How to Structure and Write your Literature Review
After you have reviewed prior and current studies in your field, the next step is to document these studies so that you can easily refer back to them and summarise them in your paper. This article provides some ideas to help you better structure and write your literature review.
Take notes of the literature you read
Before structuring and writing the literature review, you need to think about what you need to do when reviewing papers and other relevant texts.
It is always a good habit to take notes and summarise each piece of literature that you read using our own words. The notes could include names of the authors, year of publication, main research question(s), data, methodology and key findings. Apart from the names of the authors and publication year, it is useful to summarise the other pieces of information in your own words, or by paraphrasing. Doing this can be a kind of confirmation process that ensures that you understand the paper and, at the same time, reduce the risk of accidental plagiarism.
You can even organise these notes in a tabular format, and rearrange the table by topical categories, by year or by methodology as needed. These notes will then form a good, strong foundation for you to structure your literature review.
Build a narrative
A literature review should not just be a list of the different papers you have read. Instead, try to arrange your literature according to certain narratives or storylines – this will make for a more effective and engaging literature review.
Reviewing your notes – as explained above – will be very useful as you develop your narratives or storylines. Your narrative could be based on specific research themes or topics, on emergent or current trends, on different methodologies and so on.
You will have probably already summarised this information in your notes, so you should be able to draw directly from these notes to build a narrative that would best connect your study with other literature and present it in a structure that would be most logical and coherent for your study.
Structure and present the literature
After determining the structure and focus of the study, you then need to think about how to present the most relevant studies effectively and connect them to your study. Studies that mostly just provide background information or are less relevant for your research can be presented using a summary.
However, for more relevant studies, you will probably need to provide more information and demonstrate a more active engagement with the literature. Note that this is an iterative process. That is, you may need to edit and rewrite several times before you can find a good balance such that the literature review is not too lengthy but can provide all the necessary information needed to contextualise and link to your study.
Combine different perspectives
It is also possible to combine your literature review with a discussion of your chosen theoretical background or hypothesis development. This may require more effort to integrate your selected literature and theories into your writing in order to provide a more holistic view for both your hypothesis development and your overall study.
Bear in mind that although including multiple perspectives within your literature may offer a more rounded view of different thoughts or streams of literature, it may be more challenging to make the section coherent and clear and also maintain a sharp focus on the main narrative or theme across sections in the paper.
Tip: It can be a good idea to read several published papers in your target journal to understand the journal’s specific preferences and how those papers have structured their literature review effectively.
The literature review is a continuing process. It would be beneficial to keep updating your notes by including the most recent studies that you learn about from workshops, conferences or other recently published papers. For rapidly moving fields, coming across new developments in workshops or conference papers may even necessitate changing the structure of your paper or your writing strategies.
In summary, structuring and writing an effective literature review requires a solid understanding of prior and existing studies. This serves the dual purpose of acknowledging other researchers’ contributions to the field, while also demonstrating how your study can advance the knowledge.
Read next (third) in series: Deciding what to include and exclude as you begin to write your literature review
Read previous (first) in series: Important factors to consider as you start to plan your literature review
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