Tips for Grads: Adding structure and avoiding time wasters in literature reviews

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

Picking up from where we left off last week on the subtle essentials of research paper writing, let’s dive into writing literature reviews. It can be easy to get lost in the ocean of literature and stressful to both synthesize and critique scholarship, especially when you’re short on time. Here are some essential tips to help you avoid time wasters and provide structure so you can be proud of your next literature review.

  • Clarify your purpose. Literature reviews generally explore the state of knowledge of a given field or topic. They put ideas in conversation with each other and ask researchers to add their perspective. Consider your purpose as you dive in and get support from your professors, mentors, and advisors for help in choosing a topic.
  • Select your criteria. Choose about 10 keywords to search on your favorite literature database. Narrow your search results by adjusting the order of keywords you use and sorting results by time, relevance, and citations. Use citation managers to organize, store, and format your sources.
  • Actively read to outline. Read with a pen in hand. Try strategies like annotating as you go and writing critical summaries. Next, organize how the scholarship fits with your topic based on time, events, or themes. This part of the process can be the most fun, so find ways to enjoy it or get creative. Use mindmaps to help develop your argument by connecting similar and different ideas to the main points you want to make. Following that, your outline practically organizes itself!
  • Write then edit. If you struggle with constant revising during the early drafting stages like me, try setting specific time aside to revise after you write a complete idea or for a set amount of time. Use resources like The Writing Center or having a friend look at your work. You can also use course rubrics to grade yourself!

There are so many resources out there to help you complete your literature review so do your research and take advantage. This piece drew from the UW-Libraries mini-course on writing literature reviews in the sciencesthis article with samples from The Writing Center’s handbook, and a great Youtuber Dr. Amina Yonis who has several videos on the subject.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.