Why you’ll love your literature review – and how to love it faster


Relevant? Not really but it’s heart shaped, the Olympics are in London and I thought it looked cool.

“I hate the literature review, the literature review sucks, I suck at doing the literature review, my life sucks because I have to do the literature review and everyone else is having fun.” *breathe*

This kind of resentment is not uncommon as I’m sure you’ll know. I used to hate my literature review as well. I hated it. It was tough, it made me want to quit my PhD – right at the end. I would have said all of the above several times a day – normally using much stronger language!

Cut to my viva…

[the viva is an oral examination at the end of a PhD]. As you may know I was featured on Viva-Survivors this week and you can hear me talking about my viva. Did I hate my literature review then? No. The opposite in fact – I loved it. I actually really enjoyed talking about all the work I’d done, all the papers I’d read and the conclusions I’d drawn. Guess what? I find my PhD work interesting! Who’d have thought it?

Am I alone?

No, no and no! I’m not alone. Most people I talk to do the same thing. They love talking about their work. During the viva, most people could talk all day. They really enjoy the stimulating exchange with other people who are interested in the work.

This stimulation is the essence of academia and the literature review. If there was some way of bottling the discussion during the viva and pouring it all over you literature review, writing would be A LOT easier, it might even be fun.

Recap: You hate your literature review now, but you will love it later… how does that help?

Well, maybe there are some elements of the viva that we can take and apply to our literature review right now. Pat Thomson has been a big help to me discovering these elements, through her [easyazon-link asin=”B000UYCPP4″ locale=”us”]book[/easyazon-link], blog and through our chat on the podcast.

Search for the stimulation

If you hate the literature review you have one of two problems. You are in the wrong field or you are focussing on the wrong things. Many people (myself included) tend to focus on the writing process itself. Referencing, typing thousands of words, searching for articles etc. It really helps to think of the literature review as a stimulating discussion, like the kind of discussion you would have with your supervisor, your peers or in your viva. Your objective during the literature review is to mould this discussion into paper form. This is essentially your only objective. Everything else is just there to help you do this. If you ever have trouble with writers block or motivation. Try looking at the literature and find the discussion in there that simulates and excites you.

Take a step back

In the viva, you’ve finished everything and you’re essentially looking back in time over the literature review. Not only this but there is physical distance between you and your literature. What I mean by this is you can look over the entire literature and “see” everything. When most people write the literature review they are very much “in it”. Surrounded by stacks of papers making it very difficult understand what is going on as a whole. So always try and take a step back and view the literature from a distance so you see where everything fits together. Not only will this help you write better but it will also allow you to see what you’ve done and how far you have to go. This can be really motivating.