Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

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I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy’s advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn’t really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I’m always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I’m deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton’s Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as “Community Attachment” or “Personal Networks”) and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I’d downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn’t called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn’t need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes — the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I’d already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story — or as some may call it, “building an argument.” Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you’ll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren’t there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I’ve been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don’t have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I’m relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I’m learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that’s rather a relief to discover. If I’ve stated the problem correctly, I’m interested in the question, and I’m not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don’t have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone’s already done that.
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4 thoughts on “Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

  1. rani

    This reflection on your process of writing the lit review is fascinating. I used to find the lit review thing rather mysterious, but having you describe it made me realize I already do some of these things when I write, but perhaps not so systematically and thoroughly. That’s the key, no, to ensure you have not missed anything major that relates to your topic. (Sorry, a bird just flew in the window and distracted me….) For me, the process of writing is often the process of interweaving and building the story — not so efficient, and much harder when you have 30+ pages to write, but oh well. Thanks for sharing.

  2. brownstudy Post author

    Hey Rani — the purpose of the lit review is to ensure that you’re familiar with work already done in the field so that you don’t duplicate it but can build on it. And yes, ensuring you’ve not missed the one article that blows your idea out of the water.

    I’ve had someone tell me, regarding the time and effort I put into my master’s paper, that I’m already doing doctorate level work. I’d bet that the same could be said for you when it comes to your writing and project goals.

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