Literature reviews are time-consuming. So time-consuming, in fact, that it’s best practice in Australian universities to let the PhD candidates devote an entire year to reading around their discipline. This lets them get a sense of the field, what’s been done before, and how their research will fit into the grand scheme of critical thought.
When it comes to articles, however, a lot of researchers in academia don’t have a year to read around in their discipline. With the ‘publish or perish’ mindset, some don’t even have a few months!
Most try to keep up to date, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always in a position to knock together a working literature review; besides, a lot of articles’ arguments need bespoke literature reviews, which the average academic would still need to hunt for even if they’re well on top of the scholarship in their field.
Using the method outlined below, I’ve been able to smash together a decent literature review draft in an afternoon.
Note: the point of this is to write a draft version of the literature review. The literature review, like most things in scholarship, is a living document. It should act as a guide to your own argument. If your research ends up not including something from your literature review, then you should cut that part, even if you liked it. Likewise, if you come up with a new idea for your argument, or come to a conclusion you weren’t expecting, then it is your duty to go back to the literature review and adapt it to prepare your reader for what is coming.
Once you’ve written the whole paper, you should go back and redo the literature review so that it seems like you knew what you were doing the whole time.
What is your research question?
Often, your research question is a fluid beast. You might find that the question you started out with will change – particularly if you find that it has already been answered, which could very well be the case. If that is the case, then you can and should adapt the question to the gaps that you find in the literature once you’ve finished reading.
The literature review is where you define and explore the key terms and concepts that will likely come up in your argument. The initial research question or thought that you want to explore should act as the jumping-off point for your reading.
Say you’re doing a paper on the relationship between free will and the absent parent in Good Omens (as a random, nonspecific example that has nothing to do with my own research), then you will need to look specifically for scholarship about ‘free will’ and ‘the absent parent’. To start with.
What type of research are you doing?
Reading around the literature will also tell you what types of methodology is expected from researchers in your discipline. Some disciplines will expect an entire section devoted to the method chosen, while others just need a brief paragraph in the literature review.
Similarly, the type of research you do will determine what kinds of background knowledge your reader will/won’t have, and what they’ll expect you to demonstrate an awareness of. If you’re doing an analysis of a genre text, for example, then your literature review will need to briefly explore how the genre has been dealt with by the academy in the past. Once you’ve done your reading, the expected themes in literature reviews in your discipline will be clear.
Make a list of the big ideas
If possible, try and show how they would hypothetically connect/ the relationship you want to show.
Basic, short and sweet. Other research will need more key ideas, but this is just the start. This is where you begin planning what you’re going to search for.
Do your Googling
Start with Google scholar – look for the key concepts and look for the latest papers; aim to read post 2015 scholarship when you’re starting. This will shorten the amount of time you spend searching. The most recent research will show you a) what the current interests and priorities of researchers are, and b) what older sources continue to be relevant.
Here’s how to refine your search:
You can also use the advanced search function to limit your search further. If, for example, you find a lot of ‘absent parents’ scholarship is mainly focused on children’s and YA literature, then you can limit the search to exclude those keywords.
You will know whether a paper is relevant by reading the abstract. The abstract will have the paper’s argument, methods, and conclusions. If none of those are of interest, then it will likely not be useful to you. Move on. Don’t linger or hesitate – this is the quick and dirty version, so only spend time on papers that are clearly and demonstrably relevant. You can pad later.
Now, some of these papers will be behind a paywall. You can email most academics and ask them for a copy of their paper. Academics put hundreds of hours into writing these papers and most don’t receive ANY of the profits that come from the paywall – all of the money you pay goes directly to the publisher. So the author is usually quite happy to give you the paper. It costs them nothing.
Also, as a professional scholar, I must tell you to NEVER pirate your papers!! Never ever! Piracy only hurts the publishers. Certainly, whatever you do, don’t use sites like Sci-hub, which will search dois and urls and give you a pdf version of whatever paper is being hidden behind the paywall. Do not do this very, very naughty thing!!
Mine articles for their references
Look at the lit reviews in the articles that you found relevant in the previous step. They will tell you the theories and issues that are relevant to your argument. Take a look at whether these papers have references in common (these will be the ‘canon’ or seminal papers in the field) and go find those papers. Use them to bolster your discussion of the themes and key ideas in your argument.
Make sure to take notes as you go
Keep track in software that is easy to search for key words. I use Evernote, but Onenote and Endnote are fairly popular. Word has a bibliography function, but I don’t really like that. It has too many errors in the final version for my liking.
When you’re taking notes, note the full citation, key points of interest, and maybe a few quotes. Later, you’ll be able to go back and figure out which sources were specific to certain areas of your argument, which will help to structure the literature review.
Draw the relationships
What are the major relationships, trends, and patterns in the literature? Are there any gaps in the literature that require further study?
Reading around will show you the gaps, and help you refine your previous assumptions about the work that you’re doing. So, in my previous example about Good Omens, I went from this (my original assumption):
Still a little nasty, but it’s a good start for the draft. It shows the relationships between the ideas with more detail, and it shows what key concepts are present in the literature that I found. This is crucial because my original argument did not take into account things like the will of God/fate, which is an interesting concept in the Good Omens universe and deserves exploration when considered in connection to free will. It also shows that there is some scholarly precedent to considering a non-biological parent as a ‘parent figure’ – which helps in the case of Adam’s adoptive parents, and Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter. All very useful information that I can use to guide my analysis, though as I work I imagine that there will be more literature needed*. Again, this is first draft territory. Later, I’ll go back and make sure that I have everything I need where I need it.
Write the literature review draft
Like essays, a literature review must have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. One body paragraph per concept/idea.
You don’t need to go into too much detail in the history and development of a theory unless that is directly related to your argument, because the paper you are writing is supposed to be about you and not what came before you. But there should be enough information that the reader can at least understand your argument without googling what something means or wondering what you mean when you say something. A lot of the time in academia, you also need to be able to demonstrate your own expertise to the satisfaction of other expert readers, so keep that in mind when deciding how much information you need to include.
Write the draft literature review as bare bones information. Make the connections as clear as possible – both for your reader and for yourself. You should be using this information as a guide to your analysis, so if you confuse yourself then you will have a lot of trouble. You can put the lit review in bullet points, pretend you’re describing things to a five-year-old, or just doodle it. You’ll be able to go back and add some finesse. Check out this blog post about developing an academic style.
At the end of the literature review, there should be a ‘so what?’ statement. That statement tells the reader why you just devoted so much time to telling them about what other people think, rather than what you think. It’s usually where you remind the reader of your argument and guide them into the body of your article.
And voila! A quick and nasty literature review draft.
*For example, I’m interested in how ‘free will’ and the expectations of her absent parent (Agnes Nutter) interacted in the sex scene between Newt and Anathema, and whether it technically counts as consensual sex since Anathema was prophesied to sleep with Newt. In this case, I read around the concept of ‘consent’ and tried to reconcile that with what I’d already read about ‘free will’. What I read indicates that, at the very least, Anathema’s agency was compromised when she first slept with Newt because she’d been taught to trust Agnes’s prophecies and the prophecies instructed her to do it. It’s not consensual if you feel obligated or required. She breaks away from Agnes’s expectations later, using her free will to burn the second set of prophecies and choosing a life beyond being a professional descendant. But initially, Anathema was not acting of her own free will in the sense of how it was defined in the literature I read. (Sorry about the mini-rant, but I’m enjoying this research)
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂