5 ways to tame the literature dragon

The literature review is the thesis component which gives you the most scope to demonstrate your mad skills of scholarly warfare. Being able to write a killer literature review is important because it ‘sells’ your academic competence to examiners and other readers.

The literature review receives a lot of attention in the how-to-do-a-PhD books. The key point they all make is that the lit review must be more than a list of things you read – it has to have an argument and a point of view. There’s no shortage of good advice out there, such as this excellent list of ‘literature moves’ out of my favourite book on PhD writing, ‘Helping doctoral students to write’:

1) sketch out the nature of the field relevant to the inquiry – including history if relevant and
2) identity major debates and define terms, in order to
3) establish which studies, ideas and/or methods are most pertinent to your study, and
4) locate gaps in the field, in order to
5) create a warrant for the study in question, and
6) identify the contribution the study might make

But there’s a gap between this kind of style advice and the actual mechanics of analysing and organising the raw material of your literature review. I’m talking about getting to grips with all those journal articles people. You have rather a lot of them don’t you? How are you going to ‘identity major debates’ and decide which are the ‘right’ studies to draw on in all that mess?

As I see it, there’s two basic techniques for developing a literature review from a given set of references. You must work at forming critical judgment on the literature by reading it, at the same time as you work on finding ‘patterns’ in the mess of information. It’s important to realise that these patterns are not ‘real’ – you make them by sorting and presenting the information in particular ways. This sorting process makes the raw information legible so that you can start to write an argument from it.

This is more than a filing problem. If you are anything like me you have a massive pile of journal articles on your desk. The neat freaks amongst you will have them all printed out and filed in alphabetized binders. Some of the more technical minded amongst you will probably be using something like Mendeley or even – ahem – Endnote . These tools help you find stuff when you want it, but they don’t do the intellectual heavy lifting for you.

There’s many different techniques you can use to massage meaning out of your information mess, but there’s only room here for one. It comes from the seminal book ‘Information Anxiety’ by Richard Saul Wurzman. Yes, you heard right – Wurzman is the creator of the TED talks. Good pedigree yes?

Wurzman argues that there only 5 ways to organise information, which he calls LATCH:


These organising principles can be used to perform simple operations on the material you have. Here’s some ideas:

1) Location

All scholars are ‘located’ somehow. Sometimes geography matters – think of the famous ‘Chicago school’ in social science. But we can think about location in more abstract ways – such as a ‘location’ of a scholar within a discipline. Some scholars will be ‘fringe’ and others will be ‘main actors’; some people will be ‘theoretical’ and others will be ‘practical’; some people will care about history, others will not – and so on.

Make a table in word and arrange the authors according to different ‘locations’. This is a good way of choosing which authors you can use to illustrate the dimensions of each debate. It’s easy to compare and contrast their ideas with each other because you have identified oppositions.

2) Alphabet

Of course alphabet is essential to organising your bibliography! I can’t think of another good use for alphabetical in a literature review, so I’ll pass over this one for my favourite:

3) Time

So simple – yet so genius. Take all the references and lie them on the floor in order of their publishing date from left to right (or whichever way your culture prefers to do it). Skim read them all again in order – what do you notice?

Fashions will have come and gone; ideas will have grown and died. This is a really good way of interrogating underlying assumptions in a body of literature and how they have developed. Indeed you may discover that ‘facts’ presented by subsequent authors are merely ‘ideas’ which have grown pretensions by being repeated by subsequent authors, who haven’t done due diligence like you have.

4) Category

I call this the ‘colour by numbers’ technique and use it often as a quick and dirty method of squeezing sense out of the literature. Basically you can develop categories about almost any idea or theme you read about. A good way to come up with themes is to visualise them in a spider diagram. Once you have identified the categories they can act as subheadings in your literature chapter. Simply make a list of which authors fit in which categories; don’t worry if some of them occupy multiple categories – they will just need mention them more than once!

5) Hierarchy

I find this organisational principle is really a ‘meta’ device – a way of criticising information you have already sorted using one of the other methods, particularly the category method. You make a hierarchy by exerting critical judgment on each of your categories: is one school of thought or way of doing things described in the literature superior to the others? Is one idea more practical and useful than another idea – or more theoretically interesting and elegant? Why? If you have organised your information according to location and identified oppositions, you can use hierarchies to identify which side you are on in the various debates. As you write, you weave in the critical stance you have developed – but that’s a topic for another time.

So that’s a grab bag of techniques to tame your literature dragon – at the very least they give you something to do when you are stuck!

18 thoughts on “5 ways to tame the literature dragon

  1. Love it. I found that time line thing really useful when I did my lit review. Also that evil evil time sink of citation mapping.

  2. Thanks Inger,
    This was very timely for me as I’m right in the middle of writing my ‘literatures’ chapter, which by the way comes after the research design chapter–no 5 chapter science report structure for me!!
    I see working with the literatures as much a part of my methodology as the methods and my reflexive standpoint, which are all integral to an intrepretive qualitative inquiry.

    But I digress, the reason for the comment is to share some wonderful advice I received early in my candidature from my second supervisor. Both he and I are librarians and this might be why it resonated with me but he suggested that I order all those journal articles and other printed material by the record # given by Endnote. It has proved to be a very workable solution. It’s just a matter of displaying the record # as part of the records. I usually order my Endnote file by this record number too.

      • Hi Inger
        Endnote is a database so for every new entry there is a unique number. In EN they are called record numbers. You can make them visible by checking the box in the display fields within the preferences options. Edit | Preferences | Display Fields.
        The difference between these numbers and labels are that the record numbers are automatically generated. (I haven’t used labels though so I’m not sure.)

    • sorting endnote by date also allowed me to see how a writer/and the theory evolved over time.
      And using the groups function lets me sort by categories

  3. I had sorted my paper files by category but found too many that multiple category so I kept losing things (particulalry as my thinking re categories changed) so now I’ve switched to simple alphabetical! Online though, I use zotero which is much more versatile, although I’m thinking of switching to mendeley

  4. Looks like we may be headed towards an Endnote, RefWorks, Zotero debate…

    Which would be very timely for me because I’m at the beginning of all this and I am currently trying to select a citations manager. Any advice?

  5. This is a great post. I really like the idea of re-shuffling your organization method and seeing what patterns pop out (something made easy to do with a reference manager like Mendeley). I do have one thing to add in terms of a way to organize – tags. Yes, you’ve mentioned categories, but the difference really is that tags are a bottom-up way of describing your collection, where as categories are primarily top-down. Then you can look to see what the most frequent tags are, which tags usually co-occur, and so on. Most modern reference managers (sorry Endnote) support searching and displaying via tag. There’s also a cool web app called Wordle that allows you to paste in text and it will show you a “cloud” of the most prominent themes in the text. It’s fun to use this with .RIS output from a reference manager.

  6. This is a fantastic post! I’ve been dreading starting one of my chapters precisely because I felt I couldn’t get away from the very rudimentary “list of sources” style lit review. (i.e. Scholar X says this! Scholar Y says that!) These ideas give me totally new strategies for thinking about this lit review-heavy chapter. THANK YOU!

    And, my new two cents re: source manager: I just started using Zotero, and so far love it. I just dumped a whole pile of .pdfs from my desktop into it, clicked a button, and it gets citation data from GoogleScholar and autopopulates the citation record. So cool and so easy! It can’t do that for all of them though, so I am working through a small number myself.

    And I agree with Mr. Gunn– tagging is a great way to conceive of your critical field. As I was tagging my articles in Zotero, I started noticing patterns I’d not noticed before.

    And (finally) I love Wordle! After substantial revisions, I’ll stick a draft in there just to see how concepts are changing in relation to one another. Plus, being a literature person, it’s just fun to have a “visual” component to my work.

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