The process of writing a literature review
Writing a literature review is a non-linear and iterative process. This means you’ll be revisiting the different stages of developing your review. There are four stages in conducting a literature review.
Click on each stage below for tips on the different strategies used to conduct the literature review writing process.
There are a number of ways that you might choose a topic for your literature review. For example:
- You may be asked to choose from a list of specific research questions.
- You may be asked to create a research question from a list of broad topics.
- You might be asked to include only a research question, or to include a research question and an aim.
- You may be asked to choose your own topic and research question.
If you have the opportunity to propose your own literature review topic, start broadly by identifying topics that interest you in the field of study. Then, narrow down your topics by deleting those that are of the lowest interest. Choose the most viable and interesting topic and brainstorm related subtopics. At this point, choose the sub-topic of most viability and interest as the focus of your extended literature review. Write a review topic research question(s) – ensure this is clear, specific and concise as well as answerable by undertaking a literature review.
A research question is an answerable, focused question that helps to limit the scope of your research and writing within a broader topic. Your research question needs to be answerable within your word limit. The video below contains tips for writing a good research question.
In some assignments, you may be asked to create a research question or an aim from a broad topic. For example, your broad topic may be the effects of climate change on crop production. There are multiple components of climate change (e.g. rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and rising CO2 levels) and multiple crop types (wheat, corn, rice, etc.). You could refine this topic by focusing on specific aspects of climate change and specific crop types.
An answerable research question based on this topic might be:
The aim is a detailed statement of what your review is intending to achieve. For example, an aim based on our example research question is:
The research question and/or aim of your literature review is often stated at the end of the introduction section.
The review must be shaped by research which provides a background to the topic. Your review should be selective. A common mistake is to include everything you have read regardless of its relevance.
You need to work on developing your own criteria for the bodies of literature – and the scholars – that you end up including in the literature review and those you exclude. Your criteria should always include:
- relevance to your study
- importance to the field.
A useful way of thinking about the literature review is to visualise it as a dinner party (Kamler & Thomson, 2006). You are the host, and you decide who is invited and who sits where, depending on how much they can contribute to the conversation about your topic. Relevance is crucial.
Another way of looking at the process, particularly if you are examining several topics (or variables), is to think of yourself as a film director (Rudestam & Newton, 1992). You can think of providing your audience with:
- long shots to provide a solid sense of the background
- middle distance shots where the key figures and elements to be examined are brought clearly into view
- close-up shots where the precise focus of your work is pinpointed.
Writing a literature review involves analysing and synthesising previous research.
Analysis and synthesis may appear to be two opposing methods: ‘Whereas analysis involves systematically breaking down the relevant literature into its constituent parts, synthesis is the act of making connections between those parts identified in the analysis’ (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2012, p.84).
In a literature review, however, you will notice the synergy between analysis and synthesis as you zoom-in to closely analyse an individual source, then zoom-out to consider it in relation to the broader context.
After locating and analysing a range of sources, you should synthesise the relevant sources. Synthesising means connecting, linking and positioning sources against each other in order to identify the recurring themes, trends and areas of agreement or disagreement within your research field.
Let’s consider an example of analysis and synthesis. After reading and analysing individual sources, you have identified a key concept relating to your research topic as well as a key resource (A) relating to that concept.
The argument in resource (A) is supported by another article (B), which is in turn supported by article (D).
However, you have also found article (C), which contradicts the argument presented in resource (A).
One way to synthesise these texts, is to group together the texts supporting your key resource (articles B and D), and explain that article (C) presents contradictory results. Then, you would need to explain the differences and/or reasons for the contradictory results. The image below illustrates this synthesis example.
Let’s now consider another way to organise your analysis and synthesis. You can manage sources and the arguments presented in them through a literature review matrix (also called a synthesis matrix).
A literature review matrix is a table in which you can collate the views, ideas, or data from the sources that you read to be able to identify thematic categories that correspond to your research project. Look at the example below.
A study-based matrix can help you to map what individual authors tell you about parts of your topic. However, if a study-based matrix (as in the above image) is used to write your literature review, the ideas won’t be connected, and you would end up with a “laundry list” of sources, simply telling your reader a summary of each individual study.
One solution to move away from a laundry-list-like literature review is to develop a theme-based matrix based on your initial study-based matrix which can help you to identify key themes emerging from the literature.
In this way, you can explore the argument revealed by your interpretation of the studies, and highlight areas with strong or weak evidence. Furthermore, as you fill out your matrix, you will begin to get a clearer view of how different sources are related, and recognise patterns that may not have been immediately visible before. For example, you may see a correlation between sample sizes and types of conclusions, or between specific kinds of aims and the methods chosen to address them.
Because information is arranged in thematic columns, you can get a useful overview of all aims, or all methods at a glance. You can add new columns as your understanding improves and new trends emerge. Thus, a theme-based review matrix can also be a powerful tool for synthesising the patterns you identify across literature, and for formulating your own arguments.
Mind maps are useful for constructing an overview of the literature in the field of study. They are useful for classifying authors and organising your own ideas. Here is an example mind map. Notice the connections between aspects of the literature under review.
Use Microsoft Excel or a similar spreadsheet program to create your review matrices. With these programs, you can hide columns that you don't need to look at, and sort or filter by different keywords. This can make it easier to see similarities and contrasts between different studies.
A literature review develops an argument based on a critical analysis, synthesis and evaluation of the literature under review.
When you review literature in your field of study you are essentially conducting research on the research that others have completed. A literature review is a report of your findings on the patterns, trends and gaps you have found in the existing literature, presented as your own argument (you can explore more resources about identifying and developing arguments in Learn HQ critical thinking resources).
There are many types of arguments you can develop in a literature review. For example, you could develop an argument about controversies, discrepancies and patterns in the field of study.
An outline for a summary of a literature review might look like this in HASS studies.
The list of sentence stems below can be adapted to help you to concisely articulate your literature review argument.
The argument of a literature review is built up through claims supported by evidence - in this case, evidence from the literature. In the example below, the writer makes statements about the literature related to the aims and interest of the thesis. This is what moves the review onward.