WriteCast Episode 19: The Literature Review: Tackling the Hard Questions
© Walden University Writing Center 2015
[TEASER]: AMY: It’s been a very interesting experience having to write my own literature review.
BETH: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Beth Nastachowski. Today we’re talking about the literature review. If you’ve attended one of our webinars or residency presentations on the literature review, you’ve probably heard us talk a lot about synthesis and organization. Those are two really important parts of the literature review. But today, we’re actually not going to focus on them. Instead, we’re going to tackle some of the harder questions, and the questions we don’t get asked as often about the literature review, but still are very important.
I have asked Amy Kubista to be with me in the studio today. She’s the manager of Writing Instructional Services at the Walden Writing Center and a Walden EdD student. Amy, thanks so much for joining us on WriteCast again.
AMY: Thanks for having me, Beth. I’m excited to be here.
BETH: Why don’t you start out by talking with us a little bit about your experience with literature reviews. You’re an EdD student, so I assume that you have some experience writing literature reviews.
AMY: I do. My experience is I am currently working on my proposal, and I am in the fairly early stages of writing my literature review, and it’s been very eye-opening, because my past experience with literature reviews has always been reading other students’ literature reviews and giving them feedback on it or teaching students about literature reviews. So it’s been a very interesting experience having to write my own literature review.
BETH: So you’ve been able to see both sides of it. You’ve both taught, as well as writing a literature review?
BETH: Great. I think one of the questions that we get periodically that’s a great place to start is talking a little bit about when it is a good time to start the literature review. So sometimes students aren’t sure whether they should write the literature review first, if that’s the first thing they should do, or if they should write the earlier sections, like Section 1 or Chapter 1, and then dive into a literature review. What would you say to a student who is asking about when they should start the literature review?
AMY: I guess my best advice would be to do what you’re most comfortable with. You’d probably want to start with the literature review first, but I have actually saved it to the last because it’s terrifying to me. And I know that sounds silly because I’ve worked with literature reviews so much. For me it was something that was really terrifying because I just have this fear that now that I’m actually set to the task of doing it myself, that I won’t do as good of a job as I expect myself to do, or maybe others would expect me to do, because I have been so involved in literature reviews.
BETH: Yeah, I think that’s a great point—the fear component of a literature review because it does seem so overwhelming. One thing I sometimes ask students is whether their chairs or committees have suggestions about when they should start the literature review. I have heard from some faculty that they ask students to do the literature review first and then go on to do the other sections. Sometimes faculty want students to do the other sections first and then the literature review, and some faculty seem to not care. So I wonder if you heard anything from your faculty or you’ve heard faculty say anything about that?
AMY: My chair has been really great and supportive in that she wants me to do what I’m most comfortable with. And I’m one of those people when I have a to-do list—for example, my lit review, and the methodology sections, and things like that—I have a tendency to do what’s easiest first and save the most difficult parts for last. So I have been working on my methodology section, and I’ve been working on other parts, and now I’m starting to work on the literature review because I do view it as the most difficult section. Not to say that I’m done with the other portions, but I have solid drafts for the other ones. So now it’s just incorporating feedback, and now I’m actually starting on the more rigorous of writing the literature review.
BETH: One thing that you kind of mentioned a little bit, Amy, is that even when you’re writing those other sections, you’re still keeping that literature review in mind because the literature that you’re reading and using for the earlier sections will also inform and be incorporated as part of the literature, too. Has there been anything that you’ve been doing, you know, in the research that you’ve been looking at for the earlier sections that you’ll then use to help you write the literature review?
AMY: One thing that I’ve found really important to the entire process of writing the proposal is my organization of my research, and that has really, really helped. The Writing Center has some really great matrices to organize information, but I kind of took my own approach. I use a lot of color coding, and I don’t necessarily have a spreadsheet. I have Word doc., but it is very colorful, and there are lots of lines. I have a hard copy and then I have a copy on my computer and my paper copy, which I keep on my desk, has lots of circles and lines to remind myself how I’m going to connect different things. So I think that’s been the key when writing the entire thing is just having that organization of my research, so that I know when I get to a certain argument or a certain point that I have several resources that I want to lean on for that.
BETH: So you’re doing all that prep work beforehand to, sort of, help you write the literature review and maybe make it a little bit less overwhelming?
AMY: Yes, divide and conquer; yes. Inch-by-inch.
BETH: Yeah, and I’ve heard from a lot of students when I’m at residency, they’ll come up to me and I’ll ask them about their organization techniques and how they take notes, and organize research, and there’s a lot of different approaches people take. So I think that’s important to keep in mind, too. You’ve mentioned one approach that worked for you, not necessarily the approach we often have on the Writing Center website, but that works for you. So I think that’s great for students to remember that whatever organizational approach works for them, that’s great—as long as they have a way to organize their research, that’s the important part.
AMY: Yes, yes, definitely.
BETH: I think that leads us into another question that we sometimes get. I have often had students sit down with me at residency, and they will ask, you know, “When do I know that I’m ready to stop researching and I’m ready to start writing?” And I always have a hard time answering that question because it can vary and it can depend a lot. Did you have any experience or at a point where you felt like that switch flipped and you were ready to start writing after you had done your research?
AMY: For me, I made the conscious switch from researching to writing because I felt I had reached a point where I had searched and searched for articles, and I had enough to write my literature review. But then I kept running into the problem of new publications coming out, and trying to incorporate that into my lit review, but then that changes, you know, my whole perspective or the whole argument to the whole conversation that’s happening in the lit review. So at some point I just decided that I had enough and I was going to stop researching and start writing. You kind of have to make that decision to stop researching, because if you continue to do it, your lit review is going to be constantly changing and you won’t be able to write it. It’ll just be this ongoing thing. So there kind of has to be some kind of point where you decide, “I’m done with the researching, and I’m going to begin the writing process now.”
BETH: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, Amy, that there has to be some sort of switch at a certain point, once you feel like you have enough research to start writing. It sounds like, though, at the same time your focus shifts from researching to writing, but you don’t lose the research, either. You also have to keep that in the back of your mind. Sort of like when you’re researching, the writing is in the back of your mind. The focus just maybe sort of changes. The writing becomes the main focus and the research becomes a little bit more out of focus. Does that make sense? Or does that seem accurate?
AMY: It does, and when I say making the switch from researching to writing, it’s all about how I spend my time. So when I sit down with my devoted time to working my proposal, I’m not jumping into the library database, I am sitting down with my draft. I am not, you know, looking for articles. But you’re absolutely right, the researching bit is still in the back of my mind and still an active part of the process, but when I actually sit down and devote my time, it’s to the writing.
BETH: And I guess, just like you have your own approach for organizing and keeping track of your notes and your research, other people might have a little bit of a different approach to when they switch from researching to writing, as well. Some people might want to do more writing while they’re doing research, and that switch is a bit more gradual, while other people maybe want to have more of hard stop or something like that too. So I think that that’s something that you have to be a little bit more just aware of. I think a lot of writing the literature review is being aware of your writing process and what works for you and where you are in the process, and really reflecting on a lot of things. It seems like the reflection part is almost just as important as all the other parts, too.
AMY: Absolutely, and like with the note taking, you know, I said I have my own system. And I was a little nervous to talk about this today 'cause I don't think I have the ideal approach. I do what's comfortable for me. So I have lots of scribbles on papers and I have different color-codings, but it's what works for me. So, I would say whatever works for you is what you should go with.
BETH: And I think that makes a lot of sense, because we all learn differently, we all have different relationships with technology, and so we all are a little bit less or more comfortable with those kinds of things, and I think it makes a lot of sense that it's very different. But I think it's the hard part about the capstone in that everything is very individual, and it's up to you, as the writer, to figure that out and to be reflective and do all that on your own, which is very different from coursework. So, I'm sure that that's kind of a transition for you as well, switching from the structured coursework into the capstone where you are having to make all of these decisions on your own.
AMY: One thing that I've found has been really helpful is that it can be an isolating process, but I've really leaned on the members of my cohort and my chair. And there's some comfort to be found when you know others are struggling too and possibly struggling with the same things. And I've become close with some of my cohort members and we talk constantly about, "oh, this was really difficult, how did you approach this, how did you overcome this obstacle," and there's definitely something to be said for community and connecting with other people in the process, because it kind of humanizes it a little bit more and makes you realize that there are others out there going through the same thing. I've found just by asking my cohort members different questions that they have pointed me to different resources or just opened my eyes to different perspectives, and that's really been helpful. And one thing that I've kept very close to my mind and close to my heart through this whole process is one of my cohort members knew I was struggling, I was having some family issues and I had to step away from my proposal for awhile, and she gave me this saying that her grandma gave to her, and it's something that I always lean on, and the saying is: Mile by mile, it'll take a while; inch by inch, it's a cinch. It's a simple saying, but it's something that when I came back to my proposal, I was completely overwhelmed, I didn't know where to jump in, I looked at the lit review and it was terrifying--but then my cohort member keeps reminding me, and every time she signs off on something she signs it "inch by inch." It's a good reminder that this is a huge project but it's something that, if we can break it down and support each other on, that we will get through it. It doesn't have to be as overwhelming and burdensome as it can seem. It's just something that we take, you know, a little bit at a time and we'll get through it.
BETH: That's, I think, really great advice. For a lot of students, the literature review--and the capstone study itself--is overwhelming, so I think it's always useful to keep that in mind.
I think maybe at this point then it would be useful to move on to a couple of the more--I wouldn't say cut and dry, because I don't have a cut and dry answer--but these are questions that students ask a lot where I think they're looking for cut and dry answers, and again, I think the main theme of our podcast today might be that there are no cut and dry or right and wrong answers for a lot of these questions. I'll have a lot of students come to me at residency and ask what the page length should be as well as when they know that they're finished with the literature review. So, do you have any suggestions or do you want to tackle that first question about how long the literature review should be?
AMY: Boy, I wish I knew. We always talk about the literature review varying from literature review to literature review, and it's all about that point of saturation. And that term "point of saturation" can be horrifying because how do you ever know that you've gotten everything that you possibly can into your literature review? And it's so hard to put a page number on it because maybe your point of saturation is at 12 pages; maybe it's at 78 pages. It's so hard to, you know, give students a page number, so hitting that point of saturation is more about making sure that you have combed through your field of literature and have gotten as much as you can out of it on your specific topic and anything that relates to your topic. So, I don't have an answer, either, Beth. I'm sorry, I don't have a good page number to give you.
BETH: Right, and remember, everyone, too, that the librarians are really great at helping students make sure that they reach that point of saturation. They'll help make sure you're looking at all the journals and databases that you need to and that you're using the terms that you need to, so make sure that you rely on the librarians to help with that as well.
I guess the other thing I would add is this idea that you also want to make sure that you've achieved the purpose of the literature review. Focusing on saturation, of course--but also focusing on what your purpose is, which essentially, is to show either a gap in the literature for dissertation students or to show that your study is needed. And so I think it's always really useful to remember that point because you want to make sure that you have created an effective argument for that purpose. We forget that a literature review is a form of an argument. And it's not a traditional argument that we're used to making in coursework, but it is an argument. And so I think we also have to take that into perspective as well.
So, sort of related to these other questions we've been talking about--when to start the literature review, and how long the literature review should be--is kind of the implied question of when are you finished with the literature review, when have you crossed that finish line. And I know you're still writing your literature review, but do you have a sense from working with other students as well as kind of looking into the future for yourself, what will indicate that you've finished and crossed that finish line?
AMY: Well, I feel like a lot of students have this idea that it's finished when their chair says it's finished, but I like to think of myself as the authority on that. I will decide when it's finished. Of course, I will take into consideration my chair's feedback, but I like to think that I have control over that and I will know when that happens. I'm not there yet, but I like to think that, you know, once I have covered all of the points, once I have made my arguments and I have revised, revised, revised, I hope that I will know when it is. But at the same time, I know that I am going to go back and look at any new publications that have come out, so I might be adding to the literature review. So it's tough to say that there's a definitive point in time that it will be finished. I feel like it's something that could be ongoing forever, so--and I know that's such an amorphous answer but it will be something that I will have to determine at some point, that it's finished.
BETH: I think part of that, too, Amy, is that you can use your chair as sort of a person to give you feedback on that, but also remember, too, that once you submit your literature review as part of your proposal, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't go back and look at it again as you're finishing the study itself. Before you complete the final study, you'll still want to go back and look at the literature review, and I've even heard of some students going back and adding more research if needed, making adjustments, even once their proposal is accepted. So that's something to keep in mind, too.
BETH: To finish up, Amy, I wondered if your chair has given you any specific suggestions or advice that you have found really helpful that you could pass on to our listeners.
AMY: You know, one thing that my chair has suggested and that I have learned from my own experiences is that time management is really important. And not in the traditional, like, you know, I need a half hour here and an hour there and a chunk there. But, I mentioned earlier in my experience that I had some family stuff that pulled me away from the proposal for a significant amount of time, where weeks went by and I didn't work on my proposal or my literature review. And it was really, really tough to get back into it because I felt like I had to read all the research and pour over my notes and remind myself of the different perspectives and arguments. So if there's any kind of advice that I can give to other people writing their literature reviews is to stick with it and if nothing else, even if you're not writing, make sure that you're perusing your notes and making sure that you are reminding yourself constantly about your different arguments and perspectives because once you get out of it, it's really really difficult to get back into it. And it's not so much difficult but it's time consuming. Once you do start the literature review, make sure that you do have time to devote to it on a regular basis because, like my chair said and like I've learned from experiences, it's really helpful to stay in that mindset.
BETH: Thanks so much, Amy. I think that's great advice.
That suggestion about time management actually leads us to our next podcast for next month. Next month, we'll be chatting with the Writing Center's director about apps, technologies, and strategies to help you find and manage time to write.
Amy, all right, thanks so much for joining us on WriteCast again.
AMY: Thanks for having me here today. It was a pleasure. And thanks for listening, everyone. For more discussion of literature reviews, visit the Writing Center's website and blog, and watch for the live literature review webinars in April.
BETH: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Beth Nastachowski, and my colleagues, Amy Kubista and Anne Shiell.