In this post, I’m going to guide you through how to write a literature review on any topic from scratch, even if you haven’t read a single paper yet.
How to write a literature review from scratch
1. Pick a topic
It can be as broad as you like, because this is just a starting point. If you are still picking your specific topic for your PhD, that’s fine, but you should at least know roughly what area you want to explore.
2. Find your way in
A quick google scholar search for your subject area could turn up as many as 1 million results. Clearly you can’t read them all, so you need to look for an easy way in.
The vast majority of academic papers are written for people already familiar with the subject. They will refer to theories and methodologies assuming that the reader knows what they are.
So to start with just any paper at random would be a demoralizing waste of time, as you’ll be overwhelmed by the jargon. Instead, you need something you can understand easily to give yourself a foundation of knowledge to build upon.
Textbooks and review articles can be good places to start, though even these can be highly technical. If you can’t find one you can understand easily, then look for a book written for the general, non-academic public.
The idea is to gain a quick, broad background knowledge before getting into more specialised technical detail.
3. History, people & ideas
The idea of a literature review is to give some background and context to your own work. You need to show how your research fits into the big picture, relating it to what has been done before.
You don’t need to write a comprehensive history of your subject, but it helps if you know roughly how it has developed over time.
So as you read a few general introductions to your topic, you’ll start to get an overview of the key ideas and theories, who developed them, and when.
Also note any conflicting ideas, any controversy or disagreement in the field, as you’ll need to know this kind of thing.
Now you can start to look for specific papers.
4. Find the world-changing literature
Once you know who the world changers were, you can go in search of their papers.
You need to make sure you understand these key concepts, as they will help you decipher other papers which built upon these ideas.
Sometimes, those world changing papers can be tough to read, but as long as you know roughly what they did and understand the key principle, that’s enough.
5. Get specific
Only once you have a grasp of the key ideas in your field should you get more specific.
There may be several angles you can take in your research, and you may have to explore many areas of the literature. So divide your literature search into sections to make it easier to manage. For each section, think of several keywords to try out in different combinations.
Even when you look at highly specialised sub-topics, there may still be thousands upon thousands of papers, so you need to filter them. Here are a few ways to reduce the numbers:
- Look at the number of citations as an indication of quality
- Make your keywords more specific
- Scan the abstract and make a quick decision as to whether it will be relevant or not
Don’t be afraid to reject papers. You can always come back to them later, but you have to start with something manageable.
7. Filter again
You might not be able to read everything in depth immediately. From the papers you selected, give them a ranking A, B, or C.
A = must read, highly relevant, high quality
B = unsure, probably relevant, but not yet sure how
C = probably irrelevant, not what you thought it was when you read the title
If you’ve printed them , put the letter A, B, or C on the front so you can tell quickly when you come back to them (maybe months or years later)
8. Use other people’s bibliographies
Even if you can only find one good quality paper, read the introduction carefully and see who they cite. There may be a few gems there you didn’t find with the search engine.
Also see who else has cited that one paper since it was published (this is also a very quick way to update your bibliography if you are coming back to it a year or more later).
9. Get to know the big players
In any research field, no matter how specialised, there will be leading experts or competing research groups. Figure out who they are, and read their work.
10. Make sure your research idea is original
As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. How can you prove that nobody else has done what you plan to do, without searching every paper ever published?
Well, it’s worth spending a day or two searching every keyword combination you can think of related to your specific research plan.
11. Write about ideas
When you finally start writing your literature review, focus on ideas and use examples from the literature to illustrate them.
Don’t just write about every paper you have found (I call this the telephone-directory approach), as it will be tedious to write and impossible to read.
The aim should always be to cite the best and most relevant research, rather than going for sheer quantity.
12. Remember, you aren’t writing a textbook
So you can leave out big chunks. Write about what is relevant to your research.
13. Vary the detail
When talking about a broad topic, only cite the very, very best papers. You’ll have a lot to choose from , so why choose anything but the best?
Then when you get into more specialised sections, you can include a larger number of less well-known papers (but still the highest quality you can find).
14. Don’t cite anything…
Don’t cite anything you haven’t read or don’t understand
15. Get experience
Your perspective on the literature will be quite different once you have done your own research. If you are in your first year, get your literature review done quickly so you can move on with your own work, and don’t let it hold you back.
It takes time to figure out what makes a good paper and what makes a bad one, and that comes with experience of carrying out research, talking to other researchers, and just reading more.
For more on how to write a literature review, read: