How to Find the Singular Focus You Need:
You will know how to write a literature review when you know its plot. And it doesn’t have to be some kind of a song and dance.
Kind of like the drum solo in a rock song, you may be expected to write parts of your text as a lit review whether it’s a journal article, dissertation, academic book, grant proposal, or a review piece.
You might picture yourself developing a crooked back,
what with all the reading, and reading more,
and assembling massive amounts of knowledge,
and compacting it into a density of information
that is ever hungry for more and that will suck you in as well, like a black hole.
And still you will not have read or commented on enough.
How could something be so boring and so dangerous at the same time? Ah the paradoxes of black holes.
How do you summarize 75 sources into a paragraph?
Will mine be as boring as this other person’s, that is stuffed to the brim with citations?
You start writing it—starting with what you know, then reading, taking notes.
You get a bunch of text at first, then bamm! Stuck. Seriously stuck.
You stare at it. You read some more. Maybe you add more text. Maybe not.
Maybe you avoid it.
This random collection of ideas.
Where should it start, where should it end, and how should you start fixing it to do those things?
What is it really about, and how is your take on this stuff different or original compared to all the other people who have written on the same things?
Well if you don’t know, then the reader won’t. So why would they want to read it?
And that leads to the question: what makes a literature review interesting?
How can this paragraph, this page, or if it’s an entire review article, what is the dramatic plot of it?
What are people going to wonder about? What question is on their minds?
In a novel, you might wonder whether the main character is going to survive the barbaric games of fight to the death they have been conscripted to, and whether they will have to kill their friend in order to survive.
So what is the question that the reader wants to know the answer to? Set that up and deliver the outcome.
Fortunately in a field of inquiry like most academic disciplines, you don’t need a final answer. It’s more like those serial binge dramas where it goes on endlessly and the only purpose is to keep you watching.
Approach your lit review that way—how can I keep you reading to find out what happens next?
The Steps to Getting Clear Through the Lit Review
Step #1: Focus on Structure, Leaving Content For Later
Start with something sketchy, but let it be a structure.
You don’t have to cover everything equally. You have to make the field interesting.
Keep that distinction in mind at all times!
And in the drafting a structure stage, simply start with a foundation around the question that is important to you about the field. Write these out:
1. If this were an undergraduate essay test, what would the essay question be?
2. What is it generally that people on this topic have been wondering about?
3. What has happened in thought or evidence that has changed that question in some way, either in a new direction or in terms of honing in on something particularly important about it? Pick one, if possible, for simple plots, and for longer sections or articles, pick the key movements, as few as possible.
4. If you, now, have another version of this question, or a point to make about it, or a hope for a new direction, after everything that has happened in the action from #2 to #3, what is that?
You can take a breath now. It’s going to be all right. Simple answers to these questions give you your basic structure to build on.
Later you can focus on the content.
Remember, whenever you feel overwhelmed, and synthesizing a bunch of readings could be one of those occasions— create a simple structure first, and build on it later.
Step #2: Write Some Content Every Day
Don’t worry about how it looks. You are still working up to it.
Say what you have to say to typify the movement you are writing about. If it is about the turn from textual meanings to bodily vibrations, just write in broad swathes about each one, plop in some citations if you know them, and talk about the change in rough words.
If something you say is awkward, who cares: laying in some content is just another form of structure building.
If the erudite elders would squint in disapproval, don’t worry, don’t get stuck and fix it up later.
They are not actually going to see this. It’s a draft.
Remember, when drafting what you are creating is… wait for it… a draft!
This is easy to forget especially when the literature review demons visit us, which often whisper: “you don’t know your stuff!”
These demons will also keep you reading rather than writing.
But the truth is, the plot of a literature review is simple and so are the fields of study really. There are only a few trends, especially where you are the one who has focused down the topic. You can write and fill in the structure even with incomplete reading.
You could read forever.
Instead embrace the fact that you are not there to cover everything, but to tell a good story about change and promise.
Step #3: Refine Your Scale
Make sure that you’ve narrowed down the scope sufficiently to tell a good tale of change and promise. It’s easy to rack up a list of a hundred citations to read, or twenty sub-disciplines within your topic. That will never give you the narrative tightness you need to create specific drama in your questions.
You want coherence, and therefore the ability to paint a picture of the world for the reader.
Keep imagining a reader who will benefit from the work you have put into reading and thinking, so that they don’t have to do that work themselves. You are doing them a service and a favor.
Don’t imagine a reader who already knows everything, and is judging you about how much you know and whether you are their equal.
Only talk in depth about those articles or pieces that help you make your coherent point.
Don’t pad things or stuff things to look good. It doesn’t look good!
Step #4: Speculate, Hope, Dream, Promise
In telling your story, you may have done a certain amount of summarization and say-back.
Remember that the story should have an ending, a place of rest which in academic work can often mean another cliffhanger: where is the question now, what is the next step, or what is the promise for the future that this story brings?
Make sure that’s in there or it will only be a summary.
Telling a story, albeit not exactly like a novel, is the way to get through a literature review for your article, dissertation, academic book, or grant proposal.
Get the basic structures of the story in place. What is the previous state, what changed, what is the next step for the future?
Keep the focus not on an accurate picture, but on a coherent story. Layer in the details of the story over time with daily writing, getting better and better, clearer and clearer, and you will finish your work.
How do you feel? When it comes to writing reviews of literature what is your #1 problem?
Please bounce it off me in the comments below and I’ll respond to you!