Use the Bucket Method to Write Effective Literature Reviews

Writing a literature may be one of the most difficult aspects of academic writing. When I think back to my own dissertation or doctoral students that I’ve worked with, some of the greatest struggles were tied to the lit review. I believe there are many reasons for this. We all have a tendency to want to read more and more feeling like we never have a full grasp on everything that’s out there. There’s always one more article or book. Additionally, the genre of the lit review is so different from much of the writing that we are exposed to going through school. In fact, I would argue that many of the ways we learn to write cause problems when it comes to writing literature reviews. Over the years, I’ve come up with a method that I use for writing lit reviews and I want to share how you can use the bucket method to write better literature reviews.

Photo credit: Niels Linneberg

Once you have identified the topic for your literature review, you are ready to use the bucket method.

1. Skim a few articles and books related to your topic. You should focus on the abstract, introduction, and the conclusion of each publication. Your goal is not to read the entire thing, but to start to get a sense of what is written about your topic. The number of publications to skim will vary depending on the length of your review and the complexity of your topic. However, you should be able to start to get a sense of your topic after skimming 12-15 articles or books.

2. Identify the major buckets for your review. This is where the bucket method gets its name. After skimming the publications from Step 1, you should have an idea about the major areas that the articles discuss. For each of the major themes you identified in your skimming, make each of these a bucket. Buckets might include areas of major findings, theoretical approaches to your topic, or other significant ideas that appear repeatedly. The goal for this step is to select at least 3-5 (longer reviews may have more) buckets that represent the major areas from across the publications you skimmed.

3. Reread articles from Step 1 and place into appropriate bucket. As you reread, your goal is to read enough to figure out what bucket the publication should be placed. Your goal is to try to put each publication in a single bucket. If you find the article crosses into two buckets, you can put it in both, but try to keep this to a minimum.

4. Search for research to fill up each bucket. After categorizing your initial research into the buckets, you will likely find one or two buckets have a great deal of research while others do not. Search for research on your topic to fill up each bucket. Again, the number of sources will vary based on the size of the review. However, particularly as a guide for students, try to have at least a minimum of 3 sources for every page of your review at this stage. For example, if you are writing a 15 page literature review for a class, you might identify five major buckets. For these buckets, you will have at least 45 references spread across them.

5. Organize each bucket. First, arrange the buckets in an order that makes sense to you. Think to yourself, “If I was going to tell someone about this topic, which bucket do they need to understand first?” Then second and so on. After arranging each bucket in order, pick one bucket to start writing.

6. Start writing. At this point, many people don’t yet feel comfortable writing, but you need to start. Only by writing can you identify where you need more research. It doesn’t matter which bucket you pick. It doesn’t have to be the first. Take all the articles and make notes of the ideas in them. Arrange these ideas in an order that makes sense by again using the “If I was going to tell someone about this topic…” Write a first draft.

7. Repeat for all of the buckets. Create first drafts for each bucket.

8. Review each first draft and decide if the bucket is sufficiently addressed. After writing the first draft, review each bucket in isolation, ask yourself if you have sufficiently addressed the theme of the bucket. I should also point out that each bucket is not weighted the same. Of your five buckets, you may decide two are the most important and should be given twice as much attention as the others. This is not only okay, but encouraged. One of your primary jobs as a lit review writer is to make these kinds of decisions. After completing this step, if you decide you need more sources, conduct a targeted search.

9. Incorporate additional research and complete draft. After your targeted search for more sources, include these into your draft and revise each bucket into a second draft. At this point, you may also decide to reorder your buckets if needed. Also, write transitions between buckets so you don’t have a collection of 3-5 bucket drafts, but start to have a complete literature draft.

10. Continue editing and complete draft. You have identified relevant research and have a solid second draft at this stage. All that is left is to continue editing and revising until the paper is done.

That’s it. You should now have a completed literature review. One final note I should make, as you proceed, you may decide that a bucket that you originally identified is no longer needed. That’s okay and a part of the process. Just dump it (yes, bad pun intended). In addition, you may decide to merge two buckets or split one if it gets too large, all of these kinds of decisions are open to you. The bucket method provides a framework for you to work within— it isn’t a straightjacket.

I hope you find this helpful and I strongly encourage you to use the bucket method to write better literature reviews.

Happy writing!