Today I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Ben Libberton, who shares his best advice for the literature review with us. Ben is a Postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He’s a microbiologist with a degree from the University of Leeds and a PhD from the University of Liverpool.
He currently manages two blogs. At Literature Review HQ he aims to guide students through what he found to be the most difficult part of the PhD - the Lit Review. Now, as a confused but enthusiastic postdoc, he aims to collect the advice and wisdom of experts and share it at the Postdoc Lounge.
The lit review can be tough. It’s a long and technical process and often we’re expected to just “pick it up as we go along”. To me this is like trying to learn how to drive a car without having any lessons. It's possible, but it’s going to take a long time and the chances are you’ll pick up some scrapes along the way.
I want to outline some quick tips in this article. I want to give you something that you can implement right now that will help you see a difference in your literature review writing and your productivity. However, before I begin, I think I must say the biggest thing that affected my progress as a writer was training and education. For some reason, I never considered writing the literature review as a discrete skill that could be learned. Somehow I just filed it in my brain under “PhD stuff” and treated it exactly the same as doing lab work. This was a huge mistake. Academic writing was totally different from anything I’d ever done before. What I should have done is started out trying to understand writing as a skill and learning how to do it. So whatever stage you are at now, commit to your academic education and find a way to learn about writing. Everyone is different and there isn’t a “one size fits all” answer, but you can start by going to your library and checking out a few books on writing the lit review.
So, if we want to play the piano, we have to take some piano lessons right? I think I’ve made my point so lets get into some tips.
The first major tip I would give is to alter your perspective.
For me this was so powerful that as soon as I heard it, my writing changed instantly. I read it in Pat Thomson’s book, “Helping Doctoral Students Write”. She outlines some useful metaphors to use when thinking about the literature review. Whenever I thought about writing, I would think of climbing a huge mountain or drowning in a sea of literature. Pat says we should think about the literature review as more of a creative challenge. A much more useful analogy for the literature review is trying to get an octopus into a jar. When you think about drowning in a sea of literature and putting an octopus into a jar you feel totally different. The first invokes feelings of panic and fear. There is a sense of impending doom and the thought that the only way out is to swim for your life until your muscles give out. Drastic - I know, but this is how many of us feel. The second analogy makes us think about and interesting problem to solve. There is no impending doom, just an outcome that we want and hurdle in our way. We are free to observe the entire problem before making judgments and we are free to step away and think.
The other thing that helps me get perspective on my writing is when I found out that you can pay people to write your literature review for you. I calculated on my blog that it would take one of these professionals 2.5 hours to write 250 words of your lit review (references and all). This was liberating for me (not because I could pay someone to write it – I really don’t recommend you do this). I realized that there must be a “process” by which you can write, a process that these professions had worked out. I had the subject knowledge so all I had to do was figure out a bit of their process and I’d be able to do the same.
The next tip would be to plan more than you do now.
Seriously. Planning isn’t just an exercise that you have to get out of the way before you start writing. Planning IS writing. When it comes to the lit review, having a good plan is like having someone next to your telling you what to type. You just work away as fast as your fingers will go and the literature review magically appears. While planning and writing are part of the same process it is very useful to separate them into two stages. I think doing this solves many problems with writers block. Firstly you plan and work out exactly what it is you want to say. Then when you write, you simply decide how you are going to say it. The beauty is that doing it this way, before you sit down to type, you already know exactly what you are going to say.
The Third and final tip is about feedback.
Give, and Seek Feedback at every stage of your writing.
Seeking feedback is kind of obvious but in my experience, nobody does it enough. Remember to be respectful of people and their time but make sure that you seek feedback. Try not to just ask for comments either. If you have a particular problem, tell people what the problem is and what you are trying to do.
Giving feedback is possible one of the most underrated and quickest ways to improve your writing (and confidence). In your group, simply offer to critically read the work of your colleagues. You might not be confident at first but as soon as someone agrees, there is pressure on you to do a good job. In other words you have something to lose, you have a stake in the game. As hard as it might be, critically read and comment on your friends work. Use reference books and papers if you have to. At the end of it you will have been exposed to a different style of writing and you’ll have spotted mistakes. If you do this a few times then you’ll be able to immediately translate this back to your own work when you are writing and editing.
So there are my three top tips. My aim for this was fast results. I think that implementing any of this will give a noticeable improvement within a week. Are they earth shattering? No, but if you're stuck and you commit to these (or all three) then you’ll see results within seven days.
What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’ve missed something? Let me know what you think in the comments.