Narrative reviews are the most common type of literature review and are the easiest to write. They’re a chance for any researcher to build their own knowledge, boost their reputation, get cited, help other researchers, among other benefits.
A narrative review is a big, rewarding project, but many researchers don’t write them. If you want to know why to write one, read this Learning Lab post. And if you want a manageable four-step roadmap to writing a narrative review and publishing it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, congrats, you’ve found it. Keep reading.
On this path, you’ll move from developing the concept and planning where you’ll publish, to the research and writing, to revision and peer review to actual publication in a journal. And then you’ll be rewarded for years to come. And if you get stuck at any point, you can get expert guidance, because it’s the same path we follow in Edanz manuscript development services. We use this to help authors finish their reviews in as little as a 6 weeks).
What you’ll learn in this post
• The Edanz 4-step (and as little as 6-week) method to writing a narrative review article.
• How to separate the stages of a review, which is a big project, so they are manageable in your busy schedule.
• The critical importance of identifying a knowledge gap, preparing an outline, and targeting journals BEFORE you even start writing the main document.
• How to make everything go downhill and with a tailwind after getting through the first stage.
• Where to get expert guidance from Edanz at any stage of the review-writing and review-publishing process.
1. Concept development and journal identification
In this first stage, you’ll find what you want to write about, develop your review’s concept, and find target journals that will publish it. Do a thorough job in this stage and the rest of the process will smoothly fall into place.
The first step in writing a narrative review is, naturally, identifying the topic. (To learn more about types of reviews, read this post.)
Identify gaps and start to pick your topic
You write a narrative review on a topic you’re familiar with as a researcher, and a topic that needs reviewing right now. You’re looking for gaps in the research that need greater coverage. Trends, emerging areas of interest, underserved areas, etc.
In narrative reviews, there’s usually no specific research question or defined search strategy, unlike with systematic reviews. So you’ll need to expand upon the topic and develop it into a “concept.”
As an example, this review was about the role of vitamin D in diabetes. That’s quite broad. It then covered the topic from as many relevant angles as possible, giving valuable insight for other medical researchers. The literature search is where you’ll get grasp of how wide your research net will be.
Start with the literature search
Do a basic, sweeping literature search to determine all aspects you want to include in your review. After this, write out all the information that you’ve gathered (in whatever form of note-keeping works for you) and arrange it into a logical sequence of headings, moving from the known to the unknown.
At this stage, it’s enough to have a broad overview with headings and subheadings, without great detail under them. You don’t have to include any references in this write-up, either. It’s like developing a basic skeleton: all the internal organs come later.
A note about references
If you write a review, you’re going to do a lot of reading and a lot of citing. Narrative reviews, by their nature, can contain over 100 references. You’ll probably already have a collection of PDFs from your previous research.
Stay ahead of them before they bury you (and your PC’s desktop).
Use a reference management software such as Zotero or Paper Pile to electronically store your PDFs, ideally in the cloud so they can be accessed among your colleagues. These tools also help you reformat your references in line with the style the journal requires. Read this post on reference management for more ideas.
Create a concept brief
The concept brief takes your skeleton outline builds on it further. Now you’re going to add in some structure so that when you get to fully writing the review, it’s a matter of filling in the details.
Of course the length will vary depending on your topic and how deep you’re going, but generally this section is about 10–15 pages (that’s typical of what we provide in a concept development document).
A good structure here is:
In your header material…
- Proposed title
In the body, you’ll put in the topics and themes you aim to cover…
- Subjects or study population
- What you’re examining in this population
- Themes you’ll explore
- Knowledge gaps and research needs
Write in future tense about you plan here (“This section will…”) and in present tense about the current state of things (“There is a lack of research on…”). For each of these sections, add a few sentences, with as many specifics as possible, on what you’ve found in your review and gap identification, and on what actions you aim to take in addressing these areas.
Don’t worry about if it’s too long or short. You should primarily be concerned with adding as much detail as you can. This is all for your reference, so you can break some grammar rules. Whatever works for you.
Identify target journals
By now, you know quite well what your review will cover, and you’ll have done the background work to justify it.
It may seem early, but the next step is to find good potential journals for publishing your review.
Think of this like market research – you’re looking for a potential “buyer” for what you’re “selling.” If there’s no market for your review, there’s now point writing it. Right?
Factors to help you choose candidate journals for your review
You can examine journal selection at a deeper level in this article, but in general, the following are universally valuable in picking good journals for your work:
- Use tools such as Edanz’s Journal Selector to find candidates. First check the basics – the journal’s theme and publisher, the impact factor, and its editorial board.
- Check if the journal accepts narrative reviews. If it doesn’t, you just saved yourself some time. If it does, you have a candidate.
- Find out the journal’s target readers. Read the “Aims” or “Scope” of the journal. Your review’s topic should be of interest to this audience.
- The journal should be indexed in reputable databases such as PubMed, EMBASE, and Web of Science.
- Extensively look at past titles and abstracts. Have any of them covered your topic, or nearly covered your topic? While you’re at it check if they have good English and clear communication? (If not? Do you want to be in such poor company?)
Preparing a list of 3-4 journals in the order of priority/desire is a good start. Collaborate with your co-authors to refine and finalize the list.
Many reputable journals publish narrative reviews only by invitation. That said, journals often encourage unsolicited reviews from researchers who are new to the field. For this, you’ll need to send a presubmission inquiry letter to the editorial office.
For help with concept development and choosing a journal, explore Edanz’s author guidance services here.
Draft presubmission inquiries
A presubmission inquiry letter is such a good strategy, such a time-saver, we might almost call it a “hack.” Far too few researchers use this approach.
Sending an inquiry letter gives the journal’s editors an idea of what your review is going to cover and gauges if they’re interested.
In your letter, include:
- A greeting and a brief introduction of yourself as a researcher
- Explain why your narrative review is something important right now and that warrants research and publication. Journals are after novelty, so anything new should be mentioned in this letter. Why is your topic timely? Explain this with examples.
- Write about the unique points in your review that have yet to be published elsewhere:
-Does it offer a new viewpoint?
-Does it generate a new hypothesis?
-Does it provide an update on managing a disease, characterizing a material, etc.?
- Tell how it will benefit the journal’s readership. For example, this review compiled the current evidence on soccer-related fractures, and gave insights about its management, and was published in an orthopedics journal.
- Come back to yourself, but from the angle of why you’re qualified to write on this very topic.
There should be a match between your review, the journal’s area of coverage, and the interest of the readership. You should be covering a novel topic or exploring a novel angle on a topic that’s already been covered.
All these boxes are checked in this review about recent advances in hypertension, and that was published in a journal that specializes in hypertension research.
Presubmission inquiry letters are not mandatory, in fact, they’re often not even done. But they help both the editor and the researcher.
A well-written inquiry letter helps the editor quickly decide if the review is suitable for their journal. For you, the researcher, you get a quick idea of what type of journal will welcome your work. This saves you time on formatting and submission, only to be quickly rejected.
2. Sending presubmission inquiry letters and preparing an extensive outline
Moving to phase two, you’ll start a simultaneous process of drafting your review’s structure while you look for takers.
It’s a bit like marketing a new product while it’s still being designed. You’re gauging the market’s interest and seeing if it’s sufficient and how you can satisfy that interest with your work.
Send the presubmission inquiries
Once you’ve drafted and finalized the presubmission inquiry letter, send it to the journals. Some journals have a portal for presubmission inquiry letters, but most ask that the letter be emailed to the editorial office. Thoroughly check the spelling and grammar of both the letter and the overview document.
And don’t forget to attach your documents to the email! (Many a facepalm has occurred after hitting the Submit or Send button. Double- and triple- check everything with a clear head.)
Extensive outline: going deeper, your bridge to the final manuscript
You may get some feedback as you start to hear from the journal with which you inquired. Incorporate that into this next step – the extensive outline.
Build on the concept brief that you’ve already developed. This is especially helpful if you’re collaborating with colleagues in writing different parts of the review. Again, there are no specific rules, but around 20–30 pages is a common length for extensive outlines we’ll help you with at Edanz.
Start with a proper cover page. Include what is now the decided title. Include the authors and their affiliations. Add aspects (if possible) such as:
- Target journal and URL
- Article type
- Maximum word count
- Maximum references
- Maximum tables/figures
- Reference sample
- Supplementary materials
- Forms and files needed at submission
- Clinical trial registration
If you don’t know them yet, just put TBD or n/a.
Add in space for the abstract and keywords. As you can probably see, you’re setting up the structure for submission. Then when the final journal determination is made, you’ll use these as guidelines – filling in some, accommodating others.
A good extensive outline contains numerous bullet points under each heading/subheading. Elaborate on what was in the concept development, and then you’ll fill this out in the final writing of the review.
The headings in a narrative review are usually not fixed, unlike those in an original research article. Most narrative reviews start with an Introduction and end with Conclusions/Summary, like an article. But in between these, you can have headings as you feel appropriate. Try to identify the limitations of the review and include them just before conclusions. You can also include recommendations at the end of your review, if applicable.
For example, if a heading in your brief is “Epidemiology of the novel X virus,” in the outline, elaborate this heading like so:
- When it emerged
- Timeline of its spread
- Global and regional prevalence and incidence
- Race, gender, and other factors with relation to prevalence
- Specific risk factors for developing the disease
- Any new insights from this info?
- Current state of research coverage
You can also insert a note about what you’d like to cover under a specific heading. For example, if the heading is about “treatment,” note something along the lines of “We’ll need to cover all the current drugs in brief, the newly approved drugs in the past 5 years, and at least 2–3 drugs undergoing trials”.
List the most important references that you have come across so far in your literature search, preferably at the end of the outline.
Note any restrictions that the journal has and keep these in mind while developing the outline:
- What’s the journal’s word limit for reviews?
- How many tables, figures, and charts are allowed?
- How many references are permitted?
- Are any headings mandated?
Fingers crossed – during this process, hopefully, you’ll hear from the journals you’re written to.
For assistance with extensive outlines, see Edanz’s author guidance services here.
3. Manuscript development and journal submission
Now that you have your extensive outline ready and, hopefully, an interested journal, start writing the review. Most authors, at this point, have a bunch of notes and haven’t even thought of the target journal. See how ahead of the game you are already?
All you have to do now is add in the substance of your review.
Write the review
Continuing on from the extensive outline, you’re now going to turn this into a full-fledged article. Bullet points will be replaced with full paragraphs. All necessary sections will be developed. You’ll end with a product that you can submit.
Narrative reviews are expected to be elaborate and have in-depth coverage of the topic. Try to bring a balanced viewpoint of the topic you’re writing about. Think from all possible angles, and try to answer all possible questions about the topic.
Where possible, summarize information using appropriate tables. But make sure you don’t repeat the information in the text once again in the table. For example, Table 1 in this review gives a snapshot of thalassemia classification based on clinical severity, without repeating the information in the text.
After you’ve finished writing the narrative review, write the abstract. In narrative reviews, the abstract is usually unstructured, so you’ll need to briefly summarize the entire narrative review. Depending on the journal the abstract may only need be a few sentences, like in this review about non-small cell lung cancer.
Circulate the document among all the authors, get feedback, incorporate it, make sure all authors approve of the contents. Then it’s time to submit the manuscript to the journal.
We don’t take this section lightly. It is, after all, the review itself, which is the output of your work. It takes time and it will likely hit some roadblocks and delays.
To speed things along and make sure you do it right, explore Edanz’s manuscript development services, where an expert will guide you through the process.
4. Dealing with revisions and peer review
Peer review can be the most time-consuming process in any manuscript publication, including narrative reviews. At the end of the peer review, most journals respond with one of the following outcomes:
- Major revisions (don’t worry if you get this, it’s not uncommon)
- Minor revisions
- Reject (or “desk reject” – an immediate “no” with no chance for revision)
- Accept with no revisions (this is very rare for credible, indexed, peer-reviewed journals)
The editorial decision will be accompanied by peer review reports. Most journals need the authors to provide a point-by-point response to each reviewer comment.
Since there’s usually no specific search strategy in a narrative review, it’s not uncommon for you to miss some concept or viewpoint on the topic. There are likely more studies you can include in your coverage. Some of your interpretation may already be addressed elsewhere. Peer reviewers may point these things out.
You might be asked to elaborate on some sections in the review that you’d only briefly touched upon, and cut short some sections which you’d written in length. You might be asked to update some information, and include a specific set of references in the review.
Yes, these outcomes all create more work for you, but they also make your final product much better and more unique.
After revising, check the entire document for language, spelling, and punctuation.
Again review the citations and references, and update the abstract as appropriate. Once all authors are satisfied with the updated manuscript and the rebuttal to the reviewers, the next step is to submit the revised manuscript package to the journal.
Your narrative review could still get rejected, even if you’ve sent a presubmission inquiry and been invited to submit. And sometimes this can even happen after the first round of peer review. Rejections are inevitable in academic publication. Accept this and look at it as natural and a part of your learning and development process as a researcher. Peer review is something you can use to further improve your review, and sometimes move on to the next journal on your list.
Congratulations, your review is published!
If you followed the steps, and the stars were aligned for your work, your review will be published. Researchers will read it and cite it. It will help advance your field and your own personal career. But even of lots of things went wrong (author conflicts, none of your top journals wanted it, tons of revisions), you still have something to build on.
Expert assistance: The best part of the Edanz 4-step review process
Edanz’s research and manuscript development services can guide you through the entire process of review writing.
- Gap identification? Yes.
- Concept development? Ready to help.
- Extended outline? Absolutely.
We don’t write it for you, we guide you through the process, no matter what stage you’re at. We’re here to help you publish great science.