Before You Start
This is one of the frequently asked questions by my students and my colleagues and I go straight to the answer with my famous answers which are actually questions and the answer to these questions will tell you how to write a literature review:
Who is going to write the review?
Is it you, a team of authors, or are you asking an external review writing consultancy services to write it for you? The answer to this question is important because it guides the planning stage.
What is the review about?
The topic or subject of the review should be specified. It might be too broad and so you will be dealing with lots of literature or it might be too narrow so it will be very hard to find the relevant literature.
Why do you write this review?
Is it a coursework or a paper for publication or presentation or it is for a blog or podcast? Is it a standalone work or is it part of the bigger plant such as a work package for research or a chapter in dissertation? Depending on the purpose your plan may change.
How much time do you have to write the review?
The timing is the key because it definitely affects the quantity and quality of your work. It is always advised to plan ahead.
Where do you want to publish or present or submit the review?
If you plan to deliver it to someone else, who are they? Is it an organisation or a journal? Are they following a certain style or guidelines for writing the review and do they present any example? Again it is important to know the destination so you don’t have to fit a square peg in a round hole.
What’s the length, format, and type of the review?
You need to know if there are work limitations or formatting standards to follow. And finally you need to know the type of your review because we do have over 51 types of literature reviews. When people talk about ‘literature review’ they usually mean the most traditional type of review which is ‘narrative review’.’
How the quality of this review is going to be?
Do you want high quality work to be presented as academic work and shine in your resume for the rest of your career and life or are you looking for something ‘good enough’ to be submitted and get you a mark for a course. The answer makes a huge difference because by publishing an academic work it will become part of your professional reputation.
You have three types of resources to juggle and I call it Resources Triangle:
- Money: with money you can hire consultancy services and pay a freelance professional to write your review. It is usually easy and does not require any legal contract however ethically, you should acknowledge the writer in the final product unless you agree otherwise. If so, you become a ‘guest author’ and the original writer stays a ‘ghost author’. Although controversial, it is usually accepted by many consultants. If you don’t have money, do you have people or time instead.
- Human Resources: you may have a team or fiends or students who can help you with writing or it could be you on your own. It is important to know who you have and for how long so you could plan timewise. Working with a team it is important to decide about the amount of contribution from the beginning until end so when the work is done you know everyone’s contribution and the order in which everyone’s name should appear on the final work. You also need to know how skilled they are, in particular are they fluent in using any computer programs? If you need human resources can you hire them?
- Time: How much time do you have and can you make time by adding people or spending money.
These three resources are totally connected and balance each other. For example if you have enough time, you can write a review gradually and at less cost with less human resources. If you don’t have time, then you may buy some other people’s time so they write the review for you.
Step 1: Choose a review type
Depending on your purpose, you may choose one of over 51 types of literature reviews and follow their steps. Otherwise if you choose to go with a traditional and narrative review then you can follow the next steps.
Step 2: Choose a topic for your review
Start with a topic of interest and look around the internet for half another. See if there’s anything in Wikipedia or any other recent review papers relevant to the topic. For example if you are working on a review about machine learning in neurology, you may find the paper about machine learning in cardiology. It is important to see similar topics and similar reviews because you can follow their footsteps in structure and content.
Step 3: Outline the topic of your review
Draw a map of the topic and its subtopics to allow structuring your paper. For example, if you are wiring about treatments of migraine, you can start with what is migraine and how it starts and then move to possible suggested treatments pathways. You can classify the treatment based on each pathway or classify them in categories such as psychotherapies, pharmacotherapies, and allied and alternative medicine. You can continue comparing them in a table or list the most recent systematic reviews about their effectiveness in a table. Finally you can have another section on the most recent ongoing promises or finish with current clinical practice referring or citing the clinical practice guidelines.
Step 4: Determine the amount of text/references per review section
You have no choice but to have a stop point otherwise your excitement and enthusiasm will drain your time and energy. For example, specify that you will have one or two or three paragraphs per subtopic and each paragraph is going to have two-three references. Of course you need to run searches to find the relevant literature. It is not a rule. For example, one paragraph will be enough for your last section which is usually the conclusion.
Step 5: Make the order and content of the review logical and connected
See if the structure of your writing makes sense. Are the paragraphs connected in a way that it is easy to follow and read? If this writing was someone else’s what would be your opinion on improving it? Is it boring or interesting?
Step 6: Choose a writing style for your review
Are you going to summarise the most recent literature? Or are you trying to critically appraise a topic or an idea? Or otherwise you care about the pros and cons on a topic or idea?
Step 7: Leave the review aside for one or two weeks
When you spend too much time on your writing you probably cannot see the points to improve or mistakes. If you leave your writing aside for a while it gives you the chance so when you return to it later you can see new things, you will have new insights and new ideas.
Step 8: Ask for independent view on your review
Although not always possible, it is always good to ask for an independent view from someone else. You can do this alongside the previous step to save time.
I know this is not a perfect guide on how to write a literature review but it is general and easy enough to help you start your review.
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