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  • Writer's pictureLaura Schlater

Writing the (Not-So-Dreaded) Literature Review

Photo by Ridham Nagralawala on Unsplash

Congratulations! Your prospectus has been approved and you’re on to the next step: the proposal (Chapters 1, 2, and 3). This is a major milestone in a doctoral student’s academic career. You’ve done your research and created an overview of what you’re going to; now, you have to translate into an outline for writing your dissertation.

Specific to Chapter 2—the not-so-dreaded literature review—you’ll need to create an outline of not only the sections of the chapter, but the summary of research themes relevant to your topic.

You’re already well into this endeavor, having conducted exhaustive research and identified a clear research need. So tell us: What did you find out? What have other researchers and scholars found relative to your topic? In Chapter 2, what you’re doing is telling a story in blocks of summarization. There is nothing to fear! You know your topic better than anyone. You’ve done more research relative to your topic than anyone. You, my friend, are now the expert—even before you begin the actual study.

So take a breath and step back. Consider the words of author Anne Lamott in her essay titled “Short Assignments,” in which she shared sound advice on how to approach a mountainous project:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. . . . [H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Lamott, 1995, p. 22)

Think about these words and really take them to heart. Go back to the notes you made as you were reading, the sections you highlighted and the comments and themes you scrawled in the margins. Make a list of these themes, and then put them in order of importance. Next, note which studies were related to which themes.

In my own case, I printed and alphabetized every PDF I found and kept a stack of books in easy reach. As I read, I highlighted passages and noted applicable themes. I used Post-It tabs to mark each section for easy access—and yes, I went so far as to color code the tabs by theme.

I created an Excel spreadsheet (but feel free to use whichever organizational tool you prefer) with a tab for each theme. Next, I listed every resource I’d found related to each theme, with columns for author, date, publication, page numbers, a brief summary of findings, and direct quotes. (Yes, the quote part took a little doing, especially as I transcribed passages from books, but the electronic cut-and-paste from Acrobat or Word to Excel was quite simple. I found this to be an excellent way to keep me on track and focused as I wrote the literature review.) Finally, I sorted all entries by author, making them easy to locate in my alphabetized binders.

This is where Lamott’s excellent advice comes in: Take it one topic at a time. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by all the tabs in your spreadsheet or the number of 3 in. binders on your bookshelf. One bird at a time!

Another tip: You don’t have to write the literature review in the order you’ve ranked your topics. You can start anywhere. Choose the theme that’s your favorite or the easiest to write about, and set a goal for yourself of how many birds you’ll capture in a single writing session. If you have two hours set aside for writing, two to four is a reasonable expectation. Don’t let yourself get frustrated. If you find yourself stuck on a particular theme, leave a few blank lines to remind you to come back to it, and then move on. At this stage, the point is to keep writing. Just get it down.

Lamott has more bits of insight about the writing process: No one ever writes a perfect first draft, not even professional writers. In an essay wonderfully titled “Shitty First Drafts,” she wrote: “Now, practically even better news . . . is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (Lamott, 1995, p. 25). Later on, she stressed, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (Lamott, 1995, p. 27).

Keep yourself motivated (and sane) by remembering these four secrets to writing a good literature review:

  1. Conduct exhaustive research on your topic. (check!)

  2. Organize your ideas—and your research—into an easy-to-follow outline.

  3. Take it one theme at a time. Remember: You are now the expert on your subject!

  4. You’ve got this!

The goal is not to overwhelm yourself, but to take pride in every section you write. Gather your birds one by one, and in the end you’ll have an entire, wonderful, flock to review and improve.

I can’t do the writing for you—but I can help you ensure your words and formatting are at their very best before you put them in front of your committee. Contact me for dissertation editing help at any stage of the process!


Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

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