’t have to cover everything.
You just need to demonstrate your understanding of what’s been published on your topic.
The challenge is to convey all this information to your reader in an interesting way.
Synthesizing all your reading into a well-argued literature review can be daunting, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies (and let’s face it, plenty of grad students do).
You might think that “good writers” can easily form well-structured sentences on the first try.
This couldn’t be further from the truth!
Even the best writers struggle to communicate their ideas, and rely heavily on the revision process to polish their work.
So, how do you tackle a literature review without getting lost?
Imagine that good writing is like building a house: you start with the foundation and the basic structure, before adding all the bells and whistles.
Write your paper the same way: start with the structure, add content, and perfect your form and style at the end.
Make an outline for your review at the very beginning.
It should include your thesis, the general contours of your ideas and research, and what type of reviewyou’ll write.
Then, focus on content.
Don’t worry about how it sounds at this stage; you’re still building your house.
You wouldn’t hang up photos before building walls, would you?
If a statement is clumsy, don’t get stuck, just keep writing.
You can return to it and revise it later.
Remember, a draft is just that: a draft.
Your literature review has to go through several draft stages before you’ve created something you can present.
Don’t worry about style at the very beginning, you can save that for revision.
That’s when you can tinker with your words, and perfect your diction, grammar, and prose.
Step #2: Do Some Writing Every Day
Most grad students are pros when it comes to research.
The tough part is transitioning from reading and researching for your literature review to actually writing it.
How do you know when you’ve researched enough, and it’s time to start writing the review?
The trick is to start writing from the get-go.
Journal a bit in the morning, while you’re having your first cup of coffee.
Write down some goals for the day, and questions for your research.
Take notes when you’re reading, and go over those notes later.
Something you jot down in the early stages of collecting articles might even make it into your final paper.
At the end of a research or reading session, spend 10 or 15 minutes free-writing about how what you’ve read will contribute to your review.
These free-writes can help you to recognize when it’s time to shift your focus from reading more articles, to writing your review.
It’s better to start writing while you’re still in the research stages, than to put it off until you’re “ready.”
Remember, you could keep reading articles forever.
Accept that you can’t possibly cover everything, and aim for a literature review that’s thorough and consistent in its arguments.
Once you’ve written your outline, start writing at any point where your ideas are most crystallized.
A good first draft should always be messy.
Don’t worry about chronological order; you can reorganize your paragraphs and sections during the revision process.
The key is to just get started, and keep your momentum.
Step #3: Define Your Scope
You might start your research thinking you need to read hundreds of articles.
Or, that you need to write a literature review that encompasses every aspect of the literature on your topic.
With that attitude, you’ll drive yourself crazy, and you’ll never get started.
There comes a point where more sources, and more exploration, simply won’t make your literature review more effective.
In particular, you should be focusing your research on primary sources, not other reviews.
A literature review shouldn’t just summarize a big stack of articles.
Your literature review should incorporate what you’ve read into your focused analysis, to show your understanding of the research.
Often, the best reviews aren’t the most ambitious, or the ones with the longest bibliographies.
Instead, a great literature review includes a clear, well-defined scope, and offers some insight into the works it draws from.
One of my first professors once told me that I should read two hundred articles for my first review.
I quickly realized that wasn’t realistic.
If I went too in-depth into too many papers, I’d never be able to make a coherent point.
Instead, I examined a core group of 50 or so articles thoroughly, while touching on others in less depth.
To my surprise, the professor loved it.
Your review should cover a wide range of the articles available.
Include a broad enough range of viewpoints to demonstrate your grasp of the subject matter.
However, don’t include material just for the sake of padding your review.
Make sure your citations are relevant, and that you can tie them into your thesis effectively.
Instead of trying to cover everything, make sure that what you do include is chosen for a clear reason, and is effectively critiqued.
Step #4: Get a Few Fresh Pairs of Eyes
Every writer—and every grad student—has certain strengths and weaknesses.
To really polish your review, make sure you have a fresh pair of eyes (or a few) to look it over during the writing and revising process.
Your thesis supervisor may be a great resource.
In fact, it’s a great idea to seek advice about a review you’re writing during the meetings with your thesis supervisor.
If you get stuck at a certain point during your writing or research, make detailed notes of what’s holding you back.
The more organized your outline, and the more specific you make your questions, the better your thesis supervisor will be able to help you.
Or ask peers that you trust to read your draft and provide feedback.
Always credit anyone who helps you, and offer your own skills and time to give them feedback in return.
If you find a colleague with different skills and strengths than you have, your work styles can complement each other, and help you both nail your reviews.
Step #5: Add to the Conversation
For one ofmy first literature reviews, I made the mistake of including too much information, without any synthesis.
Luckily, the professor gave me the opportunity to rewrite what I turned in, and I learned some valuable lessons for my next paper.
Your review should show that you’ve thoroughly explored the research that’s already been conducted on your topic.
This will help you to prepare for doing your own research for your thesis.
In other words, your literature review should include critical thinking, not just a summariy of what you’ve read.
Your literature review will be stronger if you can add analysis that ties the sources together, and brings your own insights into your sources.
This could include critiquing the methodology of the previous research.
Or, you can offer predictions, or suggestions, about what future research should focus on.
If you’re making an argument, make sure to include opposing viewpoints, or areas where not enough research has been done to draw a conclusion.
Examining every side of your story will strengthen your literature review and give you more confidence as you move forward with your thesis.
When it comes to writing a literature review what is the #1 challenge that you face?
Please share in the comments below and I will respond to you directly!
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. “The literature” seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible when completing this gargantuan task.
Sonja Foss and William Walters* describe an efficient and effective way of writing a literature review. Their system provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a dissertation, an M.A. thesis, or an article or book in any field of study. Below is a summary of the steps they outline as well as a step-by-step method for writing a literature review.
Step One: Decide on your areas of research:
Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas. A literature review I am currently working on, for example, explores barriers to higher education for undocumented students.
Step Two: Search for the literature:
Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated sessions.
Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:
Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:
1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
2. Definitions of terms
3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
4. Gaps you notice in the literature
5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating
When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.
Step Four: Code the literature:
Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.
Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema:
Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper.
Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review:
Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.
Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.
I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review is ideal for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.
It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.
For people writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.
*Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Image Credit/Source: Goldmund Lukic/Getty Images