Quick guide to writing your literature review

There are several skills you’ll need for putting together a lit review:

* Finding relevant literature
* Reading academic articles
* Managing your sources
* Organizing and synthesizing information
* Writing clearly

Here’s a general guide on how to go about it:

1. Figure out what a lit review is. See these slides, this overview, and this article.

2. Choose a reference manager for keeping up with your literature. Most of the students I work with use Mendeley; it’s a good free (with limited storage), multi-platform option. I have used Paperpile, EndNote, and other paid options as well. You may think you don’t need one when you start, but a year from now you’ll be very glad those PDFs are organized and not just dumped in a folder.

3. Learn how to find articles relevant to your research topic. Get familiar with the search databases available through the library (I use Google Scholar and Scopus most often). Don’t forget to do a good old-fashioned Google search, too. Ask your colleagues what journals and authors you should be looking at. Make an appointment to consult with a reference librarian.

4. Read articles. Don’t spend much time on articles that don’t wind up being relevant to you. You should very rarely read an entire article. You’ll develop your own system for understanding papers and extracting the information you want, but you can start with this article for how to read academic papers, and this one on deconstructing them (taking them apart to find the pieces that are most important and most meaningful to you).

5. Take notes on your articles. I recommend looking for, at minimum:

- Who are the authors?
- What groups/institutions are they affiliated with?
- What journals or conferences come up most often?

You’ll start to recognize patterns for each of these items.

- What is the unique contribution?
- What methods are they using?
- How do their findings relate to my question(s) of interest? To other literature I have read on this topic?

These items are really the core information that you will be studying and then synthesizing as you write the review. You may want to start with a document or spreadsheet like this to keep track of it.

Note: Make a record of each article you look at, even if it’s bad or irrelevant, so you don’t circle back and read the same thing later.

6. Read a few good literature reviews before you write yours. See if you can find review papers in some of the journals you identified above, or read the literature review chapter from the theses of others in your research area.

7. Write. Try to focus on getting your ideas down without editing yourself too much right now. You can also read this post on writing an introduction for a journal article, which is like a small, focused lit review.

I recommend starting with an outline: first the headings, then a note on what you’d like to convey with each paragraph. This can and will change as you go forward, but I find it’s less intimidating to have a structure to start with. Try grouping related papers together in a paragraph: similar questions, similar methods, or even a progression of work on a certain topic. What can you add that will connect these research works or better explain the differences among them?

8. Revise. Proofread. Have other people read and comment. Repeat.

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