Surviving a literature review

I’m a little excited. There are a number of reasons why. One of them is my research project this semester. I’ll be looking into the role of innovation in archival institutions. I’m looking forward to the findings. And I’m looking forward to graduating. But that’s another story, and not the point of this post.

As I start to figure out my research question, objectives, outcomes and how I’m going to approach it, I pulled open my desk drawer for some paper to write notes and memories flooded back to me. Last semester, a key deliverable threatened to bring me down – the literature review.

It was a nasty, NASTY beast. Though that might be partly due to the enormous pressure I placed on it to be absolutely brilliant. And just so you know, I don’t believe it was brilliant at all, but I survived it.

The piece of paper I discovered in my desk drawer was a blog post idea about how to survive the literature review. I jotted down some dot points about what was working for me. Surviving the literature review isn’t just about making sure you’re organised, the literature search strategy, or the structure. Sometimes there is so much focus on how to do these things, that the other stuff is forgotten. The stuff that help with making life a little easier, more comfortable, and quite frankly, allows for some of the sanity to remain intact throughout the process. Not only does the literature review need to be completed, but the aim here is to not go insane in the meantime.

Here are the dot points I wrote down when I was in the thick of it, tearing my hair out and trying so damn hard to remind myself that I enjoyed my topic and that was the reason why I was doing it.

  • Mood music – I like to write with either jazz or classical music in the background. I can’t have recognisable lyrics because my mind will wander. But I draw the line at Michael Buble. I can’t stand that over-rated karaoke singer. Music makes the writing a little more fun. When it’s upbeat, I feel a shift in my mood to having a little more confidence.
  • Dance it out. Seriously, do it. Don’t judge me, but I felt great after dancing out some frustration to ‘Do you love me?’ from Dirty Dancing. Dance, shake it out, grab a cuppa then sit your behind down again and write.
  • Back up! Make sure you back up your work regularly. After every writing session, I saved the version both to the hard drive and Dropbox, then did a full system back up once a week or fortnight. As for versions, save one for every session or day you’re working on it. This way, if you had a stroke of brilliance one day, scratched it out the next, then realised that really was an awesome paragraph, you can go back to it.
  • Tea is for alertness. Wine (or other alcoholic beverage) is for creativity and inspiration. I tend to get all ‘wise woman’ with a nip of scotch and feel like a writer with a small glass of Pinot Noir. I don’t recommend any more than two though. It’s all downhill from there.
  • Pick out a favourite mug. Believe me when I say that this makes a big difference. I have a study mug. It has Winnie the Pooh on it in ‘thinking’ poses. I bought it was I was 10 on a gymnastics trip. I’d recommend having something a little special or something you like because when you have a cuppa with it, it says ‘I’m studying right now. I have thinking to do.’
  • Don’t be a slave to the literature, your way is more fun. And probably better for your argument anyway. I remember having an epiphany about my literature review. I allowed the literature to take me where it wanted to go. No, don’t be a slave. The literature is there to answer your questions. You be the boss. It was amazing how empowering this perspective was for me.
  • Have an outline knowing full well it won’t happen. Then try anyway, get frustrated and throw out the outline. Start again. The literature review is a process. Allow the process to happen. You need to go through it to come out the other side.
  • Have pen and paper handy for moments like these. When inspiration strikes, I like to have scrap paper within reach to quickly jot things down. This serves two purposes – 1) you won’t forget your amazing thought because you wrote it down, and 2) you can relieve your mind from remembering that thought and you can go back to whatever it is that is demanding your attention and focus.

So there you go.  A moment or two of thought has turned into a blog post. I hope these survival tips are helpful to those struggling with a literature review or even assignment writing generally.  These are lessons learnt from my last research project and no doubt will put them in action for this one.

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