Writing a literature review is a daunting task. It takes a lot of time and, at the beginning of the journey, it will seem impossible to finish. You will have to read many papers and it can be hard to know where to begin. In this article, I won’t give any tips that will miraculously make the task a walk in the park. Nevertheless, I hope to ease the overwhelming feeling common to those new to a scientific topic — the feeling of walking through the fog in uncharted territory.

Before you read on, I want to note that this piece is based mostly on personal experience and that is not sufficient evidence that this method will work for you. Nevertheless, I hope by sharing my experience I might help someone.

One of the main tips I often hear for writing effectively — literature review or any other piece of text for that matter — is to create an outline of the topics that should be covered on a specific subject. There should be some indication of headings and sub-headings, each paragraph should have one clear message that will build an argument on each section and a good number of references already organized to endorse these messages.

Foggy Tübingen captured by Raymundo

How to create an outline?
I particularly like Umberto Eco’s take on this issue. He says that outlining is similar to planning a road trip. First, you decide which sites will be visited and how long you will stay in each one of them. In addition, the road map should contain information about the activities that will take place at each site. Although good advice for experienced travelers, how can a newcomer create a road map without knowing many details about the map or places on it? How can a student, new to a scientific topic, know where to begin when exploring the vast landscape of previous research?

After many readings and much struggle, I noticed that writing a literature review was far from linear. I once thought it was supposed to be a straight path from paper A to paper Z then wrapping everything up in a nice way. After a while it became more like an iterative process. The first few papers I read would only set the path to find the next papers to be read. Then how should someone new to a scientific topic start planning the literature review? I suggest starting from seminal papers and current reviews. These should give a low-resolution perspective of the map you are trying to create. At this stage, it is hard to clearly see each site that you should spend some time on, but these will increase in resolution as you continue reading about the subject.

But how to find seminal papers?
I think this is the time to ask for advice from experienced colleagues, those who once explored the same landscape you are trying to map. My suggestion is to ask a senior graduate student, postdoctoral fellow or supervisor for an initial — although short — reading list. I am not saying that you should always depend on their advice to select readings, as this ability will improve with your continuous understanding of a research topic. This advice should be an initial push to create a raw idea of what the map looks like. Don’t worry, even experienced academics ask for advice from their peers when traveling new roads.

Previous reviews are a bit easier to find than seminal papers. Use your favorite search tools and reference managers with keywords (e.g. Mendeley, EndNote, PubMed, Web of Knowledge, Google Scholar) and look only for the most recent reviews — if possible, not older than 10 years, but it really depends on the field. 

After finishing the initial reading list and taking good notes on those — always take notes of the articles you read, I bet you will forget most of what you read — create your first outline. This outline should contain topics that will guide you to select the next round of readings.

At some point, it will be better to start outlining each sub-section of your literature review independently as those gain higher and higher resolution. It is as if you are planning your activities in each site that should be visited. When doing this, it is hard to look both at the low-level resolution map — main topics — and to start increasing the level of detail in each of them. In this case, I believe it is easier and less overwhelming to plan, read and write each sub-chapter at a time. Divide and conquer! By doing this, planning won’t only be part of your literature review at the beginning, but rather develop along the way as the map resolution increases. Every once in a while — e.g. a month — take some time to re-evaluate your outline.

Notice though that an outline is not set in stone.
It can change while writing your literature review. Umberto Eco reminds us that when actually taking a road trip, we may realize that there are some sites worth spending more time on and others less. Another possibility is to visit a site that is outside of the initial plan. This is part of the iterative process. You will only realize some things when actually reading and writing, not planning. Allow yourself to change and don’t be too attached to the initial plan. As William Zinsser says, “Fondness of material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell.”

Creating the map feels like an overwhelming task at the beginning: how can you sketch a map of a place you have never seen before?
With this piece, I hope I have encouraged you to start reading and planning as soon as you can.  Start broad and then focus as you build a more detailed high-resolution map. Create the map and get some feedback on it. It should be motivating to write for someone to read and give you some constructive critiques, point you in directions you have not explored, or help to drop some extra weight you should not be carrying around. The actual writing should only be done when the map is in high-resolution; at least that is my opinion. However, you should never stop taking notes — lots of notes — and maybe a small draft of what you think would be a potential paragraph when the thought strikes you. Most important of all, never stop reading and taking notes to record places you have already visited. As my father often reminds me “É caminhando que se constrói o caminho” – it is only by walking that you build your path.

Raymundo Machado de Azevedo Neto investigates how contextual factors modulate visuomotor control by combining psychophysics, fMRI and TMS at the Institute of Radiology of the University of São Paulo, Brazil and the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience of the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Eco, U (2015) How to write a thesis.
Zinsser, W. (2006) On writing well.


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