How I use Excel to manage my Literature Review

Abandon your Word tables! Using Excel to manage your literature review can make research quicker, easier – and yes –  fun.  

A short while ago, David posted this comment on How I use Scrivener for academic writing:

David comment on excel lit review

I promised I would write a post about it. So here it is. But before we get down to the mechanics of Excel….

A little note about my literature review 

The methodology for my Professional Doctorate is autoethnography. I’ll be posting a fuller explanation of autoethnography in due course, but for the purposes of this post all you need to know is that this type of research uses self-examination and story in order to promote new ways of thinking, and help others make sense of their own lives and culture.

Initially, a systematic review of the literature appealed to me. I’m a lawyer. I like structure. So I begin my systematic review, looking for autoethnographic articles on Web of Science, HeinOnline, LexisNexis etc. My days as working in a library mean that I’m pretty au fait with boolean operators and the like – however, my searches yielded very few results. Key texts (which I knew existed, as I had read them) didn’t appear.

At the same time as conducting my systematic review, I was reading a minimum of one article on autoethnography per day. I was following bibliographies. Each article I read led me to another, then another, then another. And I made my choices based on the knowledge that I wanted to accumulate. For example, I wanted to specifically look at autoethnographic articles which were located in the educational world. Articles about disability and discrimination were very powerful, but they were not within the scope of my review. This process of “systematized creativity” or intuitive research is a feature of an abductive approach to reasoning (Andreewsky & Bourcier, 2000; Taylor, Fisher, & Dufresne, 2002). Rather than follow a linear process, an abductive approach allows for the type of intuition I was using when finding the next article.

I suspect that I am drawn to an abductive approach because its focus is on interpretation and understanding new perspectives. These are phrases that are strongly associated with autoethnography. It makes sense to me that an autoethnographer would approach the literature in this way.

So that’s the way I’m reviewing the literature. One step at a time. One article or book at a time. And I’m following my nose.

So what’s this spreadsheet about? 

Aha! So here’s where the lawyer in me comes right back to the fore. I wanted to create a table that I could manage effectively. Where I could move the data with ease. And, because seeing how far I’ve come helps to keep me feeling positive, where I could easily find out how many articles I’d read!

My spreadsheet is basic. It is not all singing and dancing, and I’m sure there are lots of clever things I’m missing out on. But its simplicity works for me.

This is how it looks when I open it up:

Lit Review 1


You’ll see that across the top, in row 1, I’ve chosen a heading for each column. Originally, I used headings from lit reviews that I had seen elsewhere. But those headings, and the placement of the columns, didn’t work for me. There were some columns I never filled in. And I found it hard to remember what some headings were for. So, over time, I made my own, to suit the purpose of my review and the topic I am reviewing (in this case autoethnography). For example, I like to have the ‘conclusions’ column right at the front – I don’t want to hide it away in column ‘S’.

Happy thoughts

The photo above only shows the columns I can see when I open the spreadsheet. If you were to scroll to the right, you’d also see these headings:

Lit Review 2

I did say I made my own headings up…

But the “happy thoughts” and “unhappy thoughts” columns are where I can place all of my critical thinking, abstract comment, and queries (and what I sometimes think are really impressive points, but later on turn out to be a load of rubbish). In happy thoughts, I’ll often write about what I loved about the work or how I can use that work to frame my own. In unhappy thoughts, I might note if the text is fairly hard going and perhaps needs a few reads, or any contradictions I might have picked up. I also use this space to record where I don’t agree with the author.

The “ethical concern” sections are there because many of my papers and publications on autoethnography concern ethics. I wanted to capture if the author of the work raised any ethical issues, and if I had any. This is furthest away as it is not my primary concern at the moment. I regularly move my columns around.

Being able to move things around, easily

If I click the drop down box at the bottom right of the ‘Author’ column, Excel will order that column A-Z or Z-A within a second. This is incredibly useful if, like me, you add rows in all over the place. I know I can insert a new row anywhere I like and with the touch of a button Excel will put it in alphabetical order. Similar with year – I’m looking at the history of autoethnography at the moment and I was interested to see the spread of articles across the years. Click the drop down box at the bottom right of ‘Year’ and Excel orders the list. Same goes for any other column.

Lit Review 3

Seeing how far you’ve come

This is where I’m up to today. There’s something very satisfying in seeing you’ve nearly read 100 articles!

Lit Review 4

Do you use Excel to manage your literature review?

Do you have any ‘unusual’ headings too?

Any tips to share? 

UK Blog Awards 2016

I was thrilled to be a finalist at the UK Blog Awards this year, for best individual Education blog.   The awards ceremony was held on Friday 25 April, and those who follow me on twitter will no doubt have realised how excited we were to be there!

The event itself was held at the very swanky Park Plaza Westminster. We decided to go all out and get room there, and ended up on the 11th floor with an amazing view across Westminster Bridge.

I was joined by my OH and my PhD Buddy Rachel. Rachel had nominated me for the award so it was fantastic to share the evening with her. The event itself was probably the closest I will ever get to a film premiere (or, as I ended up saying – repeatedly – “it’s like the BAFTAS!!”). The décor, the immense rooms, the canapes, the champagne… the BFG(!). OH and Rachel even managed to get themselves in front of a camera crew whilst I nipped to the ladies. Timing – not one of my strong points.

Seeing the blog up on the big screen was fab (and thank you to Rachel for whooping when our host read it out). It was a pleasure to be listed alongside so many of my favourite education blogs – and to represent higher education. Huge congratulations to Grange Park ICT who won the individual category.

I’m currently working my way through the amazing goody bag, and working out how I can incorporate all the free glitter, mouldable glue and bubbles into my teaching next year…

The only reason I got through to the final was because people voted. We had an incredible day and learned so much about the world of blogging. Thank you so much if you voted.

Why it’s important to share our rejection stories

Rejection sucks. It can affect us like physical pain. But like we would the genesis of an old scar on the forehead, let’s keep sharing our tales of rejection. 


rejectionEach year, around this time, some of my students greet me with sad faces. They’ve tried their best to get a training contract or a paralegal position, but they haven’t been successful.

In our weekly clinic meetings we often discuss what happened at vacation placements, interviews or assessment days and my students and I share tips for application forms and interview questions. But this doesn’t necessarily provide comfort. My students tell me that they still feel hurt from the rejection. And so, each year, around this time,  I tell my students a story. It goes something like this:

When I was a law student I applied to a significant number of law firms for a job. Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Chester, London, Birmingham, Liverpool: you name a city, I applied to work there. I did my homework. I researched the law firms thoroughly. I thought about the questions they might ask and the answers I might give. I knew about their charitable work, their top clients, potential areas for growth. And this was back in the day where you had to queue up in the library to get on a computer. A computer that would then take 5 minutes ‘dialing up’.  Despite many interviews – some good, some really terrible – I didn’t get any offers of employment. Slowly but surely, I pinned the rejection letters to the wall of my student digs. They covered the damp perfectly. I also made a note of the law firms’ feedback on my performance. I distinctly remember where I was standing the day I was told that one half of a particular law firm’s partners wanted me to have the job and the other half didn’t, but in the end they decided it was a no… and, by the way, appearance was quite important in the legal world – had I thought about going to the gym? Ahem.

Two years of rejection. Two years of rejection letters. I had very nearly given up. Clearly the legal life was not meant for me. And then, on the day of graduation, I landed a job. The greatest job. I was to be a teacher. A Graduate Tutor at a university, teaching business law to undergraduate students. Fixed term – for 24 months. And at the end of those 24 months, filled with confidence, life experience, and a newly formed wry, sometimes a bit daft, sense of humour that only teaching can bring, I applied for a training contract and got it. I trained to be a solicitor and many years later returned to teaching law at university.

In March, JK Rowling published the letters of rejection she received about her first Robert Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. The letters themselves have been somewhat sensationalised in the press (“JK Rowling told to go to writing classes!!”), but, actually, they’re full of useful tips for budding novelists. I liked that JK Rowling herself noted that she was sharing them “for inspiration”, rather than revenge. Because it’s an important story to tell: everyone gets rejected at some point. And, at some point, something else will come along.

Neuroscientists have concluded that our experiences of social rejection and physical pain are similar. So, it hurts. For real. But like a broken heart, it can heal. And it can lead to new things – things you might not be able to imagine yet. Some might call it fate. Others, well, they might say it’s just the way the world works.

I’ve been on a bit of a roll publication wise recently. So when I received my first ever article rejection a couple of weeks ago, I waited to see how I would feel. And yes, I had the heartbreak. That feeling in the pit of your stomach where all the world seems out of kilter. A feeling that slowly rises to your head and gently pushes the backs of your eyes so they feel like they need to leak in order to achieve release. But after the initial reaction, I wondered if something else was around the corner waiting to leap out. It was. Rejection led to new conversations with people I admire and new connections as I looked for alternative places to submit the article.

I have placed the article elsewhere and I’m waiting to see if its been accepted. But it might not be. And that’s okay. It’s another tale to tell. As JK Rowling has shown, inspirational stories don’t need to focus solely on amazing successes. They should also disclose when things didn’t go as expected. And when it was a bit of a trek up a seemingly never ending mountain. Rejection isn’t personal. It doesn’t cause us irreparable harm. It can make us more resilient, better at dealing with uncertainty, and more empathetic to others in the same position.

Good old rejection, not so bad after all.

[Update – 8/4/16: This morning I received word that my article would be accepted, subject to significant revisions. The anonymous reviewers’ comments were amazing – detailed, challenging and consistently supportive. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to place my writing in front of so many people and to have received critical feedback – from two journal editors, from colleagues, from a number of peers. Next step? Get those revisions done!!]