3 Steps to Starting the Literature Review the Easy Way!

This post is about starting your literature review when you have no idea of where to begin. 

You may not even have your topic narrowed down yet. 

You may have an idea but not quite sure where to begin. 

Someone may have even told you that you need to read more to help narrow your topic. 

But...exactly how do you do so?

I’m going to share with you 3 steps that you can do right now. 

You may be tempted to go above and beyond these steps. And that’s fine. However, I implore you to just focus on these 3 first before doing more. 

These 3 steps are intended to help you stop being overwhelmed and to make progress.

Trying to do more will have you continuing feeling overwhelmed.

Trust me.

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Step 1: Brain Dump 

This first step is all about getting all of your thoughts out of your head. You have so much knowledge already in your mind that you may not even be aware that you do. I have provided some questions for you to consider as you are brain dumping. 

No pressure. 

No need to read anything. 

No need to overthink. 

Just write whatever comes to mind. 



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Brain dump everything you already know about your potential topic. Don’t worry if you don’t know what your topic is exactly.  

  • What do people need to know about this topic?

  • Why should people care about this topic?

  • What questions do you have about this topic?

  • What do you want to know more about this topic?

  • What would you like to accomplish with this study?

  • Who do you hope reads it?

  • What do you hope they will do with the information?

  • What assumptions do you have about this study?

  • How does this study connect with your personal life, if at all?

  • What are some potential barriers to finishing this dissertation?

  • I would complete this dump in a word document and in one sitting.

The information you put down will be the most helpful throughout your dissertation process. 

Your answers to these questions will be used to outline and structure not only the literature review but the entire dissertation. 

It can be difficult to distinguish your voice from the literature and so this is why I have this step listed first. You can identify what you believe and know before you get too heavy in the literature. 

Of course, you will refine and add to these answers as time goes on and this will help get you started.

Step 2: Find 10 articles

Let's take this slow. 

It is easier to critique something that already exists than it is to create something from scratch.

The literature review is fluid, not static. 

Meaning, you will constantly tweak this chapter throughout your dissertation process. So, starting with 10 articles is not a waste of time or pointless. Actually, by focusing on 10 articles and writing those up will give you more clarity on what else you may want to include which will make writing the literature review easier and faster.

Again, do not get stuck with trying to narrow down a topic. 

Are you interested in the self-esteem of Black women teachers? Find articles searching ‘self-esteem’ and ‘African American women’ 

Are you interested in the leadership development of combat veterans? Find articles searching ‘veterans’ and ‘leadership’ 

Make this as easy as possible. Remember, you can always come back and make whatever changes are needed.

Read only these 10 articles. 

Pay special attention to the discussion section of each article. 

Even if you don’t want to read the entire article, read this section. 

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Answer the questions: What did the researcher(s) find and what are they telling me to do with the findings?

After you read all 10 of the articles, write a synopsis of everything that you read. 

Don’t go article by article.

DONT: Author X and Author Y found…. And Author A and Author B found….

INSTEAD, DO: Leading a group of soldiers during combat creates multiple and complex opportunities for leadership development (Author A & Author B, 2020; Author X & Author Y, 2020).

Synthesize. Don’t report.

Step 3: Get Feedback

If you have been following me for a while, then you know I believe in writing a shitty first draft. 

The above two steps are no different. 

No need to make these two documents pretty. 

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The feedback is not meant to focus on things like writing rules, APA format, and sentence structure. 

Find someone who you believe will be able to read these two documents and be able to help you organize your thoughts.

When you ask the person to serve as a reviewer, ask them to answer the following questions:

  1. What is my topic?

  2. What problem(s) do you believe I’m addressing?

  3. How well do I present the literature to support my topic?

  4. What are some things I should consider for the next draft?

Can’t think of someone to give feedback? Send it over to marvette@marvettelacy.com and I will help you out!

That’s it!

3 steps to starting the literature review the easy way!