Writing Literature Reviews

Recently, I was working on a literature review, and it felt like it was making little progress over a long time. Writing lit reviews is not new to me; I have done many, in addition to innumerable research papers. Why should it take so much time? I decided to review my process and speak to classmates in the program, both in my cohort and those who are further along than I, to get ideas.

Perhaps a brief explanation of literature review would help. According to Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), the American Psychological Association (APA) definition of a literature review is, “A literature review is a critical summary of what the scientific literature says about your specific topic or question.” They are often assigned so we can get a picture of what other scholars have found, and to provide readers background before we conduct research that builds upon their work. If we find gaps in the literature, meaning we have a question or topic about which we cannot find much written, we have an opportunity to extend the literature with our own work. Professors are encouraging about those gaps, however, our classmates often report being somewhat unnerved. The common concern is that we missed information, instead of finding a true gap.

Here is the typical scenario. My computer is open in front of me. Every resource I found during my search that looked even remotely useful is accessible on my computer – usually saved in OneDrive – and citations are in Zotero. Despite my love of technology, I still prefer hard copies of references I am likely to use a lot. So, I have at least 15 or 20 articles, double-sided, stapled, and highlighted, surrounding me. Often they will be sorted by general topic, and flipped open to key paragraphs. Other resources, such as the APA manual, course syllabus or assignment guidelines, and books (with colored page tabs), are within reach.

There are some challenges I typically encounter. For example, I normally have little difficulty with vocabulary; yet, as I write, I find myself using the same words repeatedly. I have the Word thesaurus open to the right of my paper and I use it constantly. Another is finding that, despite having a plethora of related references, I get a sentence or two written, or maybe a paragraph or two, and realize I want to say something for which I need another reference. Or, I realize there is more information I need to support or clarify my point. I hear Dr. Okech, from the counseling program, saying, “How do you know this? Where is your support?” Then, it’s back to the UVM library portal.

When I met with my fellow blog review board members, I shared this description. Truthfully, I was hoping to find I had missed something key and there was an amazing process they used to make writing lit reviews more efficient. Turns out, there isn’t.

I am writing this to encourage those of you who find writing literature reviews, or other complex research papers, challenging. It can be disheartening to spend a weekend (particularly a gorgeous spring or fall weekend) locked away writing, and realizing at the end of that weekend  you haven’t gotten anywhere near as much done as you had hoped. You are not alone.

One way to work through challenges is to collaborate with colleagues and classmates. Share resources and references. Read each other’s papers. It is easy to get lost in the weeds when you spend so much time with your own words. Sometimes, a fresh perspective can give you all you need to organize, or reorganize, your thoughts. It may seem overwhelming to consider reading other papers while you are neck deep in yours, yet I have found it to be a welcome break. The benefit gained from having someone read my paper more than offsets the time it takes for me to read and comment on his/her paper.

A few years ago, I was chatting with a professor who mentioned he had spent an entire day working on a journal article and had only gotten only one paragraph finished. I took solace from his comments, although I suppose one could take statement to mean this never gets easier.

Realizing the timeframes we face as students are often rather short, we need to find ways to be more efficient. For example, I tend to save any reference that might be useful in a clearly named folder on OneDrive. I make sure to rename the article file, often with the actual title, so I can find it more easily. I know some classmates mentioned storing files within Zotero; that is a learning curve I cannot climb during a semester. I do use Zotero to store all my citations. Again, I save them all, so I do not have to worry about going back and finding them. I use the MS Word add-on for Zotero, so I can have Zotero create my reference list at the end of the paper.

I am sure there are other ways to become more efficient, and I am eager to learn. I also know that some will work better than others, and some will not work at all for me. You need to find what works for you, and be open to getting ideas from your colleagues and classmates. At the same time, do not become distressed when some papers take longer, and the writing is more difficult, than others. Find what works for you, and do not be afraid to ask for help from teachers, classmates, and colleagues.  

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About Maria Horton

Maria Horton is pursuing an Ed.D. in Leadership and Policy Studies at UVM. Her area of interest is how we can address socio-economic and mental health issues in schools to ensure educational access for students who live in poverty or have experienced trauma. She has over 13 years of elementary teaching and administrative experience, working with students from Pre-Kindergarten through college. She is the interim principal at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington. She holds an MBA from UVM, an M.Ed. with a focus on technology from St. Michael’s, and a BA in Psychology, also from UVM.