Lit Review - Absolute Panic


So, with my first two months down, my supervisor has asked to see a first draft of my lit review (required by the end of the first three months) in eleven days time. He does know I haven't written it yet, but on Friday evening I was feeling optimistic.

Monday morning, and I've just sat down to write, and I'm not feeling optimistic at all. For the first time I'm having that, "what have I got myself into" sinking feeling.

Okay, it isn't the actual writing that is the problem. I've set aside today to design the final structure. Nor is it the references -- I have just under 100 that will cover around half of everything I need to show. It's not the subject -- I have a good question and understand roughly what I need to show in order to answer it.

It's just the sheer overwhelming task of having 11 days to write 10,000 words. What is getting to me is how utterly disorganised my "system" is -- I can't remember which article said what, and my Endnote keywords only get me so far. It's not what I need to write that scares me, but the depth to which I have to write it. To write a very long document, to go into depth of the literature, to explain the weaknesses and controversies of a subject I knew nothing about before the first of September, whilst also retaining clarity and flow from one part to another, seems impossible right now. Impossible and terrifying.

Incidentally, as arrogant as this sounds, I know I'm a good writer (forum posts excluded). I'm a writer and have written seven full-length novels, hundreds of short stories and dozens of nonfiction articles. I feel confident that I can roughly getting my point across.

I'm just overwhelmed by the depth of the topic that I need to go into, the narrowness of the question and the amount that I still don't understand. What if I simply can't read enough between now and the submission date? How do I pull out the information that I need and present it in a way that is readable, understandable but rigorously scientific?

I honestly feel totally out of my depth right now, and my supervisor is away. The document is needed as part of my University's formal internal review, which is at the end of November. My supervisor has a very full schedule and needs to have the time to read and correct it, so there is no flexibility on the date. There's no flexibility on the wordcount either, that's just what's required by the panel.

How on earth am I going to get it done?? How can I possibly understand my subject at the level required in under two weeks, and condense that down into a readable, 40-page document? Oh, and it needs to include equations, too...

Honestly, any lit review suggestions, advice, help, stories AT ALL would be greatly appreciated... I am having a complete Monday morning freak-out here!!


Hey Cornflower! I think you need to bear in mind that whatever it is you produce for your review will not have to be a final, word-perfect version of what your lit review will look like at the end. The main thing is to show that you have identified the relevant literature and are starting to integrate it and piece it together. It can take a lot longer than 3 months to produce a high quality review of your subject area, depending on how much there is to review, so don't cut yourself up if at this stage you haven't quite managed to grasp everything- for many it takes a good year to get to know the literature and to have completed the lit review. When I write a lit review I tend to find the easiest thing is to write a detailed plan first, which is what you're doing by the sounds of it- and then I go on to elaborate on all of the points in detail before writing it as a full article. 11 days to write 10,000 words is tough but doable- but I don't think you're gonna get into any serious trouble if you admit that you are still getting to grips with some of it and it's a work in progress. I would just concentrate on writing what you can in the time you've got and perhaps just prepare comprehensive notes on the rest of it. Good luck! Best, KB

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Hi Cornflower

The first thing - take a deep breath and try to relax about this as much as you can! I totally recognise the way you're feeling - no doubt all of us have felt this at some time or another (and probably more than once - I know I have!) But it is possible to do, and it gets easier, and your confidence will grow.

The first thing to say is that this is a draft that you're writing. And it's a draft that you're writing at the very beginning of your PhD work. They're not expecting perfection, they're expecting first tentative steps, feeling your way through the subject. I started my PhD just over a year ago, and I felt very like you at the beginning, but now when I look back on a year ago it staggers me, firstly how much my understanding of my field has changed since then, and also how much I have developed in that time.

Maybe the most unfamiliar element of it all has been learning to trust my supervisors with potential mistakes, and not to be worried that they'll think badly of me if they see where I'm actually at with the work. It's quite a brave thing we do, working closely with people who are so far ahead of us in careers/experience/knowledge etc and opening ourselves up to their comments about how we're doing, but if you can find a way to embrace that (and I appreciate being able to do that depends on the kind of supervisor(s) you have!!) then you'll get so much out of the experience. I know that's how I feel, at least.

Re the writer thing - I'm a writer too, mainly novels, and I know it really helps my PhD work (which is in a completely unrelated discipline). It means I can focus on the work and not worry so much about the wording, as that flows reasonably naturally. Academic writing is very different, of course, but in a way it's just another genre to master, so I think we're very lucky to already have these skills! That in itself is a reason for confidence.

As to managing to write 10,000 words in 11 days - yes, it's difficult, but it's by no means impossible. I've done the same thing several times over during the course of my first year, and it got easier each time, but was perfectly manageable the first time, apart from the stress I caused myself because it was the first time and I wanted to impress my supervisors. It sounds like you have a good approach by starting out with time to think about the structure. If you can break it down into sections so you're not thinking about the 10,000 words as this huge single task then I'm sure it will feel more manageable. And if you can work on it steadily and give yourself breaks so you don't burn yourself out, you'll get it done.

Hope that helps! And good luck with it!


Maybe pretend your lit review is a novel and write it like this: National Novel Writing month started today and the aim is 1,667 words per day! OK, so you're not writing a novel but at least you know there are many others out there with a difficult but do-able amount of words per day to write... ;o)

From my point of view, I'm really impressed at where you sound like you've got to already. I'm in week 4 of a part-time PhD and couldn't put anything together at all at the moment... Good luck!


Noooo -- I am doing anything to avoid NaNo this year!! But I hadn't thought about challenging myself to daily word counts in the same way. I could even resort to the awesome "Write or Die" which has got me through the last three Wrimos.

It's just that, with my Lit Review, I don't know what I'm trying to say and the clock is ticking. I don't think I know 10,000 words on my subject -- I am referencing dozens, perhaps hundreds of papers that I haven't had time to really read. Skim read the abstracts, maybe, but I haven't gone into the depth that I need and now I feel guilty about wasting so much time.

I realise how unfamiliar academic writing is -- what grammatical structure am I meant to use? So often I stop and wonder if Author, et al (1999) says this or said this. Does he show or did he show? I also just noticed that my question doesn't actually include the keyword of my topic. If I took the question literally, it wouldn't even be about my topic at all.

And... and... I'm procrastinating. Even when I'm not procrastinating, my progress just seems so incredibly slow.

I know I will produce something, but will it be good? I made the mistake of telling everyone what a fantastic writer I am, and how many papers I've read, but right now it feels like I can't remember who said what or exactly what they said, and the time it takes to go find out is exponentially longer than the time I have to finish writing.

I know I shouldn't whinge, but... Gah.


Just start writing. Anything. Brainstorm for example. What do you know? Freewrite it down for 15 minutes, to see where your ideas go.

And if that doesn't work is there any point in the literature review where you would feel more comfortable starting? Then start there.

Or do a mind map / spider diagram. Or use index cards to jot down ideas and shuffle them around.


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Hi Cornflower, I just wondered if you have any guidance as to what the internal review / committee requires? On the one hand it is admirable that they have you racing off with your review and really moving things along with intermediate deadlines. On the other hand - and as you point out - it becomes an endless race and a list of citations that you can't have possibly read in any great depth.

Perhaps a balance of a limited review which identifies areas that need further investigation, or other avenues that later drafts will pursue is more appropriate. At this stage, I would argue that establishing what you don't know in regards to the literature is just as important -a review of the review if that makes sense?!?! Obviously this may not work with what the panel or your supervisor but would still demonstrate progress at this stage of the PhD and is perhaps much more realistic.

Can you call on any guidance from fellow PhDers at you institution? How did they meet the review guidelines - what sort of depth did they convey in a short time scale whilst still hitting the 10,000 words? All in all, I wish you the best of luck, it is amazing what we can achieve when we are up against it - but it does seem like you have identified the pitfalls of this process and I can't help feeling that the thoughts of fellow students in your department and / or published guidelines from your institution could go a long way to adding some perspective.

Trust it goes well...


I am writing my first bit of the lit review now - because I started elsewhere in the thesis. You won't have time to read it now, but try and get hold of a copy of Hart' s book 'doing a literature review', it will help. I've started off with a bit about my approach to the review, what sources I've used and how I found them. for example a first search may give you 1000's of articles - or none as in my case! - and you need to explain how you picked the ones you chose. Then I've put a bit about the structure of the review, so people can see where it is going and at the moment I just have the stuff for one of the chapters, and in the review for each article I've noted how it fits in, why the study is important, what is the approach of the article and what are the strengths and weaknesses etc. that's as far as I've got so far, I'm reviewing the lit used for each chapter as I go along, doing one chapter at a time may not fit your discipline, but I think the process will be similar


Cornflower I am in a similar place to you. I have a meeting with my supervisor this week and have hardly anything written down, I'm totally overwhelmed. The other PhD students I know have all taken to this like a duck to water, perhaps its because they all have a masters whereas I've come straight from completing my undergrad studies.... We will get there in the end but we just have to keep writing. I'm glad I'm not the only one feeling this way and I think you need to get things written. 10,000 words can be done. I did it in 5 days for my undergrad dissertation and came out (shockingly) with a 1st for it somehow. I started with my contents page and a plan so I kew exactly what I needed to write.

Good luck x