“You should read at least 200 articles for this literature review,” my professor said when he gave us the assignment.
I was a first year graduate student, and I took his advice too literally.
I typed in the keywords into the search engine of my online databases and I pulled up hundreds of articles.
For the next few weeks all I did was reading, reading and more reading.
I spent at least an hour on each paper, trying to decipher the jargon and how that particular study fit into my assignment.
The deadline for handing in the paper was getting closer but I never felt “ready” to start writing.
Three weeks before the deadline I had read about 30 papers and I realized that there was no way that I could read another 170 papers and write up the literature review too.
I emailed one of the senior grad students who had taken this course before and asked for her advice.
“200 papers is a lot!” she wrote back. “Just start writing now, and if you get 50 papers in your bibliography you are doing really good.”
I knew she was right.
I had to start writing, but where should I begin?
I felt compressed under the information overload from all the papers I had read.
I thought I didn’t know enough about my topic to write anything, and I wanted to read at least another 20 papers.
I was running out of time.
In three weeks I had to hand in a 30 page literature review, on a topic I had barely heard about a month earlier.
I felt confused and “not ready” but I started to put words on the paper.
My writing was messy and the paragraphs sounded repetitive.
I felt compelled to read more articles – but I didn’t know how balance writing and reading when the literature review was due in less than 3 weeks.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who struggled, and after multiple requests from other students the professor granted us an extension.
This additional time allowed me to develop a more efficient process to create a literature review in the next few weeks that satisfied the requirements.
In fact, over the next few years I wrote several literature reviews and the quality of my writing improved as I optimized the process.
I am not trained as a writer, and I am not a native English speaker either.
5 Steps to write an outstanding literature review
The #1 question that I get from students is: “How do I know when I can stop reading and start writing?”
I get it.
As academics, we love research.
The more we read, the more we realize how much information is out there.
Suddenly the “fear of missing out” kicks in.
What if you start writing and you miss out on some really important articles?
The only way to overcome this fear is to face it.
No matter how much you read, you will miss some articles, but you can still write an outstanding literature review.
It is normal to be concerned about how to write a literature review when there is so much information out there.
However, you don’t have to let fear of “missing out” keep you stuck.
You can write an outstanding literature review even if you don’t cover every paper in your field (which is an impossible goal anyway).
Here are five steps to structure your literature review and start the writing process, even if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed.
Step 1. Only bite off as much as you can chew
I am not referring to food here (although I am Hungarian and I have a weakness for metaphors related to food).
Instead, I am referring to the scope of your literature review.
There is a temptation to cover a very broad topic to impress your reader and show how much you know.
The danger of this approach is that you will soon be overwhelmed by the amount of information you have to read and organize into a coherent manuscript.
If your topic is too narrow and there isn’t enough literature on it, you can always expand the scope of your literature review.
In fact, giving yourself big goals and lots of hours to write, without any structure, is a recipe for disappointment.
How often have you resolved to spend a whole day writing, or to write ten pages in one sitting, and wound up with nothing to show for it?
Break your work into small increments, tasks that can be completed in as little as 15 minutes.
This way, even on days when you “don’t have time” to work on your thesis, you can still find an opportunity to cross one or two of these writing tasks off your list.
This will boost your sense of accomplishment, and help you make the most of the small windows of free time you have.
Step 2. Start with the skeleton
As a first year student, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to finish my literature review by the deadline.
I worked on it every day, but the manuscript was confusing and incoherent in some parts.
The turning point came on the day when I visualized the table of contents.
I had a vision for all the major sections and subsections, and the list of tables as well.
This “skeleton” allowed me to put all the information I had collected into the right sections.
I became more bold with cutting out repetitive sections, and reorganizing paragraphs.
My editing process became more efficient too, because I could focus on editing one subsection at a time, instead of trying to review the entire manuscript in one sitting.
3. Pretend you are building an onion from the inside out
When I was in the second grade, we had to bring an onion to school for science class.
I remember vividly peeling off all the layers one at a time, and then finding the core in the middle.
We then had to draw the onion, starting with core and then coloring in the layers around it.
Writing my literature review was a similar process. (As I said earlier, I have a weakness for food-related metaphors)
I started each section by defining the core (what is the purpose of this section?), and then adding in all the information that answered this question.
When you use this process, you will create a manuscript that addresses all the pertinent questions with a clear flow of arguments.
4. Embellish your writing every day
No matter how much experience you have as a writer (or how much you know about your topic), sentences will not flow perfectly from your head into the papers.
Instead, your ideas will come out as sentence fragments or lists.
During the editing process, you begin the dialogue between your mind and the paper as you complete the sentences and organize the information in the right order.
This process allows you to let go of any judgement you may have about your writing, and to write down your ideas as they come to you.
Remember, nobody starts out with a perfect manuscript (not to mention that a perfect manuscript doesn’t exist).
Even if you don’t know what you’re trying to say, just start writing.
Don’t worry too much about the quality or cohesiveness of your writing in the beginning, just put down what comes to mind.
It’s okay for your first draft to be messy and disorganized.
That’s what first drafts are for!
It is through persistence and dedication that you can turn a rough messy draft into a outstanding literature review.
5. Let is go when you are 95-98% there
Finishing your literature review is a delicate balance between having high standards for your writing and letting it go when you feel that your writing is “good enough.”
What is “good enough” when it comes to your literature review or your thesis?
During each revision you may alter the sentences or order of paragraphs.
Some of these changes will help you to meet the requirements for your manuscript.
Other changes will be minor, and will not bring you any closer to hitting the “send” button.
When is your manuscript ready to go?
This is a decision that you need to make based on how much value each revision is adding.
If you feel like the changes are not significant, and you are only altering minor details, your manuscript is probably 95-98% done.
It is time to let it go.
Remember that each manuscript goes through a review process (by your supervisor or reviewers at a journal), and they will point out any significant changes that you need to make.
A perfect literature review does not exist – but if you take a structured approach can create an outstanding manuscript that you will be proud of.
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 your literature review 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.
Once you are in the flow of writing the editing process will help you to become more concise and pull the pieces of your writing together for an outstanding literature review.
What is your biggest struggle when it comes to writing your literature review? Please note down your questions in the comments section below and Dora will answer.
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