Writing an Effective Literature Review Quickly(ish)

Chances are that, at some point during your research career, you will be asked to write a literature review.

It’s a great way to get to know the existing research on a topic, so I suggest you agree. And then, perhaps you will sit down at your computer with a stack (or perhaps a Zotero folder) of papers and stare at your screen for a long time before you break down and Google “how to do a literature review.”

Every time I sit down to write a literature review (even if I am in the middle of the same project as last time) it seems like I forget how to do it! So when my advisor asked me a few weeks ago to write one, I googled (again). In the interest of not forgetting next time, I took notes on my process. In the interest of sharing the wealth, I am going to write it out here for you :)

What is a literature review? This seems like a silly question for someone to ask if they’ve already written one, but I think it’s worth addressing. I’ve heard of a few things referred to as literature reviews: annotated bibliographies, “related work” sections of papers, stand-alone documents, and published synthesis papers, for example.

Before you start your lit review project, it’s worth trying to assess what kind of document you need. Often, your finished project will need to be a cited piece of prose, which will stand on its own or lay out your “research space” in a larger paper. Make sure that, as you read, you are aware of the context into which this paper will fit– look for rhetorical links to the ideas you’ll present in other parts of your papers.

If you are trying to build familiarity with the research or gather relevant papers for multiple, related projects, your best bet might be an annotated bibliography– something flexible or modular that you can borrow pieces from without collapsing a rhetorical structure. In my case, that’s exactly what I did. I even used workflowy, so I could easily move things around and use an infinite number of levels in my outline (I’ve been known to get carried away).

Process Overview

I search for keywords in Google Scholar. I supplement GS with my University’s worldcat subscription for books or hard to find titles. I read abstracts to find relevant articles, and save those to Zotero using the browser plugins. During this stage, I keep an eye out for new keywords in those articles that I can use to search.

Once I have a handful of seed articles (really, just a few), I start reading the introductions. These aren’t the most important parts to get a sense of the article’s place in the literature, but the are great for finding more papers, related topics, and keywords.

Before I go back and grab all these new papers, I set up a draft outline based on what I’ve read so far and the format I need. Then, I go back and read the methods (if necessary), results, and conclusions of the seed papers and sort them into my outline with a brief description of what you think you will need out of this paper. I put each paper in multiple categories sometimes– it may have more than one contribution and interesting methods, for example. This outline is going to evolve once we get more papers, but it’s worth having some kind of basic model in your head as you keep searching.

Now, I go back and find those cited papers, search for my new keywords, and look at related topics. This is an iterative process, so don’t get caught up on things being in order. For each batch of new papers, read what you need, write yourself some notes, and stick them in your outline.

For any literature review, you’ll need to be looking for larger models that tie papers together, gaps in the research, and disagreements among authors that can become or support your argument: keep an eye out and keep notes.

Then, if you need to, write it up!

Here are some tips and specifics

First, give yourself more time than you think it’ll take. When I was planning the lit review beforehand, I titled the workflowy list I made to keep notes “Lit review in 1 week.” LOL no.

Searching for literature

  • Track your keywords. You may need them later! Also, you can avoid redundant searches.
  • Use the cited by feature. Google Scholar tells you how many people cited a paper, and if you click on that citation count, it will bring you to a list of papers that have cited it. These papers may be similar and relevant, or not! You can search within citing papers by clicking the checkbox underneath the search bar.

Reading

  • Read what you need. I said this before, but it’s worth repeating. Only read in depth what you need for your purposes. If you’ve already read 15 similar intros, start skimming and skipping them. Keep an eye out in the abstract for contributions and novelty: did they use a method you haven’t seen yet? Better read that section.
  • Take notes. These are just for you, so don’t spend too much stress on them. Especially when you are just getting into an area of literature, it’s not always obvious when someone messes up, when there’s a big gap, or when it’s you who is misunderstanding. Feel free to ask these questions and make these critiques in your personal notes; they will be really useful later when half of them turn out to be useless, but the other half can show you the gap your research can address, or just make you look like a great critical thinker 😉
  • Note themes especially early on. These will help you make your structure!

Structure

  • Map themes. When you’ve read a handful of papers, start mapping the themes if an outline structure isn’t already obvious (or dictated by your format). I used the pencil on dead tree format for that this time, and it worked well. I did find myself wishing I had a white board for this step, though. You can draw lines to represent connections, try to group the ideas into themes, or anything else that seems useful to you to start framing your paper. What you want out of this is an idea of what the argument of your paper will be and the skeleton of your outline.
  • Find a story. I hear this all the time in academic writing advice, and I honestly find it a little frustrating. What does that mean?? I could (and perhaps I will!) devote a whole blog post to this subject, but the TL;DR is that your paper should make an argument. Organize your ideas around your argument.
  • Sort papers into your argument or outline. Look for holes to search for more papers.

Writing

  • Create section headings in your document based on the structure you created
  • Re-read your notes for the papers in each section. If you need to fill in some details, go back to the abstract or appropriate section of the paper.
  • Write up the parts of the research that are important to your argument in your own words, and cite carefully.
  • Add your own synthesis or ideas that support your argument
  • Conclude with a summary, what it means, and why it is important.

Productivity tips: I used the Pomodoro technique this time around, and set goals for myself every day. For example, once I got into the reading groove it’d be something like “read, note, and outline 7 papers.” I’d work in intervals of 20 minutes with a 5 minute break in between for up to 5 hours. I had a hard time keeping track in Zotero of which papers I’d done and not, so I would copy and paste the notes I took for the paper into a Note in Zotero and sort the whole folder by how many notes each paper has. Not perhaps how it’s designed, but it worked :)

I hope this all helps! Do you have ideas about how I can improve my plan? Any particular road bumps you encounter in a lit review? Leave a note in the comments and we can try to make lit reviewing better :)

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