Preparing your literature review and excerpting: My workflow in LaTeX

It’s Halloween and while for me, this is a holiday which usually pretty much passed me by unnoticed, I know that many of you probably care and celebrate. So I thought: What topics in Academia or academic writing especially are spooky? The honest anwer is probably: Way too many. But one stood out in particular and that’s the dreaded part of the writing process which lends itself to procrastination like no other: The literature review and excerpting process. Without it, not a lot of writing can happen (except maybe if you start working on a case study or use our Article Outline Template to sharpen your argument). So anyway, I thought this counts as a sufficiently scary activity for Halloween 😉

Info: I think I might end up not having proper code formatting in this post. Sorry for the inconvenience but it seems that the backtick on my keyboard is broken and WordPress has long since removed the keyboard shortcut for formatting something as code (why did you do that to me?).

How do you do your literature review and excerpting?

The actual reason I had this post in the pipeline already is this: Recently I was asked by my friend the LaTeX Noob how I prepare my literature review and excerpt literature more generally. Did I use something like Citavi? Absolutely not! I don’t even know what that would look like, to be perfectly honest. All my writing process happens in simple plain LaTeX documents. I don’t personally believe in fancy-schmancy writing suites like they seem to have become popular (for example Scrivener). I get the idea, it’s supposed to bring order into the mess. But honestly, how better to create order than by simplifying? And what’s simpler than a plain text document? My personal favourite academic writing software is and will always be LaTeX!

But I now realize it doesn’t seem to be obvious to everybody how you can use LaTeX for every single step of the process. So let me give you a glimpse into my personal workflow. Whether something like that would work for you is a different question and I’m sure other people have different workflows entirely (let me know in the comments, I would love to know!).

My setup

Creating a set of quotes

I usually start a plain .tex file for each article I’m trying to write. There I copy or type down quotes from literature I’m using or digesting for this piece of writing. This document will usually contain more literature than I actually end up using. I also copy down stuff I find accidentally which I deem potentially useful for a future publication even when it’s not needed for now. I make sure to put all direct quotes into quote enviroments, so I don’t get confused who wrote what (was that me summarizing the content of the article or is this a direct quote?). I put it in the exact format I will be needing in the final article. I make sure to give a cite key even when I haven’t made a proper bib file yet (see subheading below on that topic). And I make sure to quote the exact range of pages or page the quote is from. I also make sure to give a heading or subsection title to each quote, so I can find them again quickly in my file contents outline (for exampe in TeXMaker or Overleaf). This section or subsection is usually one common theme or even named after a subsection of my future article, so I already know where I will likely need it. The subsection is a title of the pubication or the main argument this can be used to back up.

This is what it can lool like:

\subsection{McGillivray Quantitative Evidence}
A \emph{hypothesis} originates from previous research, intuition, or logical arguments, and is “a claim that can be tested empirically, through statistical hypothesis testing on corpus data” (Jenset and McGillivray, 2017, 42). In this context, “model” means a formalized representation of a phenomenon, be it statistical or symbolic (Zuidema and de Boer, 2014). Models (including those deriving from hypotheses tested quantitatively against evidence) are research tools embedding claims or hypotheses, useful in order to produce novel claims and hypotheses in turn via “a continual process of coming to know by manipulating representations” (McCarty, 2004).\footcite[54]{McGillivrayQuantitativeHistory2018}

Usually, I work with this only in a .tex file. But if I find myself with lots of quotes but don’t already have a clear picture where I’m going with in the article or section I will be writing, I copy this text material (which doesn’t have proper LaTeX document structure of its own!) into a real LaTeX document (with \begin{document} and all), compile it as a PDF and print it out to read it again, so I can decide if I actually want or need this material in my article.

Curating a master cites document

Another thing I came up with for myself is to have a document which I call the “footcites” document because it’s just a `.tex` document which consists of a collection of footcites I often use. Whenever I create a new footcites which I think I might want to reuse in a later publication to quickly back up sth with a citation without actually discussing it much, I add it to this list.

Let me give you an example to see what such cites look like. Like I said, this is basically so I have some quick citations to back up sth or to give background on a topic for which I’m not intending to go into detail any further:

\footcite[Einführend zum Topic Modelling:][]{horstmannDefTopicModelling}
\footcite[Regarding information in tabular formats as well as quantification in history, see:][]{quantificationInHistory1966, PiotrowskiSerialSources2019}

Those can be much longer, include page numbers if it’s to back up a more narrow detail argument, etc. But you get the gist. Just collections of what to cite for which topic. Since this footcites doc has become pretty large already, they are – of course – ordered by means of sections and subsections so I can quickly find the cites I need. Another advantage to having a pile of papers cluttering your room is also that this file is searchable. So even if my headings system fails me, I can usually still find citations quickly without having to think much about which papers were the most important ones to cite on a particular topic.

For the sake of completeness, I just wanted to add that I do use some printed out documents. Especially for some articles I want to reflect on deeply, I need to print them out and read them offline. This not only reduces potential distractions and screen time, it’s also essential for me to think clearly and actually take in and digest the arguments of a paper. I use different colour highlighters (pastel ones usually) and a pen to make notes on the paper and note down the main arguments of the paper (main topic, hypthesis, main argument, conclusion) along with my own reservations about it, if there are any. This analogue reading process can happen in the evenings when I don’t want to use screens anymore or in the early mornings. Or even at a café (it activates diffuse mode thinking which can be essential for creativity!)

Don’t forget to summarise the most important of those new references into the „cites“ document to have them available for quick citing in the style of „on topic XY, see..“ later (see workflow below in the following subsection).

Making sure everything’s cited and creating the bibliography

Some people excerpt on paper but there are multiple reasons why I wouldn’t recommend that: Mostly the fact that I’ve seen many people forget what the page was they were excerting from or not taking down proper notes on the bibliographical reference and then your excerpt is practically useless (or at least requires lots of extra work if you manage to find the page again). I’m also afraid I might produce accidental plagiarism when excerpting. Making a document with all my quoted text passages in quote environments ensures that I have a record of what exactly the original wording of the passages I used was. Thus I’m in less danger of accidentally plagiarizing without being aware of it. Also, everything is already cited so there’s no immediate danger of not knowing where your quotes came from.

But this means you need some self-discipline to always copy down the citiation and decide on a cite key while making this excerpt. I only sometimes create the .bib files at this stage. Usually I just copy down the information to be cited into a new .bib file without formatting (just copy from the metadata page of a publication as is) and then come back later to put them all neatly into their little bib items. This can take a long time if you have lots of new literature but can be done while you’re watching TV. I usually have my typical bib entries prepared in a way which allows for quick copy and paste. I keep this document from which I copy+paste the entry which is needed and then use copy+paste to fill it in.

I don’t usually approve of auto-downloading stuff as bib files. I find that the resulting bib entries tend to be very irregular if they come out alright at all. I prefer to do this by hand and so I have full control over the data consistency of my bib library. If you know of any really good foolproof way to auto-download bibs in a satisfactory manner, please let me know!

These are the prepared bib items I use:

 author  = {aut},
 title   = {intro},
 booktitle = {book},
 editor 	= {eds},
 year    = {year},
 pages   = {page},
 address = {place},
 publisher = {pub}

author = {aut},
title = {intro},
journaltitle = {journal},
volume = {vpl},
pages = {page},
year = {year},

  Author = {aut},
  Title = {intro},
  Year = {year},
  address = {place},
  publisher = {pub},

author = {aut},
title = {intro},
school = {uni},
year = {year},
address = {place},
note = {\protect\url{link}}

author = {aut},
title = {intro},
school = {uni},
year = {year},
address = {place},
note = {\protect\url{link}}

Working with plain text documents might feel weird and chaotic at first

I get it, working with plain text documents might seem daunting at first. But that’s probably because you aren’t used to it. Ultimately, I find that plain text just takes away all the clutter. You really don’t need more than plain text and a simple but sturdy system. For me personally, that’s the one I have just shown to you. I also love the fact that I can put information into the comments and thus, keep some thoughts I think worthy of not throwing out just yet. But nobody sees them! (Ok, let’s be honest, this means I can never share my academic writing .tex files with anybody because some of those comments can be… angry 😉 )

But honestly, once you get used to working in a WYSIWYM editor (as opposed to the WYSIWYG editors like MS Word), it’s not a big deal. I actually sometimes get in trouble with the LaTeX compiler because I’m so used to the LaTeX environent as a my writing environment that I hardly ever compile. Then I realize I have introduced an error some time hours or even days ago and no clue where to go looking for it… Maybe don’t copy that part of my process 😉

Post-production: Submitting your text to a journal (possibly not in LaTeX format)

After the writing is done, for journal or conference proceedings which don’t allow or even ask for LaTeX submission (had this for the first time this year with two of my publications and absolutely loved not having the extra work of converting to MS Word! – Cheers to HistoCrypt and CHR!), I usually convert to MS Word using Pandoc.

In order for this to be possible without big danger of losing info, I make sure to use LaTeX as software for WRITING only, not for typesetting. No special effects please. They will likely get lost in the pandoc transformation (learn how I do it here). Also, you might have to reformat the bibliography. But I think, overall, this works well for me. It means I have all my writing in LaTeX format, I have all the bibliography in the format I need and can reuse without any extra work in monograph projects.

This might not seem like the best possible approach to you but I like it that way and you do get used to it. Until I had figured out this process, it seemed like a chore. But once you have done it multiple times, it really isn’t a big deal anymore.

I hope this helped someone (especially maybe people who aren’t just to working in LaTeX and wonder what it would look like to have your whole writing workflow in LaTeX).


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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