Writing the literature review

There are few interesting pictures of literature review writing. So this article is accompanied by pictures from my recent trip to the Outer Hebrides instead!

Writing a literature review is replete with challenges. How do you avoid writing something that simply restates what others have said? Sidestep that problem by arguing strongly for a particular approach or view and you risk reducing the complexity of the debate. Commit to covering everything on the subject and you quickly find yourself over the word count (and almost certainly boring your readers, which is worse).

Heaval, Barra.jpg

A good way to relax when not worrying about the literature review – climb a hill! (View from Heaval, the isle of Barra)

And that’s only once you’ve finally decided that you’ve read enough to begin writing! We’ve all been there – start reading on a topic and you quickly find yourself diverted to more and more references, all of which seem more relevant than the last. At what point do you make up your mind, decide where your academic loyalties lie and commence the (seemingly) straightforward process of writing?

I am now coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student, so these questions have been on my mind recently. I’m finding it particularly difficult for other reasons too. For a start, my PhD is in a field I don’t have a background in. With an MA and an M.Litt in History, I’m familiar with most of the basic literature in this discipline, and if I was doing a PhD in History I’d have a better idea of which threads to start pulling. That would be making life too easy for myself though. My PhD explores heritage tourism, and sits at the nexus between many fields including history, but also tourism studies, heritage studies and memory studies – each of which also draws upon disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. My relative inexperience with the main approaches, debates and methodologies within some of these fields makes it particularly difficult to stop reading and start writing!


Enjoying a cup of coffee and the calmness of Berneray before I returned to writing my literature review on Monday morning

That said, I made a conscious decision early on in my first year to read widely and explore different approaches. As with most PhD titles, what initially seemed a project of sensible (if ambitious) scope was quickly revealed to be unmanageable in the short time available to complete the project. The process of narrowing down my research questions to realistic proportions has taken time, and required lengthy consideration of the literature, if only to discount some of it as outwith the scope of the project. It’s easy to look back at the past year and wonder if I should have focused in on particular literature more quickly, been more strategic, started writing in earnest earlier. Upon reflection, and despite feeling quite stressed over the time left to write the review, I don’t regret taking the time to explore lots of different lines of research, even if none of it is ever referenced in my thesis. For some PhD projects, no doubt this initial breadth of reading wouldn’t be necessary or desirable, but the nature of my project was always going to require a synthesis of varied approaches and methodologies.

I also started my fieldwork during my first year. I think this is relatively unusual, especially as there were still big questions about the scope of the project. In some ways, these issues were a good reason to get out in the field and conduct interviews and observations. There is a fair amount of research on ancestral tourism out there but without getting too ‘literature review-y’, much of this work approaches the topic from a similar angle. It was important to do some pilot research to discover whether an alternative approach was viable. These initial research findings have helped enormously in narrowing down my literature review. First-hand experience of the field has helped me engage more deeply with some of the extant research, to understand methodologies better, and to discover unexplored areas of research which wouldn’t have occurred to me if I’d spent a year reading & writing.

The Jane.jpg

A picture from my recent holiday – the site where the emigrant ship Annie Jane was shipwrecked off the coast of Vatersay in 1853. Such tragedies often resonate with ancestral tourists whose family emigrated.

So, even though it’s a stressful time trying to pull together such disparate research into a literature review (honestly, multi-disciplinary literature reviews are a bit of a nightmare), I think my time over the last year has been well spent. Having started writing in earnest now, things are already becoming clearer, and I’m identifying gaps in my reading and working in a much more time-efficient way. Hopefully the breadth of my earlier reading will show through in my finished Literature Review, and using my initial fieldwork as a focus will help me cut down on the ‘noise’ created by such a multi-disciplinary reading list.

Despite my general positivity, I am finding it very difficult to write. I can’t overstate how helpful it has been to have a supportive supervisor who reminds me that this is not the finished product, but the first stage. Such reassurance has been important in helping me overcome the paralysis of ‘overwhelm’ and to just start writing. From there, at least I have something to work with.


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