Struggling to write lit review


Here is my situation:
I had some personal problems and was absent from university with clinical depression for a year. I felt like my supervisor was ignoring me, like she was annoyed with me for not getting work done, and I was stressed about the lack of support. I guess she was frustrated because she had given me feedback and couldn't do anything else other than wait for me to get on top of things.

I am now back at university, and I am still struggling to write. I don't think I am depressed any more, I am still not completely happy but I'm much better. I have a new second supervisor, and both supervisors are being supportive. My major stumbling block is the literature review, I simply cannot write it. If I could write it, I would be well on my way to completion.

The literature review is what I was struggling with before I began suffering with depression, I guess I associate it with all my problems. I had a reasonable draft of it and my PhD was based on that, but my supervisor has restructured it and deleted huge swathes which are apparently now irrelevant to the focus of my work, and only 25% of my original writing remains. So I have 75% to write, and it is a huge daunting task. I have spent time working on it, only to have huge number of words crossed out by my supervisor, I have made what I thought was a good effort and have been berated because it isn't good enough. So now I feel like I'm just wasting my time, I feel inadequate and stupid and incapable of writing it, and my supervisor will delete a lot of the stuff I'm wasting my time writing anyway. Not to mention it's very slow going, and there is immense time pressure so working on something that proceeds so slowly actually makes me feel panicky.

When I look at my literature review, I feel nauseated and stressed. It seems like this huge task, this barrier which I cannot surmount. I don't feel like this when working on any other chapter, other chapters seem achievable, but not this one. I've been avoiding it and working on other chapters, but I have my annual review in ten days time and they'll kill me if this literature review isn't in place, this is making me feel even more panicky.

I really don't know what to do, I have to get past this mental block somehow and write the literature review. I actually feel afraid of it, afraid of being unable to get it right, afraid of the panic and stress I feel while working on it, afraid of that nauseated feeling when my supervisor criticises my best efforts and crosses out the words which I tried so hard to write. If anyone has any advice about how to get past this mental block and deal with my panic and stress, it would be much appreciated.


Hey Mlis, it's really good that you are feeling a bit better with the depression- I have been there many times and I know how utterly awful it is and also how difficult it is to pick yourself back up afterwards and get on with things, so congrats on getting back to your PhD! Lit reviews can be really daunting, and so can huge amounts of feedback from supervisors. I wonder if it would be helpful if you were to write a fairly detailed plan first of your lit review and have your supervisor check that before you actually go ahead and write it? At least that way you find out what they think is good/bad/irrelevant before you have spent loads of time on it. I always give my sup a paper plan before I write my papers in full, so that I know very early on if I'm heading in the wrong direction, and I find it quite helpful. Then I make a more detailed plan, and eventually write it out in full. But the task seems less scary when you have a detailed plan in front of you as well, so it might make it a little easier to get going. And the dreaded sup gives LOADS of feedback and whilst I appreciate it I could also cry at times because there is so much of it! I think it's important to try to remember that they are just trying to help and aren't always completely sensitive about it. My sup usually makes some generic comment about the good points and then gets stuck into the bad points in far more detail, although I have recently purchased some 'good feedback' stickers from tesco that are designed (I assume) for primary school kids, with pictures of animals and words like 'terrific', 'nice job' etc that I am going to give her next time I see her to encourage her (jokingly) to provide some good feedback! It's worth a try anyway! Hope that helps a bit, you've done so well to get on top of things and I'm sure you will get on top of your lit review as well. Best, KB


I'd echo KBs comments about a structure - if you can get your supervisors to agree that then you can break each section down further until you have a very detailed plan which you can then just break into chunks.  I'm in a similar position - I have to write lit review but am struggling to get started so I have started a detailed plan (including references so when I come to write it I can remember what I was going to add).

I would also speak to your supervisor and be honest about struggling _ I know when I have undergrad dissertation students I would much rather they came to me and said they were struggling rather than wait for the next meeting when they produce nothing. They might get a bit of a rant but then we will sit down together and come up with a plan to get them back on track.  Is there anyone else you could sit down with to come up with the plan. When I was doing my proposal I got stuck and couldn't see what I needed to do but a colleague was really helpful even though she knew little of the topic (and in some cases that is better).

I love the idea of good work stickers - am def goign to get some of those.


Hi Mlis

Lit reviews are really hard - have just been there. I also had a lit review written, and ended up throwing out 19000 words and only keeping 1000. I've just finished mine, and it was incredibly difficult and stressful.

Yes, talking to your sup about this is essential to get your plan in place. I found that sitting on the floor with a print out of my ideas, chunks of work etc, and then physically playing around with them, rearranging them until I thought the order made sense, was really helpful. I wasn't getting anywhere trying to rearrange on screen. Also don't think of the lit review as one huge piece of work, break it down into smaller chunks, and work on these one at a time. I didn't think I'd ever finish mine, but kept going, day after day, and slowly it got better, everything got incorporated and it did get done. Don't worry about your annual review and don't aim to have it finished my then, just keep going. You're not alone, lit reviews are a pain in the butt, but you'll get there.


I echo all the advice to work out a plan and get that approved. Also Sue's advice about physically rearranging printouts is really good. I've done something similar in the past with index cards, summarising each separate section on an index card, then moving them around until I find an arrangement that I'm happy with. I find it very difficult to think of a big picture due to my brain damage, but can think of the smaller parts, and shuffling them around made things easier for me.

Even once I had a plan I found it helped to draw up a list of the component parts, and then start working through (and ticking off) those that looked least intimidating. That way I'd start to make progress, without worrying abou the huge task in front of me.

Good luck!


Thanks for the replies. I am still struggling to write my literature review, and it's due to be completed tomorrow. They are going to crucify me at this annual review; I have no idea what they will do to me. I haven't got the nerve to contemplate something like suicide, but that's honestly how I feel :(

I had a plan approved - I didn't stick to it. I could pick up my thesis and work on a different chapter without any problems, but I simply cannot do this literature review. I struggle even to pick it up and look at it without having a huge panic attack; typically I stare at it for a few hours, try to read something, faily to write something constructive, give up and go into avoidance mode. The more I feel panicked and worried, the harder it is to pick it up, and the more I just want to blank it all out. The feeling of panic makes it seem all too easy to just take a sleeping pill and black myself out so I don't think about it any more. I am spending a ridiculous amount of time in bed, and it's an avoidance tactic to deal with the panic.

I have no idea how to move forward from this point - I guess I'll have to start by contacting my supervisor and asking her for advice on how to approach the annual review when I haven't completed the literature review :-( Then, if I survive that, I'll have to come up with some strategy for writing the thing.


Hey Mlis, your annual review probably won't be as bad as you think!! You've been working, you're having some difficulties - just tell them that. List what you have done, even small things, and see how much you have done in a year! Could you even ask for suggestions in your review on how to approach the lit review?

As I said, I had huge difficulties with mine too. I ended up treating it like lots and lots of lit reviews to start with, one on every little topic, then I slowly linked them all together and developed a structure from there. It takes time. Would it help if it wasn't the only task you were doing? Some people find it more helpful to work on 2 chapters at once. Maybe you could set yourself a set time - like 15 minutes, then another 15 minutes, and just review 3 articles on one topic, then slowly expand. And once you've done some of the lit review, move on to do something else? Once your lit review gets in a bit better shape, it will get easier. Good luck and let us know how you get on!


The problem is, I haven't been working! I've been absent for a year with clinical depression; I've been back at university for a few weeks and I'm still struggling to get back in the swing of things. I would prefer to work on multiple chapters at once, but my supervisor has forbidden it, saying that my only priority must be this lit review. But it's too difficult to focus just on that and nothing else... I can't write the lit review, and I'm forbidden to write anything else, so I end up writing nothing. It doesn't help my motivation when it's implied that I'll be crucified at the annual review for not having written this chapter :-(

I think I'm going to have to break it up into little bits, as you said, then link the short sections together later on. That is, if I survive the annual review. Can they kick me out when my registration still has another six months to run? I forgot to mention that this is supposed to be my last review and I only have six months left :-(


Did you follow my tip of drawing up a list and ticking things off? This was advice over a week ago. I've had to return to my studies many times after taking many many months off due to severe disabling neurological illness. And every time I have to drag myself back to get into the swing of it.

Good luck for tomorrow. Best to be honest and say you've hit a big sticking block, and ask for advice on how to get over it. Because that's the situation you're in. Unless you can start to crack it today, and then report good progress.


Tomorrow is the submission date for my current draft of the thesis; the actual review isn't until next week. I've broken down my lit review into a list of subsections, sorted out the references for each one, done some reading... but I'm still struggling with the actual writing and ticking things off.

I will be honest and tell them I've hit a big sticking block, but the advice is always just "Knuckle down and write it". Don't they think I'd do that if I could?! That is, if they don't just kick me out immediately because I'm such a retard :-(


Can you pick the easiest looking bit on your list and start with that? Even try brainstorming on a bit of paper. Write a spider diagram. Anything. Just focus on one little bit at a time. And the chapter definitely doesn't need to be written in order.


And if you haven't been working because you've been ill, well, they can't hold that against you. Explain that to them, and have supporting documentation ready if necessary. You can't help being sick!!

Breathe!!! Take deep breaths, work out which little bit you want to start with, and slowly read, and write. Don't panic, don't think about the deadline, don't think that you can't do this, but focus on what you're doing and very slowly, start.


Hey Mlis, they can't be mad at you for being ill. Depression can be such a severe condition, and it doesn't just disappear overnight either. You really need to look after yourself while all this is going on or else it is going to be really difficult for you to keep going. Have you been able to explain the situation to your supervisor? Or is there some sort of post-grad pastoral tutor or anyone like that you can go and speak to about your difficulties? I had to drop out of uni and re-start the year three times in my undergrad degree because I kept on getting hospitalised for bipolar disorder. It was always hard to get going again and took time to get back into the swing of things, but I made sure my tutor knew what was happening, and the counselling service and mental health advisors were really helpful too. If you really can't work on your lit review right now then I think you should do whatever work you can, and if they are forbidding this then I think they are being quite obstructive. Of course your lit review is important, but at the end of the day it all needs doing so I think if you feel that you can work on something else productively then you should do. Just getting something done will help you feel a little bit better and struggling on with this review is just going to make things worse for you at the moment. I would try to explain that to them- they should be offering support, not making threats and making you feel worse. I really would find someone in the department who you can speak to about how things are for you at the moment- it sounds like you really need some support. Big hugs for you, KB


No, they can't be mad at me for being ill. The thing is, I've already been absent with clinical depression for 12 months, so now that I'm back at university they expect me to be on top form... and I'm not.

I had counselling, but the counsellor said that talking about my depression was counter-productive, and I need to forget about it and focus on my work. So I felt bad because I couldn't just forget about it; I really needed to talk and she didn't care to listen. She nagged me to do my work, and wanted me to show her what I'd done... counselling sessions became worse than seeing my supervisor, so I quit going.

Forbidding me to write anything but the lit review is the same as facing me against a brick wall... I'm struggling to make progress on that task, so being forced to focus on it exclusively means I'm not making any progress at all. Regardless of what my supervisor says, I think I need to do a different task in order to get things moving, and making some sort of progress would motivate me more to tackle the lit review. I think I'll find it easier to do something else and sneakily attack the lit review from the side rather than going head-to-head with it.

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It sounds like you're treating the lit review as "THE LIT REVIEW" rather than thinking "I'm going to write 100 words on theory X"

I think if you broke it down like this, then it would seem far more managable.

It can be pretty rubbish working from home sometimes. I find the best thing is to get into a good routine, take regular breaks and pop onto this forum when I'm bored.

I know Sue uses a forum called Phinnished? and that has a chat room I think, so you can actually work alongside people e.g. so you all start a task at 11.30 and then all have a chat at 12 for 5 mins. I thinks thats how it works.