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Doing the literature review: Writing & structuring

Writing and structuring

Making a plan early in the process of designing the literature review helps to keep your writing focussed and on schedule. Researching the deadlines, resources, and constraints at university, graduate school and faculty levels will provide you with the outline of your plan. Often, scholarship providers or research funders set deadlines for the delivery of intermediate products.

In addition to planning, time management is important during the write-up of a literature review. Taking steps, one at a time, helps you to keep the pace in writing and to keep to your deadlines.

Handbooks on writing a literature review emphasise the importance of creating the right academic support environment and of assuming the right frame of mind [See selected books below in LibraryThing]. Handbooks on academic writing offer advice to less experienced authors on structure, work planning, and time management.

This module will focus on the structure of the literature review, the way in which the manuscript can be organised and on writing as a craft.
Watch NSCU Libraries video tutorial Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (9:38) starting at the section What's involved in writing a literature review? (5:26-9:38).

A literature review has a more or less predictable structure. For journal articles, the opening page usually contains information about the author(s): your association with a university or research organization, contact details, a brief description of your role or function, etc. In Ph.D. theses, chapters of roughly equal size, are preceded by front matter (title page, declaration, abstract acknowledgment, contents pages) and also followed by end matter (references and appendices).

A chapter division is tailored to the nature of the research and the research design. You may start with topics and then continue with the sequence and grouping of topics in chapters. You may opt for several smaller chapters, covering one topic each or you may prefer to combine topics into larger chapters (e.g. Introduction and Context of the study) and create fewer chapters. To arrive at comparable chapter sizes, you may later consider splitting chapters or grouping more topics into one chapter. The diagram below depicts variations of structures found in literature reviews in theses and may help you to develop your own list of topics. Under methods, the detailed explanation of your search strategy in the literature review is an important component.

For examples of literature reviews or dissertations consult the EUR repository RePub.

Once you have ordered the basic topics, consider how you will present the sources themselves. Choose an organizational method to focus the literature review section.

Chronological

If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. A chronological review will have subsections for each of the chosen time periods.

Thematic

Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. A thematic review will have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. With a review organized in this manner, you can still describe progressive time periods within each section according to the point made. e.g. geographical areas and within each area a description over a number of pre-defined time periods.

Methodological

A methodological approach focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer rather than that it is organized on the basis the content of the material. You could, for instance, study social integration of a minority group and compare the outcomes of studies that rely on participant observation with studies that rely on structured interviews in comparable circumstances.

Writing as a conversation

Another way to think about a literature review is as a conversation or dialogue between authors who have previously written about various aspects of your topic. A good example of a conversation is where an original article in a journal is followed by an article with an opposing view, possibly with the word 'critique' in the title, followed yet again by a 'rejoinder' or 'in response to' written by the first author(s).

By discussing the agreements and disagreements between those authors, and illustrating what those authors have not yet talked about or researched, you create your own, critical conversation.

The accompanying illustration is not intended as an exact recipe for how to write but as a guide for how to incorporate some of these writing strategies  Once you have decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sectons your need to include in the paper should aris out of your organizational strategy.

The task of shaping a logical and effective report of a literature review is challenging. Some useful guidance on how to approach the writing up is given by Wellington et al. (2005:87)[1]:

  • It should be framed by your research questions.
  • It must relate to your study.
  • It must be clear to the reader where it is going: keep signposting along the way.
  • Wherever possible, the original source material is to be used rather than summaries or reviews by others.
  • Be in control, not totally deferent to or ‘tossed about by’ previous literature.
  • Be selective. Ask ‘why am I including this?’
  • The literature review is best treated as a research project in its own right.
  • Engage in a dialogue with the literature, you are not just providing a summary.

The aim of finding your own voice is for the reader to reach the end of the literature review with a clear appreciation of what you are doing; why you are doing it; and how it fits in with other research in your field. Often, the literature review will end with a statement of the research question(s).

It is important to keep the focus on answers to your research questions, rather than on the literature (Wellington 2005). A good, well-explained structure is of help to the author and the reader.

Since you spend a substantial part of your time writing and rewriting your manuscript, often within set deadlines, time management is of the essence. In the initial stage, you have to deal with getting the structure, balance and focus right and finding your voice. This is macro editing: dealing with the contents. As you progress from first to last draft you also move from macro editing to micro editing: dealing with the more technical aspects. Somewhere between first and last draft you should review the manuscript and check if the reader’s perspective has been considered sufficiently.

Once you have drafted your literature review it is possible for you to check how well the literature review provides answers to the (revised) research questions you have formulated.

One way of doing this is to examine each paragraph in turn and to write in the margin a very brief summary of the content, and the type of content e.g.: an argument for; an argument against; description; example; theory; link. These summaries then provide the outline of the story you are telling and the way that you are telling it. Both of these are important and need to be critically reviewed.

Writing and editing steps are repetitive. You go forward, take some distance, get a new idea and repeat some steps. What is explained here below reads as if you are always going in a forward direction. In reality, progress will at times be more complex and sometimes you need to take steps in a backward direction and apply changes, before being satisfied with the results. Asking another student, friend or colleague may also help to get feedback on clarity, the reader's impressions, and style.

What to edit in your initial drafts

At this stage, you are mainly concerned with the structure and contents of your manuscript. Some of the macro editing points are:

  • Did you cover the important dimensions of the academic conversation or arguments in the literature?
  • Is your text focussed and did you manage to demarcate your topic well?
  • Did you support the development of each step in your argument effectively?
  • Is there a balance between (mere) description and your reflections and comments?

Beware of becoming too attached to your writing. Be ready to cross out whole paragraphs or even whole sections if they do not pass the above tests. If you find that what you’ve written is not in the best order, then re-shaping it is not a huge problem. You may need to add some additional explanation and linking, a case of cutting and pasting material into a different order, to produce a more relevant and streamlined argument.

With the main structure in place, you then are able to check the flow in your draft document and check the reader's perspective.

  • Is the material presented in the most effective order?
  • Are you supporting every next element of your research question by the preceding material?
  • Did you explain to the reader the relevance of each piece of evidence?
  • Are there places where the reader is left with unanswered questions?
  • Is there any material that is interesting but which does not contribute to the development of the argument? (Kill your darlings!)
  • Upon re-reading, do you feel that you have adequately explained the justification for this research approach / topic / question?
  • Did you explain the chosen approach in your search strategy? Have you made clear which literature is included or excluded, and for which reasons?

What to edit when editing your later draft

At the later editing stage, you have managed to get the right structure, flow, balance and style. Only now should you concern yourself with proof editing. Some questions to consider are:

  • How effective are all the elements linked?
  • Are paragraphs following logically each other
  • Did you check the signposting (that signals key aspects of the work or links sentences or paragraphs)?
  • Are references up to date?
  • Is the style formatting of your manuscript systematic and consistent?
  • Are you a native speaker or not? Should you consider the help of an editor? What type of editor do you need (academic, linguistic, proofreading, etc.)?
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