How to overcome your fear of the literature review

Each time I have done a degree, MA, report for small research project for work etc, I’ve never really known how to do a literature review. I mean I know not to do the shopping list type and do it by themes, I know how to search the literature, I know how to manage and store references, but for some reason I never felt like I have ever actually properly done one.

Then when you do a PhD, the literature review is no longer say a tiny 4000 words of a 10,000 project. More likely it is multiple chapters and a billion words (well that’s what it feels like) and you feel like you have to do something properly because you don’t want to be caught out doing it wrong. You’re supposed to be the expert who has read all the relevant stuff and thought about it all deeply. This has caused me to become paralysed with fear!

I’ve been scared about not sounding clever enough. I’ve been also trying to produce something that you write in your final year, not the first year. I think this is because people tell you to look at other theses to see what one looks like. Well, that had an opposite effect on me because that is one they wrote in their final year. The first year literature review is never going to look as amazing and deep and intelligent as the final year one and there is no point trying to make it so, like I’ve been doing.

Another thing is that the research questions are supposed to emerge from gaps in the literature, so therefore you kind of think that you have to get through a lot of literature to know what the gaps are. And it is hard. How am I supposed to know because someone else might have done it but I just havent found it yet.

But one of the biggest things I did not realise was that theoretical stuff is ‘the literature’. I thought it was just empirical studies. So when my supervisors told me this, I felt relieved as I thought that I had not started my literature review, when in fact I had. You can also have a methodological review too. I’m going to have a smaller ‘methodology literature review’. Here I will put information about how other researchers researched the topic like I might say “so and so did this using 24 interviews blah blah whereas I think that this is a weakness which I will address by using a diff method blah blah”.

The biggest thing that made me no longer fearful of the review is that I no longer refer to it as ‘the literature review’. I’m not reviewing literature. I am reading, writing and thinking critically about it. I’m writing multiple little essays which have a common theme to create my story. That’s what I’m doing. In my final year, I will write it up and connect things more explicitly. But for now, little bits that connect – but perhaps not so clearly are fine!

In order to write these little manageable sections of the literature review, I use  Rowena Murray’s outlining technique. She refers to it but only quite briefly in the How to do a Thesis book (I’ve only got an old edition, so newer ones may be different). But in her book ‘Writing for Academic Journals’ she goes into more depth.

Outlining is where you create a very detailed outline of what you are going to write. So you break each topic and section down, and down and down again. Three levels of breakdown. Then you end up with nice little chunks. So now, I know that I need to write 100 words on a particular thing and it seems like an easier task. 100 words! That’s nothing!



Murray (2005) Writing for Academic Journals

My supervisor recommended that I keep track of all my sections in a spreadsheet and colour code. Tick things off and feel a sense of progress.

So in summary – scrap the words ‘literature review’ – that’s a big monster heading that causes anxiety attacks! Secondly create level three outlines. How can writing 100 words be scary?

Hope this helps any readers who may also have a literature review phobia.

  1. This reminds me of some of the techniques described by Louise Doughty in ‘A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist’. No don’t get sidetracked by reading the book, stay with your literature review, but shows overlaps between different types of writing.


  2. ds said:

    Thanks, this is actually quite useful. I’m writing some stuff for a progress review, where I have to write a lit review and methodology, and it is starting to feel like pulling teeth. With a pneumatic drill 🙂

    I’m less worried about the lit review, however, as it is an evolving thing. At my point, I know i will not have seen everything yet, and that new items will arrive at some point. I think it’s just helpful to feel as if you know how the landscape is organised before painting in the details as you progress Kind of like an oil painting I suppose, to use a slightly arbitrary analogy.

    Methodology, on the other hand…don’t get me started!


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