How to write a better, less stressed lit review

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

The dreaded phrase ‘lit review’ strikes terror in the heart of many grad students. Here’s how to remove the fear and write a better lit review….

Imagine there’s a subject about which you know a great deal. Let’s say it’s soccer. As you try to convey your knowledge about soccer to your readers, wouldn’t it help you to be able to explain what other experts have said over the years about soccer?

This concept, in short, summarizes the purpose of what’s called a literature review — lit review, for short — for students who are writing a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. Today’s post focuses on how to write a lit review. And if you think the topic doesn’t concern you, because you’re not a student, please give the post a quick scan anyway. It contains several tips that should be useful for anyone faced with writing a long-form project — such as a big report or non-fiction book — requiring reference to the work of others.

I coach many academics who find that writing a lit review — whether it’s a systematic or narrative-style one — is the hardest part of their thesis or dissertation. Why? The job seems overwhelming, onerous and frightening. Also, many students do the lit review first, when they are maximally overwhelmed. Here’s how you can make the job easier for yourself.

DON’T…

Don’t dig deep into the literature too early. As long as you have a broad understanding of your subject area, figure out what you want your central argument to be right away. I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that you can’t figure out your argument until you’ve done more reading. But here’s what I suggest you do instead: determine a preliminary or working argument as quickly as possible and use this to guide (limit) your literature search. Your most significant risk as a thesis or dissertation writer is that you’re going to accumulate too much information. If you later discover that you wish to make a different argument, you can change it then. I know. This sounds like a lot of work. Believe me, it’s less work than reading too broadly.

Don’t just read — also form opinions. Some students are enamoured of reading what others have written. They may spend weeks, sometimes months, happily searching the literature and not writing a word. Don’t fall into this trap! I always encourage students to keep a research diary. This document should do more than capture quotations and citations. It should reflect your daily opinions and reactions to the source material you are reading. Why? Two benefits: first, the diary will force you to form and declare your opinion of another scholar’s work. (Lit reviews are not meant to be descriptive lists — opinion is integral to them.) Second, it will allow you to maintain the habit of writing, even while you are reviewing the literature.

Don’t start writing your paper too early. Many people feel that if they don’t get enough words on the page fast enough, they are either procrastinating or wasting time. Apart from the research diary, I find there’s a greater risk in putting too many words on the page too early. Let the research diary be a place you sort out your thoughts before you worry about a draft document. You can’t write a lit review without thinking first. Thinking is the most important job for any scholar.

Don’t use your desk as your primary place for thinking. We all think better when our bodies are moving. I’m writing this post on a treadmill because I’m lucky enough to have a walking desk. If, like most people, you don’t have such a device, go outside for a walk, and challenge yourself to think about your subject while you stroll. If you’re worried about losing important ideas, take your cell phone with you and record some notes while you walk. Note that if you’re a runner, cyclist or swimmer, you’re welcome to do any of these activities instead of walking. (Yes, I know you won’t be able to take your cell phone into the pool.)

Don’t make the lit review too comprehensive. You should describe only the main findings, relevant methodological issues, and major conclusions of other research. You don’t need to provide a lot of detail about the procedures used by your sources. Nor do you need to mention every study ever conducted on the topic. You’re looking for a highlights reel.

Don’t mix collecting material for the lit review with writing. One of my core principles is that writers should perform each task of the writing process separately. Don’t edit while you write. And don’t read source documents while you write, either. Many people tell me they need to consult their research material while writing — which, of course, seems only natural. But my client, Lisa Champion, has a great solution to that challenge: She goes through her source material and copies quotations or important chunks of text into a Word document. She then highlights the text from each source with a different colour. (If you have so many sources that the 15 colours offered by MS Word aren’t enough, you could consider also placing some of the text in different colours.) She ends up with what she describes as a “rainbow” document containing all the ideas she wants to incorporate.

“The colours help me see whether I’ve included each source and how much emphasis I am giving to each,” Lisa says. Then, she uses this document to start writing (in black). She pulls bits from the rainbow section into the black part as she needs them — sometimes keeping them as quotations, sometimes re-writing ideas in her own words and sometimes just making a note to herself saying, ‘paraphrase this later.’ This system helps her keep accurate track of her sources and ensures that she’s used info from each. Thanks for sharing this terrific idea, Lisa.

DO… 

Do get a recommended word count from your supervisor and if they won’t give you one, look for a model thesis or dissertation written by another student — in your department — and copy the length that person used. Word counts are more useful than page counts because they are more specific. I have a policy of never writing a word until I know what my ultimate word count is expected to be.

Do develop a system for tracking your sources. Don’t be sloppy about this; investing the time now will be much faster than trying to find your sources again later. I like Evernote for organizing research, but there is other footnote-related software such as EndNote and Mendeley that will also do the trick.

Do track your accomplishments. Writing long-form projects is challenging because they usually take a long time. Keep your spirits up, and maintain your productivity, by recording how many words you write each day and how many you have left to write. I call my own tracking record a “secret sauce” to writing success.

Do commit to a crappy first draft. No one, not even a professional writer, produces adequate writing the first time. Write first and edit later. Don’t get it right, just get it down. Editing is the time to fuss over your phrasing.

Do use mindmapping to help. Mindmaps can help inspire you and keep your writing on track. I’ve written about mindmapping many times and prepared a couple of videos as well. Start here and here and here.

Do understand that the lit review doesn’t need to be perfect or ground-breaking or astonishing. Competent is enough. Many students tie themselves in knots because they are so desperate to do an exemplary job. Instead, view the lit review as a hurdle you must overcome. The less significance you attach to the job, the better. Don’t psych yourself out!

If you want to become famous or perform ground-breaking work or even write a book, do it after you’ve earned your Master’s or doctorate. You’ll be in a way better position then. Once you’ve secured your degree, you’ll not only have more credentials to back you up, but you’ll almost certainly have more time and money, too.

No matter how overwhelming a lit review might appear to be, you can do this work. And then you can go on to accomplish other important tasks.

My thanks to Lisa Champion, Michelle Suderman and Laura Nalos for their help reviewing this post.

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Have you ever had to write a lit review? What tricks and techniques did you learn? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by midnight, July 31/18  will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.