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Literature Review

A guide to planning, researching and writing a literature review.

Structuring Your Review

You've now read and taken notes the sources you're going to use (or most of them), and it's time for what is generally the trickiest part of a literature review: actually writing it. This can be a little overwhelming, but returning to our original metaphor can help guide the way:

To recap: A literature review is a story

Sometimes stories may seem to be a simple telling of what happened, but there are in fact numerous choices that a storyteller must make when crafting a tale that is focused, engaging, and coherent. Those choices include:

  • Which characters to focus on
  • Where to start and where to end
  • What order to tell the story in
  • The level of descriptive detail

The storyteller makes these choices based on what they think is important to accurately tell the story. Likewise, for your literature review, it now falls on you to look at the information you've collected and arrange it into a story that's both clear and accurate. Let's take a look at the steps to follow in that process.

Your first step in this process is going to be to find patterns in the sources you've looked at. What kind of patterns do we mean? Let's explore a few.

Shared Schools of Thought/Method

Scholarly work builds on other scholarly work, and schools of thought form around shared conclusions, affinities, and methods. Sometimes, these schools of thought acquire names; for example, you'll see theories of learning categorized as Behaviorist, Cognitivist, and Constructivist. Of course, often there won't be a widely used label for a school of thought, so it falls on you to tease out the connections between scholarly works based on direct citations and shared concepts.

Oppositional Schools of Thought/Method

The process described above goes both ways--sometimes schools of thought form in opposition to other schools. For example, Cognitivism arose in response to perceived failures and explanatory gaps in Behaviorism. Again, you may not have established labels to rely on, but when you notice a source critiquing another source or major body of work, that's a clue you may have found a topic of debate around which different interpretations have formed.

Chronological Relationships - Expansion and Critique

It's exceedingly rare for two opposing schools of thought to arise at the same time. Generally, this occurs through the process of history, with one perspective arising in response to another perspective, and those perspectives being in a complex dialogue. For example, just as Behaviorism gave rise to Cognitivism, so too did Cognitivism lead to Constructivism. Which perspectives are in vogue or out of fashion can vary widely over time, and these changes can be usefully incorporated into your narrative.

The organizational structure for your literature review arises directly out of your research question and the patterns that you've found in the literature. Sometimes the structure suggests itself rather intuitively; if your research question is

How did categories of race change in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid?

and you find the literature has centers around three answers to that question, then grouping your sources around those three answers--1 2 3--probably makes the most sense.

That said, sometimes a less intuitive structure is the one with the most scholarly clarity, so it's good to know the options that are available to you. Several of these appear below.

By Chronology

Sometimes proceeding historically through the research can provide a clear sense of the way scholarship on a question has developed

By Argument

As outlined above, you may find that the scholarship centers around several different schools of thought or arguments, suggesting a structure

By Theme

Scholarship may not consist of opposing viewpoints but instead clusters into themes (as one might see with a review covering interpretations of a novel)

By Method

Organizing by methodological approach provides an opportunity to evaluate the pros and cons of varying approaches to a research question

These structures can be productively mixed and matched; perhaps you find that different schools of thought have a historical dimension to their development and that it therefore makes sense to break down sources chronologically within each school.

In a standard narrative literature review, you're using your best judgment to decide which sources to include. This can make for a tricky balancing act between concision and comprehensiveness. You may also find that your decisions shift in the process of writing; a source you originally excluded from your review may actually be important to include.

Let's consider a few questions you can consider when right-sizing your literature review. As stated in the previous section on relevance, your first question should always be:

Does this source help me explore my research question?

Remember, you want to focus most on original research that's specific to the field you're working within, not on textbooks or reference works.

Still, passing the relevance test doesn't get us all the way there. The second key question to ask is:

How comprehensive does my literature review need to be?

Are you examining the full historical scope of a complex idea, or are you doing a shorter review of five recent key sources? Answering this will help determine how deeply into the weeds you go and how narrowly focused you need to be.

These two key questions can help you choose sources for inclusion for most traditional narrative literature reviews. However, sometimes your own subjective determinations aren't stringent enough, as in the case of systematic reviews or meta-analyses. We won't go into the methodological details of either of these approaches in this tutorial, but it's important that you know such approaches exist, as you may be asked to use them in future coursework.

Writing the Review

Much of the work that you've done so far has laid the groundwork for the actual writing of the review. Between your notes, a structure, and a sense of which sources to include and which not to, your review has the beginnings of a skeleton and the meat to fill it out. Still, there are a few key components to keep in mind as you dive in.

Have a Perspective

As Feak and Swales point out late in their book, your readers expect you to have a perspective on the material you're working with in your literature review. However, it can be easy, when you're really in the weeds, to lose track of the fact that you're telling a particular version of a scholarly story, and therefore are making an argument about that story.

Of course, simply keeping that in mind when you're writing isn't quite enough. You'll want to pay specific attention to:

Your Thesis: What are the handful of sentences that summarize your perspective on the literature?

Were your findings surprising, or did they follow your expectations? What you emphasize in your argument signals to readers what they should pay attention to.

Emphasis: What words and phrases are you using to signal your perspective throughout the review?

How are you pointing to important questions, studies, or findings? How are you indicating your agreement or disagreement with a source or school of thought?

Gaps & Limitations: Where is the literature inadequate? What are possibilities for future research?

Do your concluding remarks effectively evaluate the literature as a whole, including its gaps? Pointing towards strengths and weaknesses demonstrates your perspective.

Balance Summary & Evaluation

The flip side of asserting your perspective is to also make space for the full and accurate representation of the sources you're reviewing. Engaging in too much evaluation means that your voice will drown out those of your sources and make it difficult for your readers to follow and assess the validity of your argument. That said, as we saw above, in the "Choose What to Include" section, providing an excess of detail can cause your readers to lose the plot--not to mention that they'll also be bored.

Part of balancing summary and evaluation, and choosing the right level of detail, is deciding when to quote, paraphrase, or summarize.

When to Quote:

When close reading a passage, introducing precise definitions, or when only an author's exact phrases will suffice.

When to Paraphrase:

When you need to be succinct, increase clarity, or your argument doesn't rely on the authors' precise language.

When to Summarize:

When covering multiple studies in a small space or when discussing key findings without much need for detail.

Keep in mind that standards on how much to quote, paraphrase, or summarize will vary across subject areas. As a general rule, you'll find the most quotation in the humanities, quite a bit less in the social sciences, and less than that in natural and physical sciences. If in doubt, take a look at the patterns followed by a selection of your sources.

Prepare to Write Multiple Drafts

Like all writing, you can engage in all the planning in the world, and yet you'll still run into bumps in the road. Expect to write two or three drafts of your review, and budget your time accordingly. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Your first draft is likely to include too much or not enough detail. As you're reviewing, ask yourself:
    • Is what I'm including about my sources relevant?
    • Have I included enough information so that readers can make sense of the studies I'm discussing?
  • In the process of drafting, you may find some sources you included are irrelevant or others you excluded actually fit. You may also come across sources you didn't find during your first rounds of research.
  • Pay close attention to transitional sentences between paragraphs and studies. Your readers will look to those as guideposts to orient themselves as they navigate your review.

Citing Your Sources

Citing sources is a continual source of pain for students and professional scholars alike. Cushing Library has created guides and collected resources for the major citation systems used at HNU.

Activity: Sample Paper

Sometimes the best activity isn't an activity at all--rather, it's an example. The paper linked to below is an example of a professional literature review from the American Psychological Association. Its length can be intimidating, until you realize that nearly half of the paper is made up of a Reference List.

Keep in mind that for many courses your literature review won't need to be nearly as comprehensive as the one featured here. However, what it does provide are examples of:

  1. A clear introduction outlining the research question
  2. A succinct but complete explanation of the review's argument
  3. Excellent examples of synthesizing research and closer analysis of key sources

Use this paper as a guideline in your own writing.