How Do You Write a Literature Review, If No One Teaches You?
I sat across from my professor in silence for a minute before he spoke.
I was too embarrassed to look at him and I just remember a few phrases from the conversation such as:
“I thought you had something between your ears”, and
“I usually don’t give people a second chance, but…”
Previously, when I had performed poorly in a class I always knew what I would have done differently if I could start over.
I would have started the assignments earlier, sought help from teaching assistants, or done more practice tests.
This class was entirely different. There were no exams. We had no teaching assistants.
We were graded on an oral presentation (easy) and a term paper based on a literature review of 200+ papers (ugh!).
As a first year graduate student, the most complex papers I had ever written were 15-20 pages long, and they never had more than 10 references.
I had no clue where to begin, so I did what I was best at: sitting at my desk for hours reading.
It’s fair to say that I worked at least 20 hours a week on this paper for 2 months straight.
After 160 hours of reading over 200 papers, I handed in a 20 page paper and I was not proud of it.
I knew my professor was not happy either when I got an email that he wanted to see me right away.
At least he gave me a second chance. It was 2 weeks before the end of the semester and he said:
“Just write a more coherent paper based on the 50-100 most important references, and I will give you a B. Your oral presentation was good, so I will consider that.”
I took his advice and he gave me a B.
In retrospect, I know that I could have written a more thorough paper and gotten an A.
Once you have a well-structured review of 50 papers, adding another 50-100 references is straightforward.
A cutting-edge literature is well within your capability – and it is not as complex or time-consuming as you might think.
There Is a Process
Fast forward 5 years to my first week as a postdoctoral fellow.
My supervisor had just been asked to write chapter for a book and, as I had no project yet, I was asked whether I would like to have the opportunity to write this chapter.
How could I say “No” to my new boss?
I already had one published literature review paper under my belt from graduate school, and even though this topic was not related to my thesis, I decided to take the opportunity.
Five months later (a week before the due date for the book chapter) I handed in a final copy to my supervisor. I still remember the pleasantly surprised look on his face when he said:
“Wow, I think you are the first person in the history of this book publisher, who handed in their chapter by the deadline.”
While my first experience with a literature review was humiliating, it taught me a very important lesson about writing: start simple, and get fancy later.
As a senior graduate student and a postdoc, I didn’t start out by reading and trying to absorb 200+ references before writing.
I already knew that it was more important to have a structure than a long list of references.
By then, I had also developed a writing process, so I was able to minimize writer’s block. Note that I wrote minimize, not eliminate, writer’s block.
Writer’s block is like the common cold – it is always around you and you have to actively take action to prevent it from infecting you.
Everyone has a slightly different manifestation of writer’s block:
- Internet surfing/social media/email when you know you should be writing,
- Reading for hours because you never feel ready to write,
- Doing chores around the house even though they are not urgent,
- Helping others because you feel too stuck to work on your own project, or
- Socializing or going to the movies, because you feel too overwhelmed to work on your paper.
I was guilty of all of the above to some extent while writing my papers and my thesis.
There is no shame in having writer’s block. Every writer has it. Every day.
The only difference between writing my first literature review for my class and my book chapter 5 years later was that I recognized when I had writer’s block and I knew how to deal with.
3 Steps To an Outstanding Literature Review
I had a very simple writing process in college for my 20 page term papers.
After reading 5-10 references, I sat down and wrote the whole paper in 2 days and, when I did not oversleep the day it was due, I proofread it quickly right before handing it in.
This process did not work for academic review articles that had to survey the entire literature.
I had to develop a new system to collect hundreds of papers and analyze them in one succinct literature review.
Step 1: Set up a structure for your paper
In retrospect, I believe that the main reason I struggled with my first paper was that the sections were not defined clearly.
I blindly buried myself in the literature reading without a well-defined purpose for months.
Years later when I had to write my book chapter, I spent several days setting up an outline. It was a bit of work upfront, but the payoff was well worth it.
You will no longer be reviewing 100 papers for your literature review, but only 10 papers for Section 1, and 10 papers for Section 2 etc. Doesn’t that sound more doable?
At the end of this step your outline should include all the major sections and most of the subsections as well.
It can, and it will chance. That’s okay. As long as you are synthesizing the literature and answering relevant questions, you are making progress.
All the pieces will fall into the right place if you keep writing.
Step 2: Develop a timeline with specific milestones for each section
Now you have your outline, and it probably feels great. I know that one of the turning points for me in graduate school occurred when I finally had a vision of my table of contents.
It was liberating to have a section to put each bucket of data into.
However, your paper will not write itself. A literature review can take anywhere from 2-6 months depending on how many hours a day you work on it.
As humans we don’t have a good sense of time, and even after years of experience we always overestimate how much we can do.
It just feels good to imagine that the literature review will be completed in 2 months, right?
Since our sense of time is skewed, we usually leave things to the last minute (or last few days) at the expense of the quality of our work.
Once you have the structure, set a due date for each section.
Having a date written down, will help you to stay on track for each section and reduce the overwhelm.
Be mindful that almost no one follows their timeline exactly. Life happens.
Thus, you will probably need to adjust your timeline weekly, or even daily as you get closer to your deadline.
Step 3: Elaborate your paper through each stage of writing
One of the biggest sources of frustration is that students expect a polished document to flow from their head and to the paper. This never happens.
Ideas are not formed completely in your brain.
You have an incoherent mix of thoughts in your mind, and they will come out incoherently the first time. This scares students and they automatically assume that they are not good writers.
I used to assume that I was a poor writer as well, and I blamed it on not being an native English speaker.
However, once I realized that prolific authors (many of whom are also not native speakers) had messy first drafts and fought writer’s block on a daily basis, I felt relieved.
I realized that writing went through stages, and you have to go through each stage to have a manuscript that is rich in content and well-structured.
Zero draft: This is the idea collection stage. In this phase your ideas do not have to come out coherently. You are just trying to get as many ideas on paper as you can.
First draft: The first draft is a coherent, but not perfect, document. There is a logical flow to your arguments, but there may be a few gaps here and there.
This version needs to be ready to be handed in to your supervisor for a review so you can make any necessary changes before sending it off to your thesis committee.
Second/Final draft: Your second or final draft should be a complete manuscript that is ready to be handed in to your thesis committee and is
1) is coherent,
2) free of spelling and grammatical errors,
3) complete with references, table of contents, appendix, tables and figures, and
4) properly formatted.
Most your committee will ask you to make modifications to this version, but if you don’t have to change the fundamental structure you can go through their recommendations by editing one section at a time.
It is amazing how much simpler life becomes once you structure your paper and you break down the writing process into distinct stages.
Not only will this process save you time, but it will also help you to write better and incorporate changes from your supervisor and thesis committee as you go through each section.
Remember that no is born knowing how to write a literature review.
The articles you read in journals started out as messy drafts, and went through many stages of editing by several experts in the field before they were ready to be published.
Your literature review does not have to be perfect as you write it (no one’s is). Your job is to show up every day and keep writing.
If you have a well-defined structure and realistic milestones, you will make steady progress and create a literature review that you will be proud of.