Literature Review, or a Dinner Party?

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The most daunting and difficult part of writing an essay, thesis or PhD dissertation is definitely Literature(s) Review. No matter how many books I have read on the topic of  “How to write a literature review”, and assuring myself that I know the process, I know how it works and how to deal with it, still, get going and writing down seems like quantum physics sometimes.

Recently I have heard an amazing metaphor about literature review – dinner party. Literature review is like a dinner party where you, as a writer, are a host and other writers (scholars) are your guests. You are the one to decide whom to invite on the dinner table, and whom to omit. You are placing the name tags for your guests on particular seats, closer to you or further from you, depending on their relevance to your study. You are the one to choose how long will you have a chat with particular guests and how much time will you devote to them. There is no right or wrong way of hosting – it is your dinner party and only you decide about everything really.

Although a great metaphor, still, it doesn’t put the words down on a paper. Now when we know what is a good approach to structure the Review, it would be good to hear more about the actual process of writing.

There is good news! Your Literature Review doesn’t need to start with looking at a blank word document in front of you, trying to type your first words. Usually, these first words are the most difficult ones to write.  There seems to be so many things you need to say that it is difficult to find the ‘proper’ starting words or order. Or else, when you think you have just spotted a good starting word, you start editing and changing it into another words, and after couple of minutes of writing and editing – you just delete it all. And again look at the blank screen in front of you. Sounds familiar? No matter of the way you work, getting started is a daunting process. Unless you are that talented geek who can just sit down in front of the computer and write hundreds of words that actually have academic value. Lucky you.

For the rest of us, who need to write because of the deadlines and the sake of research (not because of the pleasure of creatively writing academic literature), there is a way to get going. That’s the reason why Literature Review should start much before we actually decide to write it down. It starts with reading. Academic reading. That is not any kind of bedtime reading, or interesting reading material for coffee or leisure time. Academic reading is active reading followed with writing down your notes in a word document (presumably you’re using computer and not a manuscript paper). Yes, academic reading actually means writing. As you come across some interesting quotes, ideas, definition, finding or research agenda in the paper you are reading, it is very useful to copy paste it to your document, with reference. I think of purely copy paste, without adding your opinion or without paraphrasing. Although many might disagree with me, I would say it is a better solution, instead of writing down your opinion, thoughts and paraphrases, which may cause confusion later and getting the core argument of the source, and it relation to your study. In that way, after reading around 20 different sources, you already have a good material written down.  By that point you already know what is your current body of research and you are thinking how it might inform your study and help you frame your research question(s).

Finally, when you decide to get going with writing of your literature review, at least you already have substantial material written down. Of course, you won’t copy paste it to your draft, but it will be much more easier to start your actual writing by looking at some text on the screen instead of a blank document. Also, having notes can help you enormously with structuring your review. Through reading of your notes, you might find useful to categorize and group certain studies into one title or subtitle. Following that ‘coding’` process you will soon have some categories that might become subheadings for your review. And that is the good way to start writing. In other words, literature review is all about classifying relevant studies, grouping them together and exploring their relation to your own research and contradictory studies.

Remember:

  1. You are the host of your Literature Review Dinner party – you choose!
  2. Writing down literature review starts with active reading and writing
  3. Code you literature notes and classify them into categories
  4. Having done all of the above, you are ready for the actual ‘thinking and writing process’

Or, at least you can warm up a bit and write a blog post – for your motivation.