How to finish your literature review when you can’t stop reading articles

The Literature Review Dilemma: Read or Write?

“You should read at least 200 articles for this literature review,” my professor said when he gave us an assignment to prepare us for writing our Dissertation.

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 literature review.

The deadline for handing in the literature review 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.

By then, I had already realized that I needed a structured approach to writing if I ever wanted to finish.

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.

I learned that you don’t have to be a talented writer to write an outstanding literature review – it is a skill that anyone can learn.

5 Steps to write an outstanding literature review for your Dissertation 

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 and finish your Dissertation.

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 for your Dissertation, 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.

It is much better to start with a narrow topic that is well-defined and that you can cover in depth given your timeline.

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.

Creating a “skeleton” allows you to put all the information you 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.”

It will take several rounds of editing to create a literature review that you are proud to submit to your supervisor and committee. 

What is “good enough” when it comes to your literature review for your Dissertation?

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.

And Remember…

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 literature review together and finish your Dissertation.

Are you feeling alone and looking for a community & accountability to finish writing your Dissertation?

Having accountability through a community of other PhD students is one of the best ways to become and stay motivated until you finish writing your Dissertation

Check out our Dissertation Writing Workshop & get help to finish your PhD.

Dora Farkas, PhD

View Comments

  • Thanks for a really nice write up of your experience. It really helps. Why not start an YouTube channel. It will give you more freedom and give us more knowledge. Just a suggestion from fellow researcher. I like all your write up and started reading your book. It really keeps me motivated all the time while writing my thesis :)
    Shared this article with my fellow researcher of India.
    Thanks Again

  • i am doing my PHD, and i am trying to write a research proposal, i have read nearly 80 or may be 90 research articles, but still dont know what to do. what am i doing wrong can u help me.

    • Hi Hamid, I recommend defining the scope of the literature review. What is the question you are asking or the topic you are covering? Check out similar literature reviews for inspiration and see how you can make yours different enough. Also, show a few ideas to your supervisor before writing. :)

  • I really enjoyed this article....I have same trouble still. I am in my final year of PhD. Once I will start reading , I do fear of missing information. I guess i need to learn that it's ok to not to know everything.

  • Really helpful... a clear approach "how to be specific" is given in the article. Especially, when you start writing a research paper/thesis, you come with a lot of messy information. The real problem arise when you feel it hard that how to scrutinize this while writing an introduction. Can you please give some tips on "how to manage an introduction of a research paper or thesis?

    • Hi Anam, Your first draft will be messy and you will need to narrow down the scope of your paper as you go along. With each revision it will become more specific. It is also good to get feedback from another person on how to make it more specific/narrow so it is realistic for your timeline. Glad you found the article helpful :)

  • Hi there,I am excited to read this article because it pours out exactly how I felt while reviewing my literatures. Completing first year of my PhD I really feel like lots of reading and writing homeworks needs to be done all the way forward .This is an excellent article and I enjoy reading the shared experience. .love to hear more :)

  • I remember when my chair asked for my 200 sources and I literally stayed up two days trying to sort through everything that was the beginning of the end at my first attempt at my DBA doctural study. I swore to myself that this time I WILL be prepared! Thanks for helping stoke the hope!

  • Thank you for this wonderful and helpful article. My curriculum is online, and I have been given two weeks to post my Lit Review which now is due by Midnight on Sunday. I have read about 10 peer-reviewed articles, so this assignment will have me spending my entire weekend at Temple University's library and making sure Saxby's is open so I can replenish my coffee mug!!!

Recent Posts

Why Getting a PhD is Hard: Is Finishing Grad School Right For You?

How is the Pandemic Affecting Your PhD Experience? Almost every PhD student around the world…

2 days ago

To Finish Your PhD You Need a New Strategy

  Working Harder Is Not The Key To Finish Your PhD "I have no idea…

3 months ago

Why Writing a Dissertation is About Showing Up, No Matter What

Why is Writing a Dissertation So Scary? When Aileen, a Chemistry PhD student, started graduate…

3 months ago

How You Can Overcome Dissertation Writer’s Block Even If You Feel Really Stuck

How Writer's Block Sneaks Up on You While Working on Your Dissertation Do you every…

3 months ago

The One Habit That Will Prevent Burnout in Graduate School For You

Unexpected Burnout in Graduate School Burnout in graduate school is a silent epidemic. You think…

3 months ago

Three Strategies to Help You Get Unstuck in Graduate School

  "I Wish I Never Started Graduate School..." "How did it go?," I asked my…

4 months ago