How to Plan a Literature Review
organizing and grouping sources
creating a map or outline of your literature review
Note: Because this chapter involves the steps for writing your Literature Review, the discussion questions in each section will be more involved than in other chapters, so give yourself extra time. But never fear! They will all lead to writing a better paper.
Step One: Take Notes Like a Boss
Remember back in Chapter 3: Writing Process where we introduced you to the steps of the writing process? And do you remember that the first step is to Plan? I hope so. Because for a big paper like a Literature Review, the more you prepare and plan, the better your paper will turn out. The key to a good Literature Review is finding the patterns and connections between sources and synthesizing those sources rather than just talking about them individually. Therefore, before you begin writing or even planning what to write, you need be sure you've done your homework and have good notes to work with. For the purposes of this section, I'm going to assume that you've already done the steps in Chapter 8: Finding and Evaluating Sources: you've created a research question, gathered many relevant and reliable sources, annotated your sources, taken good notes, and hopefully have even written an Annotated Bibliography.
The next step is to go Back to the Future and map out the past, present, and future:
Imagine you're getting into your time-traveling Delorean so you can figure out
- the past--how far research has come
- the present--where researchers are currently focusing their research, and
- the future--where gaps in knowledge appear that can be filled by tomorrow's researchers.
Recall from Chapter 1: What's Advanced About Advanced Writing? that any publication is written as part of an ongoing conversation. So it helps to view all the sources you've found as contributions to the larger conversation. Your job is to figure out the most important threads of that conversation. For this reason, a good Literature Reviewer synthesizes the sources--compares them and shows them in a larger context--rather than just talking about them individually. Like Marty McFly, your readers need the big picture.
“A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.” --The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
What is Synthesis?
Throughout the rest of this section you'll be going through a tutorial created by superstar research librarian Emily Swensen Darowski and illustrious associate professors Nikole D. Patson and Elizabeth Helder Babcock to take you through the process of synthesizing sources. Have your notes from your sources ready and follow the instructions after each video.
Step 1: Color-Code Your Notes
This is where your notes will come in handy. If you've already color-coded your summaries from your sources, then you're one step ahead. If not, all is not lost. Just watch this video and follow the steps. Remember, you can use paper cards or electronic note-taking software like Trello.
Step 2: Look for Patterns
As opposed to just writing general summaries like you did for an Annotated Bibliography, you're going to take your note-taking to the next level. Now as you read through your notes and sources, you'll be looking for patterns and themes that emerge.
If you're writing a stand-alone literature review (i.e., if you're not writing your literature review as part of a bigger empirical research project--those are the kind that end up as the Introduction to a proposal or article, especially in the IMRAD format), then you don't need to look for all the items listed in the video. You just need to look for things that help you see what's happening in the field, what researchers are doing. So you can ignore the items in the video such as "Methodology that you might 'borrow' for your proposed materials or procedures" because you won't be conducting any experiments or primary research in this class. Your teacher might eventually ask you to propose research in a grant proposal, but that's the most you'll have time for. So for now, just focus on the items relevant to a literature review as you organize your notes.
I tell my students to ask four questions as they look through their sources and notes:
- What do researchers agree and disagree about?
- How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?
- What are each study’s limitations and strengths?
- What’s the next step in research—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)
Revisit your sources from your Annotated Bibliography. Look through them again looking for these patterns:
- Areas of inquiry
- Areas of controversy
Another way to think of these groups is to think HEAT: Where are the hottest areas of research? What are the most heated debates? Which studies are the hottest--most cited? Which are only lukewarm because they have major limitations/weaknesses? Where does the research go cold (where are there gaps that need to be filled)?
Step 3: Organize and Group
Now you can group your notes into themes or umbrellas based on the four questions you've been asking yourself. Or if you notice similarities or connections between sources, feel free to make an umbrella based on that. This process doesn't have to be perfect, so don't get caught up in making things match perfectly. The point is that you're starting to organize your notes based on your own agenda.
Here's what you can consider about each of the four questions from above:
1. What do researchers agree and disagree about?
Many students are tempted to simply report on what's been established and agreed upon in their field, but the problem with this is that if everyone in your field agrees about something, then it becomesand no longer counts as a gap in knowledge. So if you only report on what is commonly agreed upon, you're writing a descriptive report rather than a synthesized literature review. Students in fields like Public Health where reports are common need to pay extra attention to avoiding this tendency. Reports are great when explaining the symptoms of the common cold--you want to focus on the most agreed-upon information in that case. But the purpose of a literature review is to unearth the gaps and disagreements--where the most fruitful areas are for research to continue.
2. How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?
Remember as well that researchers are constantly trying to create new information. They do this in two ways:
- by narrowing or shifting their focus or
- by taking something that's been done before and doing it in a new way as a type of re-vision.
It's your job to point out how researchers in the field are currently creating new information and where you think the field is going next (aka the gaps in research). If you notice, for instance, that researchers have started to look at specific geographic areas but they haven't yet looked at different age groups, then this could be an area for further research. It's valuable to show a trajectory of how variables are being narrowed because that helps us know where things are bound to go in the future as well.
3. What are each study's limitations and strengths?
When I have a student who's struggling with how to compare sources, I often tell them to go through each source and simply write out what the strengths and limitations are of that source. It's a great way to start because it gets their analysis juices flowing. Perhaps a limitation is in methodology--is the study reporting on a small number of participants? That usually allows for richer data (a strength) but at the cost of being able to generalize to a bigger population (a weakness). Is the study only quantitative in nature? That allows for easily measurable results about larger populations (a strength), but perhaps they are missing the richer data interviews or qualitative surveys could produce (a weakness). Does someone's interpretation of results seem to miss what another research group published? Ta da! You've found a gap that can be filled with future research.
One more way to take note of limitations and strengths is to pay attention to which sources are cited the most and have had the most influence in your field. You can generally assume that the more a source is cited, the "stronger" the research.
4. What’s the next step—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)
All of this is leading to the ultimate goal of a literature review, which is to show where researchers should go next. As you analyze your sources and find places where further research would add knowledge to your field, take note. You can organize these "gaps" into themes or umbrellas as well and include them in your literature review. In terms of hoverboards, the point of a literature review is to figure out what's been done--and more importantly, what hasn't--so you can pinpoint where the best place is to take the next step and remain on that cutting edge.
Make a Map
As you compare sources and group your notes, you'll be able to figure out the main paths that the conversation is taking. This is why Literature Reviews are generally organized around themes rather than simply a list of information about each source separately. In fact, most Literature Reviews are organized in one of these four structures:
- Similar concepts or themes
- Similar methods
- Chronological development
My students often find it helpful to literally make a map of their sources to show where themes are emerging. This is similar to the creative mindmapping we talked about in the brainstorming section earlier. As with brainstorming, it often helps to physically draw the connections because it encourages your creativity and your ability to see relationships. Here's an example of my awesome geography student Carly Ringer's paper on the uses of Social Media during Crises and Disasters. Making a map of her topic and what she found in her sources allowed her to visually see where the areas of inquiry are in her field. This map could easily be used to create themes for her notes or even to structure her outline for her literature review.
Step 4: Assess Groupings
It's time to look through the way you've grouped your notes and see where your sources are landing. Make sure you have multiple sources under each theme/umbrella so you'll be able to synthesize once you get to the drafting stage. If you don't have enough sources under a theme/umbrella, this is a good time to either look for more sources or decide that this particular theme is not important enough to include. Once you feel like you have enough sources under each group, you can probably see how your paper's outline will emerge from this organization. (We'll talk all about outlines in the next section.)
Step 5: Write a Paragraph
Now you can try writing a paragraph that synthesizes the sources under one of your groups of notes. If you can include synthesized paragraphs like this throughout your paper, your literature review will be much more sophisticated than a simple annotated bibliography or research report--you will show that you understand the areas of inquiry in your field and how researchers are approaching your topic.
Step 6: Check Out an Example
As a final step, watch this video to review the steps and check out an example.
Now that you've started organizing your notes into themes, patterns, and idea umbrellas, you're ready to structure your paper. So we'll take a break from working with notes and move on to the structure of a literature review.
Step Two: Structure Your Paper
A Literature Review follows a general structure. As you start organizing your ideas and formulating what you want to say, think about how and where your ideas will fall into this basic structure:
- Title Page
- Introduction (with Thesis Statement)
- Body Paragraphs (with Headings)
In addition, your teacher might ask you to include other elements like a Table of Contents, List of Tables and Figures, or an Appendix.
I'm going to cover each of the main elements of Literature Review structure, but instead of talking about them in the order they go in your paper, I'm going to talk about them in the order you should tackle them. Trust me, it'll make your life easier.
Now that you've grouped your notes and seen patterns emerge, you're ready to create the crux of your literature review: the thesis statement. But don't be fooled into thinking that you are writing a typical research paper with an argumentative thesis statement where you take a position on an issue. In contrast, your position in a literature review is simply what you believe to be the state of the field on an issue. Some people call it an expository thesis because it exposes or announces your topic rather than taking a position or arguing your opinion. So any claim you make will be determined by the sources that you've been organizing and grouping and the trends or patterns you found. One way to think of a literature review thesis statement is in two parts:
Thesis = Main Areas of Inquiry + Future Research Directions
Areas of Inquiry
In other words, you will describe what you think the main areas of inquiry are concerning your topic. This is the new knowledge you're personally bringing to the table and that justifies writing a literature review--now that you've read and analyzed your sources, you can tell us your findings. And your findings consist of the fact that researchers in your field are congregating in certain arenas--also known as, areas of inquiry. Your job is to point out where those areas are.
Go back to your notes from the Synthesis activity in the last section and also do some mind mapping until you have decided on 3-4 main areas of inquiry you want to talk about in your paper. If you're organizing your Literature Review chronologically or by methodology instead of by theme/area of inquiry, then you can divide your ideas in to 3-5 sections based on those perspectives. Either way, you can even write out the headings you would use for each section.
Future Research Directions
And because there are still limitations or gaps in knowledge, you are also in a position to explain where you think future research should go. So your thesis statement--or main point--is a summary of these things. You'll eventually put this statement at the end of your Introduction.
Another difference between a typical research paper and a literature review is that in the former, a thesis statement is short--one or two sentences--and makes a claim; in contrast, a literature review thesis statement can be as long as a paragraph. In fact, the thesis statement can serve two purposes: it can explain your main point and it can indicate the organization of your paper. (Be sure to list everything in the same order you'll talk about them in your paper.)
For example, my student Justin's thesis statement is actually a paragraph long and sets up the organization of his paper. (This came at the end of his Introduction.)
In this paper, I will give an overview regarding the history of Africa’s relationships with their traditional investors and then compare that to China’s relationship with Africa now. I will then cover the three main ways that China is involved with Africa which are FDI, trade, and aid and discuss what researchers have found both China and Africa have to offer in all of these interactions. Then I will synthesize how current researchers agree and disagree regarding both the positive and negative effects of China’s interaction on Africa from a macroeconomic and microeconomic level. I will then end this review by offering what researchers say is the future of Africa based on their relationship with China.
As you can see, this is very different than a typical thesis statement. It's long and doesn't take a stand on an issue. But it still serves the purpose of delineating the main points of his paper--areas of inquiry and research gaps--and setting a direction for where he'll go.
Write a Thesis Statement
Once you have a basic thesis statement--or even as you're trying to create one--you can start organizing your ideas into an outline. Your notes should already be grouped under umbrellas, so it shouldn't be too hard now to make a general outline of the rest of your paper. There are two types of outlining you can choose for setting up your paper: the formal outline or the organic outline (aka the structured outline or the unstructured outline). Dr. Matt Baker (2019), a BYU Linguistics professor, has studied the way students create outlines and likes to compare the two types of outlining to making a topiary--you know, those shaped trees or bushes that often look like animals.
Baker calls the formal/structured type of outline an Organization-Only Outline and says this is similar to the formal way gardeners create topiary bushes. The formal way is to create a metal wire frame first and then grow the bush into the frame until it's shaped beautifully. This is like the types of formal outlines you're probably most familiar with that use Roman numerals:
- Main Point #1
- Sub-topic A
- Sub-sub-topic i
- Sub-sub-topic ii
- Sub-topic B
- Sub-topic A
- Main Point #2
- Sub-topic A
- Sub-topic B, etc.
If you already have a good sense of where you're going with your literature review, then this can be a great way to start filling in the details. You can make your major umbrellas/areas of inquiry the first level of Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.), and start adding subsections underneath. Your notes should help you a lot with this.
The second type of outlining is more organic. Baker calls this type a Content-Exploration Outline. This involves many of the idea-generating activities we've done like brainstorming, mind mapping, and grouping as well as just plain writing sentences and paragraphs. This is like the type of topiary where a gardener sees a full-grown bush and starts trimming it from the outside-in to create a shape. You can group ideas and work on one area and then another as your paper takes shape. You can write the sentences and paragraphs that feel the most fruitful and then work on another preferred section next. You can even write a whole rough draft and then create an outline in reverse to see how you organized your ideas and revise from there. Many students don't recognize these activities as types of outlining, but the point is that they help organize your ideas and can be as helpful as formal outlines.
“Over the course of my 17-year writing career, I began to give up on outlining — that is, before I write. I’ve come to prefer a more organic approach to creation, first laying out my raw material on the page, then searching for possible patterns that might emerge.”
--Writer Aaron Hamburger (2013) in “Outlining in Reverse”
Of course, you can also have a combination of both types of outlines, which is what most students do. As you may have noticed, the activities we've done earlier in this chapter have had the purpose of helping you to organize your ideas into the shape of a paper. You might be tempted to skip this stage of the writing process, but research shows that if you take the time to organize your ideas, your writing will be
- more efficient (Kellogg, 1988),
- higher quality in the end (de Smet, Broekkamp, Brand-Gruwel, & Kirschner, 2011; Kellogg, 1987),
- and you will be more satisfied with the writing process (Torrance, Thomas, & Robinson, 2000).
Those are pretty good benefits!
Here is an example of a Literature Review outline for one of my student's papers. Pay attention to the content but more importantly, notice the structure of her paper.
Home-Based Therapy for Children with Autism
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Autistic children
- Current research/study methods
- Current treatments
- In-home or in-school?
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- How the environment affects autistic children
- Sensory enrichment therapy
- Useful for autistic children?
- How the studies were administered
- Positive/negative results
- Parent-involvement in therapy
- Sensory enrichment therapy
- Home-Based Therapy
- PLAY Project Home Consultation program
- Quantitative measurement
- Caregivers biased?
- Qualitative measurement
- Specific autism symptoms tests used
- Results of home-based therapies
- PLAY Project Home Consultation program
- Effect of home-based therapy on family
- Easier to do things in familiar environments
- Strain on parental relationships
- Strain on sibling relationships
- Future Research
- Long-term goals
- Have a long-term follow-up to current home-based therapies
- Positive/negative results of following-up long-term (use specific study)
- More test subjects
- Family-centered approach only done on 1 family
- Not enough subjects = can’t be statistically significant
- Long-term goals
- Children with autism
- Effect of the environment
- Effect of the home
- Home-Based therapy
- Effect on family
- How effective it is for the child
- Maybe quickly reiterate the future research needed?
- Children with autism
**I honestly could use any suggestions on how to organize this better. I've spent hours trying to organize my sources/info better but could use any thoughts y'all have on how to make it better!
My favorite part about this outline is the comment at the end that this student invites any suggestions for improvement. That shows exactly the right attitude when writing--be open to feedback. The beauty of creating some type of outline now is that you can get feedback on your ideas and organization before you go through the work of writing out all your beautiful sentences and paragraphs.
Create an Outline
Once you know what your main points will be, you're ready to introduce your ideas. As in any paper, you can't just jump right into your thesis statement and points; you need to set the stage first. Here are the elements of a good introduction to a literature review:
A good introduction
introduces the topic and indicates its importance (impact on individuals)
gives a context for the research question
defines key terms, concepts, and/or theories
explains what search methods were used and how many and what types of sources were reviewed
suggests the organization of the rest of the paper
Get a start on your introduction by writing an opening sentence that introduces your topic and/or indicates its importance. Post that here. Then you can use that to jump start the rest of your introduction.
The body of your paper is where you can develop your points and use your newfound synthesis skills. This is where all the paragraphs will go that you've set up with your note-taking and grouping.
In the body of your paper, you should
synthesize previous studies to inform the reader of the state of research
“identify relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature” ( APA Manual , p. 10)
group your points into major headings and subheadings (You choose the arrangement based on what you’ve found: similar concepts or theories, similar methods, chronological development, controversies, etc.)
support all points with evidence drawn from sources or with sound reasoning and in which all borrowed information is documented.
In referring to sources, you should mostly summarize , sometimes paraphrase , and use quotations very sparingly—only when specific wording is poignant or can’t be said in any other way.
One way to talk about your sources is known as the CEC Method: Claim-Evidence-Commentary.
Claim + Evidence + Commentary
Just like any paragraph, you should start with a Topic sentence that acts as a mini-Thesis statement or a general claim about your topic. Then you need to give evidence to support that claim. In a literature review, your evidence comes in the form of studies that have been done--all those brilliant notes you've been taking. This is where you can synthesize your sources and show that they are related under the umbrella of a topic. However, just listing or summarizing sources does not make the connection between them and your topic sentence clear. This is where commentary comes in. Your job is to also comment and interpret the significance of your "evidence" so your audience can understand the connections between them. In the next section we'll talk more about how to do this, especially how to incorporate metacommentary into your paragraphs.
The section will either be called Discussion or Conclusion (or possibly not have a heading) depending on your teacher's preferences. In an effective Discussion (aka Conclusion) section you should
do more than sum up what you have said (though you should do that as well)
explain where there are gaps and limitations in the previous research done
indicate recommendations for future research based on those gaps
At the end of this section,
restate your position (thesis statement)
show the implications of your findings
You must also include a list of your References (also known as a Bibliography or Works Cited page in other documentation styles) showing all the sources you referred to in your paper. Your references page must be in alphabetical order and formatted according to APA Format (for more details, see Chapter 8: Citing Sources ).
Your teacher might require you to include these other elements in your Literature Review paper. Be sure to follow the format from the APA Manual (2019) .
Your title is your readers' first entry into your paper. Your title should include as much information as possible while remaining appropriately short and sweet. The APA Manual recommends not using extraneous words but sticking to the main point of your paper. My student Justin's title follows this model:
Implications of Chinese Involvement on Africa's Economy
He basically summarizes his main point in one succinct statement--the ultimate summary. APA would be proud.
The Mullet. Business in the front, party in the back. Wikimedia, CC-SA
However, depending on your sub-field in the Social Sciences, many scholars like to do what I call a "reverse mullet." As you might know, the rad '80s mullet haircut that's short on top and long in the back has been described as
The Mullet: Business in the front, party in the back
A mullet starts with the serious and ends with the fun. But academic titles often do the reverse: they have an interesting introductory phrase, then a colon, and then the standard, more serious title. That's why I call them the Reverse Mullet:
Reverse Mullet By Weidmaier, CC-BY NC
The Reverse Mullet: Party in the front, Business in back
A reverse mullet gets the reader's attention before adding the serious explanation. For example, one of my students named Katelyn wrote her Literature Review on how much high school students' perception of their teachers was influenced by their teachers' apparel. Her title included a Reverse Mullet structure:
Keeping it Class-y: How Formality of Teacher Apparel Affects Student Perceptions of the Teacher in the Classroom
Because her field is education (Social Science Teaching), this second type of title structure is appropriate and adds interest. You can talk to your writing teacher or the professors in your major to find out which type of title would be most appropriate for you to use in your field. If you want to just play it safe, stick with a plain title, but know you might be missing a chance to draw your readers in.
What else should go on your title page besides your title?
Your Name (centered)
Your Teacher's Name (centered on the next line)
Optional: the Name of Your Class (e.g., English 315)
Your title and these additions should go in the top half of the page. Your teacher can tell you any other information they require like a page number. If you're using APA Format, then you'll need a page number in the upper right corner as well as a Running Head with a shortened version of your title that can "run" at the top of all your pages. See Chapter 8: Citing Sources for more information about how to do that.
You should save writing your abstract for last because it's a summary of your completed paper. You can try writing a preliminary abstract now as a type of outline, but you run the risk of finding out that once you're done with your paper, you actually went in some different directions. My advice is to hold off and wait to write the abstract until the end. You can create a page after the title page where your abstract will go, but we'll cover writing Abstracts in Section 9.10 Write an Abstract .
If you have tables or figures that are too big to be added into the text of your paper, you can put them at the end. If you only have one Appendix, you can call it just that. But if you have more than one, call them Appendix A, Appendix B, etc.
Tables and Figures
One more element that could be helpful to your paper is to include tables and/or figures. Tables should be familiar to you. Figures are any type of image, graph, or chart besides a table. You can use tables or figures from your sources as long as your cite them properly. You can also create your own table or figure either from existing data or to explain a concept. See Chapter 5: Design for the details of how to create, use, or format tables and figures. Just remember to check APA Format; for example, in APA, you need to title and number your tables and figures separately.
I hope you feel like you have a better sense of the structure for your own Literature Review. In the next chapter, we'll talk about how to start drafting your paper.
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