Organizing the Literature Review

Dr David Baker

Dr David Baker

A literature review can often seem like the most daunting portion of any thesis or dissertation. Indeed, a good literature review is not just a summary of published texts, but rather a digestible synthesis of the relevant literature. Thus, it is your job to combine the literature before you into one cogent, organized document that is capable of reaching and influencing your readers.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for developing a great literature review:

1. Get a feel for the literature: Before writing, it is important to begin reading the relevant literature and taking notes. The goal of this exercise is not to absorb all of the literature related to your topic, but rather to begin developing a feel for what you will be writing about. If a quick search of the literature reveals 200 relevant documents, you might consider reading 15-20 of these. Think of this as an academic ‘warm up’.

2. Think about your reader: Too often, literature reviews will successfully summarize the literature, but fail to connect with their readership. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you consider who will be reading your dissertation or thesis prior to developing a plan for your writing. Remember, your synthesis of the literature needs to be well-received in order to be well-regarded. For example, if the members of your thesis committee have little expertise in your area of research, you might consider providing them with additional background information in order to promote understanding. Alternatively, if one or more of your readers have expertise in an area related to your thesis, you might consider including research which better connects your research with their area of expertise. By considering your readership when planning your writing, you will naturally develop a final product that keeps your readers interested and engaged.

3. Organize your thoughts: Once you have a feel for the literature and have considered your readership, you should begin developing some possible outlines for your literature review. At this phase, don’t be afraid to draft multiple outlines. This is not something you should do all at once, but rather a process that each writer needs to work through over a few days or even weeks. Remember, the goal is to organize an outline for a thesis or dissertation that 1) synthesizes the literature 2) breaks the literature down into a series of simpler, more digestible ideas, and 3) positively influences your readers. Eventually, every author will develop a plan for their writing that simply feels right. When you’ve reached this point, you are ready to start writing. Mind you, it is still likely that there will be changes to your plan along the way. Nevertheless, a good outline will keep you grounded while writing and keep your ideas focused on the main points that you hope to make in your thesis.

4. Break your reading and writing down into manageable parts: With a solid plan in place, writing a literature review should now seem far less daunting than it did initially. Truth be told, a well designed outline not only serves to organize your writing, but also serves as a natural way to break your future literature searches and reading down into manageable parts.

Moreover, by only considering a small portion of the literature at one time, it will be easier to manage related ideas and turn them into cogent arguments for your readers. Good Luck!