”]This summer I experienced a grad student rite of passage: crafting a review of literature.  The way was fraught and I had to overcome everything from an avalanche of articles (let’s just say my snowball method raged out of control) to  a complete inability to conceive of any kind of organization. I also developed fascinating new ways to procrastinate.  Thankfully, I follow #phdchat on Twitter, and the participants’ sage words on the process helped me move from a state of near paralysis to fruitful, concentrated writing sessions. These writing sessions eventually led to a Lit Review that I really, really enjoyed writing.

How I felt before


How did I do it? Here are my 7 survival tips:

1. Choose your tools wisely: There are three main areas where technology needs to be established in the course of writing the Lit Review: Searching tools, Organizing tools, and Writing tools. Because this post could get crazy long if I walked through my work flow for each of these steps, I am going to just lay out what I used:

  • Search tools: I relied heavily on the electronic resources at my University’s library, including databases and search techniques suggested on the library’s website.  When I found a good article that I thought I might like to use, often the database itself would suggest similar articles that were the real gems. Finally, I used good ol’ Google Scholar.
  • Organizing tools: I think this is one of the most personal decisions a budding academic has to make. Deciding on a reference management software is a huge decision, because switching midstream is often difficult. I am a big fan of Mendeley for its easy sharing and web-based nature, but be aware that the APA citations were a hot mess and I did spend time triple-checking the citations it generated.
  • Writing tools: While Microsoft Word or even Google Docs seem like an obvious choice, I can not recommend enough that Scrivener is the right choice for writing lengthy, complicated pieces like a Lit Review. Scrivener allows me to keep my resources, annotations, outline, notes and composing window all in one place, as well as providing a “composition view” that blacks out all the other applications on my machine. While I found Scrivener to have a bit of a learning curve, the features it provides are now indispensable to me as a writer. To have a tool that so seamlessly meets my needs as a writer is a beautiful thing, and I honestly don’t know how anyone writes without it. 

2. Track your keywords: While in the Searching phase of the Lit Review, I kept forgetting the keywords I had used. In order to track them, I created a Google Spreadsheet with the date, the keywords, the database, and the file name for the articles I saved from the search. This saved me a ton of time when I was in the writing phase and needed more sources in a particular section. I was able to avoid inadvertently repeating a search and thus wasting time when I needed to be moving more quickly to add information.

3. Establish a naming protocol for files: Again, this is a very personal decision because it has to align with both your workflow and the way you think, but it is important to choose a method and stick with it. I would download articles I wanted to read, note them in my spreadsheet, and then re-name them by author and publication year. Then I would import them into Mendeley. I also created a folder in my Dropbox for just the articles I wanted to use for the review as a back-up to Mendeley. This proved helpful when I began to annotate.

4. Annotate: I am a paperless kind of gal, so finding a great way to annotate proved to be another essential step for me. Luckily, again through #phdchat, I stumbled across a free software (OSX only) called Skim. It integrates so beautifully with Scrivener, completely streamlining my workflow (for more on this, read this excellent post).  However you do it, from notecards to iPad apps, make sure that the system stays consistent so that you don’t have to re-read articles in their entirety when you move into the writing stage.

5. Build an argument, not a library: This is another #phdchat-ism. Remember when one had to physically go into a library to find resources? Remember wandering the stacks? The dusty smell, the unnatural quiet of the place? No? Well, let me reassure that this was once the way academics had to do a Lit Review. Sometimes, they even had to wait for the library to borrow a journal or book from another library. Crazy right? But in all seriousness, we post-Google grad students have a big problem on our hands in the age of ease of access: information glut. So I implore you: STOP SEARCHING FOR ARTICLES. There will come a time in the Lit Review process where you will just have to stop. Even though there may be that one last article or book chapter that makes your Lit Review, you will have to let it remain unsearched. I realized that I had enough to build my argument, and it was time to get down to business and craft my argument.

6. Shut up and write: My favorite quote about the writing process came out of this altered Thomas Edison quote, “Writing is 1% inspiration, 99% not getting distracted by the internet.”  There is no substitute for removing myself from distraction and writing sentences. I set aside a time for writing, usually in a two hour block. In this time, I always set a word count goal, which I then indulged myself in checking repeatedly during my writing block. Additionally, I set the timer on my phone (you can also use the  Focus Booster App) for first 10 minutes, then 15, then 20 and worked my way up to 30 minutes of distraction-free writing. In between, I took 1-5 minute social media or stretching breaks (This is basically my own version of the Pomodoro Technique). I like to ease into writing, especially when I’m in the “ugly writing” stage, and in this way I can build my rhythm and confidence. Also, with the word count and time limits, there is always an end in sight.

7. Get thee to a writing group: The beautiful thing about Lit Reviews is that almost all grad students have to do them, which means there are lots of our fellows with whom a writing group can be formed. My writing group met every week on Skype. We have four in our group, and every week two of us would email the current draft with specific areas on which they needed feedback. The group would set aside an hour to discuss each person’s work.  The idea is that the writer is supposed to listen in silence to the initial feedback, and then ask only clarifying questions. My writing group generally doesn’t follow these rules, but I’ve been in other writing groups where they’ve been essential. Getting defensive doesn’t help the writing improve, and being forced to receive the feedback in silence helps avoid the natural tendency of explaining “what I really meant was….” Many universities and colleges have writing centers that will also help group students, so consider that resource as well.


What are your survival tips for the Lit Review? Be sure to tell us in the comments!


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15 Responses to 7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review

  1. Laura says:

    I checked out one of the tutorial videos on Scrivener’s website and it looks really interesting. I’m thinking of trying out the Windows beta. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Nicely done, Andrea– lots of great tips here. Thanks!

  3. Julie says:

    A few tips:
    Read lit reviews done by others. In History, for example, the Blackwell companions are really useful. They will give you a list of publications but also have good or “less good” models of lit reviews.
    When you read books, find book reviews about them. They will help you connect the dots, get the arguments of the authors and help with your own argument. Again, no matter where you look, there are good or “less good” book reviews.
    A tip my advisor gave me: Think about teaching. How would you explain a topic to your students? That worked for me.

    Good luck!

    • Great suggestion to read other lit reviews. This was at the core of what I did as well: both published lit reviews and lit reviews done for coursework in my program by students ahead of me.
      I also love the idea that a lit review requires similar rhetorical moves as teaching does. That’s brilliant! Thanks for the suggestions.

  4. Love this list. Lit reviews can be so intimidating for many grad students.

    Disclaimer, I am a sicko that has been known to find it therapeutic … Must be the designer in me. Get caldron, stir in large lit review, stir, and simmer until new ideas begin to bubble. Serve witches brew.

    I guess that is my way of saying, remember, a lit review is a means to and end.

    • I love it! I believe that I may love writing a lit review some day: it does not seem as daunting now that I’ve been through the process once certainly. I do agree that it is a means to an end. Thanks for the comments!

  5. Kylie Budge says:

    Loved this post so much! Thanks for sharing all these amazing tips. Am booking marking this for sure!!!!

  6. Jennifer says:

    I have done most of your mentioned tips. So I guess I’m not very far off now. Haha! Thanks for sharing. They are really useful for me to know I’m on the right track. 🙂

    • While I didn’t intend this as a checklist, whatever makes people feel more confident works for me! I’m glad to know that you found these helpful, and, frankly, glad to know that I am on the right track, too. 😉 If we are both doing these, we must be on to something, right? Right?

  7. […] helpers.  I’m particularly glad I checked out the post since, after clicking on the “Surviving the Lit Review” link (I thought it may be useful for the course I’m teaching this year requiring […]

  8. manelle says:

    my tip is to stay awake!!!

  9. Haroon Siyech says:

    Not a grad student yet but preparing a proposal. Quite a few good tips. Thanks

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