Piecing together the literature

So how did you spend New Years? Fireworks? Drinks? Friends and Family? Yeah me too….. until the 9pm fireworks; but soon after the kids were in bed, followed by a tired husband…..

So I feel pretty safe in the assumption that I am the only person in the world who stayed up to midnight to see the close of one year and the start of another whilst completing my first ever real jigsaw puzzle (all 748 pieces)….on my own. Though please let me know below if you think you have a more lame way to celebrate new years!

I’d started it just a few days before – purchasing the puzzle on a whim at our seaside holiday town’s op shop, after we’d been on the Minnamurra Rainforest walk to this tranquil waterfall:

Here’s a photo taken by my 6 year old

I’d never done such a big puzzle before, but the rain forest picture (see below) reminded me of our walk, so figured holidays were the perfect time for some jigsaw puzzle action….but once it was all done and packed away, I was questioning why I was so driven to complete it before the start of the new year? And why did I choose such a hard one for my first big puzzle – a rain forest? There was so much green!

Quite unexpectedly I started to realise there were a lot of parallels with doing that jigsaw and my current task of writing a literature review article.

So not only am I lame in doing a jigsaw on New Years Eve; I’m even more lame because I’m going to relate it to academic writing and write a blog about it.

(I believe my husbands words were “who have you become??” – haha…. he says it in love, I assure you). But what did I learn as I reflected on my puzzling escapade?

1) Start with the framework

I’m beginning from the assumption that you’ve completed some reading, and in front of you is the vast wealth 748 more (or less) pieces of knowledge that you must sort into a coherent picture, story or argument. (But for more help in actually finding the relevant literature the Thesis Whisperer has great tips on becoming a literature searching ninja.)


Start by sorting out what are the straight edges to your thoughts are; the structure to the review paper and the sub headings that will provide the flow to the ideas. Some people find story boarding or mind maps useful for this.

Have in mind the type of journal you are aiming for; read up on their word limits or the other recent review articles they have published, to get a feel for how to structure yours. What works best for me is then, under each heading putting a rough word count for each section, and list the papers to discuss in that section, or the points to make.

2) Do the easy bits first

In a picture full of various shades of green, the grey stream of water and the red / brown paths were the easiest pieces to identify from the rest and therefore the easiest to get started on. Similarly, start writing with a section you are most familiar or comfortable with. Don’t worry yet how that section fits with those around it – just get the words on the page with the approx. word limit you outlined.

3) Just keep going


Complete the next easiest section and so on. Do it step by step, section by section (though not necessarily in order the sections appear in article). At more than one point I did question why on earth I was spending New Years finishing this seemingly meaningless task, but I’d started it and now I just wanted it done. I found throughout the process, that giving myself deadlines – like “tonight I’m going to finish this palm tree” was helpful – even if they are soft deadlines.

Setting goals for a writing session also helps me stay on track and complete the tasks. Be specific with the goal; “first draft of 800 words from Section C in the next hour”. For anyone looking for help on goal setting I’d highly recommend the online course Stepwise.

4) Get help from those around you

My kids weren’t really that helpful in doing the puzzle but several times my husband sat by me to help out over a glass of wine for 10 minutes or so, and it was nice to have someone to talk with about the puzzle – the hard bits and other possible ways or strategies to do it.

Likewise: 14279306964_f661d8df0b_z

Getting feedback on your writing from others can be invaluable, so request it whenever you can. And not just from your supervisors.

Jason Mattingley recently suggested in a Early Career Researcher talk setting up a network in your lab for reading drafts rather than all relying on the Principal Investigator to read everything first; as it avoids a bottleneck.

Such writing feedback networks could even be established with others outside your lab or even outside your institution. Its just a group that agrees to read each others work (doesn’t need to be whole papers – maybe just a section) and give feedback on the writing. Whilst the prospect is scary, we actually have a lot to gain from opening ourselves up for feedback early on in the writing process.

Sometimes just verbally talking through the paper over a coffee (or wine) can also help clarify or crystallize your own thinking.

5) Celebrate the first draft by taking a break

Sure enough, I heard the banging of fireworks as midnight struck but it wasn’t until 12:16am that I found I was left with one final piece of the puzzle. I went to put it in and it was a bit of a struggle – didn’t quite look right, but you know what – it was good enough for me. I took this photo and went to bed.

The evidence that I actually did finish it

This “first draft” was done and I was so relieved. In the morning the family was amazed to see the puzzle done, and over my morning coffee I was easily able to identify the two pieces that needed to be swapped in order for the whole puzzle to actually be correct.

So once the first draft is done: Celebrate and take a break. Do something to relax. Send it off for feedback and try not to think about it for at least a day or so. This will give you fresh eyes when you come back to re-read it to edit your work.

I never thought I’d spend my New Years Eve doing a jigsaw puzzle. But then I never realized how much a jigsaw had to teach me about writing a literature review. So stay tuned. I’ve conquered this rain forest and now I’m setting my sights on this article.

bird river
Ken Duncan’s Panograph: Bird River, TAS


4 thoughts on “Piecing together the literature

  1. Hi Rebecca
    Happy New Year. Personally I think a jigsaw puzzle is a great way to see in the new year, and I may adopt that as a family tradition in future! Even more than that though, I love this post connecting the literature review to jigsaw puzzling, and I shall endeavour to keep your helpful observations in mind over the next month or two (though I would NEVER leave a jigsaw puzzle unfinished, my lit review has been languishing in an incomplete state for most of a year…) Thanks for this thoughtful and entertaining piece of writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Kathryn (much appreciated). My lit review has been casting a shadow on my to-do list for about a year too but so many other things more urgent things getting in the way (and a feeling of not knowing where to start!) But I’ve got my framework done and various sections in disarray so hoping to make real headway in coming months too. Good luck with your writing too!


  2. great article. i had roughly followed the same method for writing my phd paper 4 months ago, and today was informed its accepted for publication.
    thanks again for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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