Process

Writing a literature review is a very complex task. It will take many drafts to get right. And even before you begin the first formal draft, there are writing activities you can use to develop your thinking.

Work towards a structure and argument starts at the reading stage. It will be easier to design a structure for the written review if you start grouping works as you read and take notes. The building blocks of your argument will come from your notes if you record your own thoughts, and the connections you are making between readings, as you go.

Some techniques for grouping are mind maps and tables:

Mind maps

Mind maps are useful for constructing an overview of the field. They are also good for classifying authors, and organising your own ideas.

Tables

A table, or matrix, is useful for analysing research articles in a consistent way that allows you to see patterns.

Here is a simple matrix which a researcher has begun to fill in:

AuthorYearTitleAimsMethodSampleConclusionComments
Willis 2009 Memory efficiency and critical thinking among entry-level students Test whether memory correlates positively with critical thinking Quiz 50 Good memory positively influences critical thinking Interesting quiz structure. Framing of critical thinking and memory is too similar, leading to exaggerated correlation.
Quinhua 2011 De Bono Mnemonic places technique and note taking Examine how the De Bono Mnemonic places technique influences note taking Quiz and note analysis 12 Significant improvement (20%) in 6-strong sample One of the better papers on memory impact of note taking. Method useful for constructing experiment for testing critical thinking skills.
Summers 2007       
Brant 2012       

You can also use tables to classify authors in various ways, for example by:

  • approach to particular questions
  • method
  • sources.

Generating text

Tables and mind maps are not just useful for helping you to see patterns; you can use them to generate text that you might be able to use, with a little editing, in your review.

The example below was produced by someone working on a literature review for an article about teaching professional writing at university. They built up this table when they began to see the theme of institutional context emerging from their reading. Their next step was to try to develop that theme in continuous prose. Click on each row of the table to see the sentences they wrote.

Activity

Click on each row of the table to see the sentences they wrote.

These sentences are just a start. They will be further refined by reference to the writer’s more detailed notes, further reading, reflection and polishing.

Read their final draft of this section below, which includes some wider context and some additional references.


Tip

Remember these three steps as you work towards your literature review:

1. Take notes

2. Organise the information:

  • arrange and categorise major works (most reference-managing software allows you to create groups);
  • organise maps and outlines according to patterns;
  • expand maps and notes, and develop claims.

3. Analyse patterns of data:

  • examine maps and tables to formulate an argument and determine what is known/unknown;
  • create a storyline, develop complex arguments;
  • develop the overall argument, the “big story” of your literature review.