“Writing a literature review was so fun and easy!” - No one ever

I recently completed my first comprehensive literature review as part of a graduate school milestone project. Before starting, I sought guidance from online blogs and university workshops held by our library. The tips I learned from these resources were extremely helpful, but not everything worked for me. This is simply a list of things that worked/did not work for me during the reading and writing process of my literature review. Feel free to comment below on what worked & and what didn’t work for you!


Start!


If you are anything like me, you are reading this because you are apprehensive about starting the daunting task of a literature review, and understably so. I wanted to be as efficient as possible, so I scoured websites, attended workshops, and signed up for writing groups. After you are done reading this, take the first step and START! Although it’s great to seek advice and guidance for something like this, everyone has their own unique experience when writing. Starting is the best way to learn what works and does not work for you.


Take digital notes


I learned about 2 months into the process that physically writing notes into legal pads about the papers I was reading was inefficient and simply not working for me. You always hear the concept that “Writing notes on paper helps you remember it later on.” For me, not true. I type much faster than I write, so writing notes was painfully slow for me and I would often write illegibly. So I began taking notes in a single Word document, often limiting myself to one page of notes per paper. Importantly, the first line of every page had the authors, year, and title of the paper. Therefore, if I needed to find my notes on a particular paper, I could simply type COMMAND + F (I’m a mac user), and search the paper using the title. This is much faster than rifling through dozens of legal pad pages and paper notes. Also, searching for terms used in papers, such as keywords, was much easier in electronic format.

When doing a literature review, COMMAND + F is your friend!


Have a system


Develop a system and be ready to change it if you notice something not working for you. Briefly, here’s the system I used:

I would find a paper that I wanted to read and enter its information into an Excel document. The spreadsheet looked something like this

Author Year Title Type Category SubCategory Summary
Tolchok & Krovvy 1962 Milkbars and Ultra-Violence review Category A Category A-1 This article is about…
Hoagey, Ray & Miranda 2017 The Woes of Graduate Life experimental Category A Category A-2 This article is about…
Mulligan & Belmont 2016 Ahead of their Time meta-analysis Category B Category B-1 This article is about…

I then would import the paper into EndNote and ensure the citation was correct. I then would read the paper and take notes in a Word document, with roughly 1 Word doc page per paper.

Tip: pressing COMMAND + SHIFT + 4 on a Mac will allow you make a selection on your screen for a screen shot. Adding screenshots of helpful figures or tables to your Word document emphasizes the important results and helps jog your memory.

I learned that a note taking system is a critical component of a lit review. Being able to find your notes quickly, as well as other papers that are similar, is made very easy with electronic notes and an efficient system.

I took notes using this format in my Word document:

  1. Author(s) - date - title of paper
  2. Keywords of the paper (tip: create your own if they are not in the paper already)
  3. Intro - things I learned
  4. Methods - important info to understand the results
  5. Results/Discussion - main findings and bottom line

Using this format made it very easy to COMMAND + F the paper I was looking for and other similar papers by searching keywords

“Wait, why use the Excel document if you are taking notes in a Word document?” The Excel sheet is a great way to organize your materials globally by keywords, category, authors, and year of publication. Sorting your articles based on category and year helps group papers that are similar in topic and provides a historical perspective on a body of work. This may elucidate recurrent themes in your literature, such as debates across time, or provide unique insights into your review. I also used the Excel sheet as a way to mark down papers that I wanted to read, but wasn’t ready to find them yet. I simply entered TO READ in the cells to remind me.


Use a citation manager


As mentioned in the “Have a System” section, I used EndNote to manage my citations. Citation managers are software programs that organize your papers/citations for easy citing while writing. Some other common reference managers are Mendeley and RefWorks.

I strongly advise against doing citations “by hand.” That is, manually typing or copying from online citation generators into your reference page. Citation managers streamline this process by building your in-text citations and reference pages for you. An added bonus is that you can switch citation styles (e.g., APA to MLA) very easily. I don’t even want to think about the pain of doing that by hand!

Citation managers will also ensure that your in-line and reference page citations are correctly furnished and ready for submission. Of course, I recommend checking your work and editing style guides as necessary to be in accordance with journal requirements. Not having to worry about citations is a HUGE advantage when writing a literature review. I encourage those that are apprehensive about making the switch to using citation managers to do it now. Putting the time in now to learn one of these programs will save you time and stress later!


Read/Write everyday


Writing a literature review is similar to preparing for a marathon. Training for the big race requires a slow and steady approach of practice everyday that gradually builds until race day. When reading and writing for a lit review, it is best to take a similar approach and try reading and/or writing every day for a certain amount of time (adjusted to your deadline, of course).

Try to write every day and develop a rhythm.

Initially, I began with a 1 hour per day approach. It was quite tough at the beginning and I would begin to fatigue fairly quickly, often not even finishing a whole paper or article. I’m also a slow reader and get distracted easily. However, as time went on, I began building my lit review endurance and I noticed my ability to read multiple papers and write more sentences increased. By the end, I was well exceeding the 1 hour per day benchmark I had set for myself. I think this was because I learned a lot about the literature, which in turn made paper reading faster, which in turn led me to organize and write more effectively, which in turn led to excitement that the end was near! Also, my deadline was approaching :)


Limit distractions


No matter if you follow my advice about reading/writing everyday, not limiting distractions will prolong the process. In my experience, 2 hours of work with distractions was roughly equivalent to 1 hour of work with no distractions.

I noticed a huge increase in the amount of work I was able to get done in 1 hour when I turned off notifications from my electronic devices and worked in an enviornment when no one could bother me. Turning my phone on silent helped, but turning off badge & banner e-mail notifications on my Mac REALLY helped. Try it out!


Focus on the main idea


I really wish someone would have told this to me when first starting. At the beginning, I began with review articles to introduce myself into the field and to see what has been already reviewed (this is something I highly recommend). I certainly didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but contribute new things that I thought were important to the field.

However, some of the reviews and book chapters I read were very well written and covered a wide range of topics that were important, but on the periphery of what I wanted to study. So I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do a literature review, it’s gotta be big and comprehensive. I should include this background information to make sure I have all my bases covered.” This was defintely not the way to go.

I began reading too off topic and straying from my main ideas. This ended up making a few of my early sections seem unorganized and less connected. It wasn’t until I really focused in on my topic that I began gaining confidence and feeling less overwhelmed. Therefore, focusing in on my topic helped me, while worrying too much about the background work of others detracted from the paper’s coherence. Start focused, then zoom out if needed.


Enjoy the process


I know this sounds crazy, but look on the bright side! You are committing all this time and energy into learning how our understanding of a specific topic has evolved over time. You are going to come out confident and well-versed in an area of research—an expert of sorts. Realize that it takes time to get there and be patient with the process.

Hopefully this was helpful and don’t be shy to comment below on things that worked/did not work for you!