Literature reviews are often one of the toughest sections for students working on research papers. Not only do you have to do all the actual research, but you also need to be able to summarize all the reading you've done in a way that both makes sense to the reader and sets the stage for your own work. It might seem like this second task is much harder-particularly if you're not a strong writer-but taking the time to do your research right is actually the best way to make the writing process as easy as it can be.
There are, of course, as many ways to do research as there are people out there actually doing it. Everyone's method is going to be a little bit (or a lot) different, but everyone has the same goal: to develop a thorough understanding of the history and current understanding of their topic. In order to do this (and thus write a great literature review), you need to have a good research plan.
The most important part of writing a literature review actually comes before you ever sit down to type: you need to get organized. If you just read and read without implementing a system to keep track of all the ideas you're encountering, your literature review will undoubtable turn out to be a mess. You'll likely found that you've missed key articles or given too much space to research that's already fallen out of favor out in the real world. The only way to avoid these problems is to stay organized.
There are a number of ways you can choose to organize that big pile of articles, books, conference proceedings, and other paperwork. If you have hard copies of your resources, it's important that you keep them filed in an orderly system (more on that in a second) so that you can quickly and easily find things when you're anxiously looking for some particular quote or idea (which you will likely find you need to do a lot). If you are keeping everything on your computer, use a Word file or reference management software to keep track of all the research you've collected.
Staying organized doesn't just mean keeping all your research in one place-it also means you need to have a system that will help you make sense of all those words. How you choose to do this is obviously up to you, and what works for you might not work for somebody else. Here are a few organization options:
If geography is important in your field, it might make sense to organize your research by location. This can be a literal location (e.g., a country, university, or state), but location could also mean something more abstract. You might group paper according to how they are located in relation to each other; for example, are some more mainstream or on the fringe, or are some practical while other are theoretical?
This one is probably pretty obvious, but it bears repeating. Putting your research in alphabetical order is probably one of the easiest way to keep track of everything. However, if you simply keep everything in alphabetical order, you'll probably need to use another system to keep track of how all the research is related.
If your literature review is going to focus on how a particular idea, theory, or methodology has changed over time, then you might want to consider keeping your research in chronological order. This can help make resources easy to find when you're writing about a particular time period and will also help ensure that you haven't missed anything crucial.
If you're doing a particularly wide-reaching literature review, you can break down your research into categories. Look for particular ideas, theories, or methodologies that appear frequently, and group your research under those headings. As with time or location, using categories will help you make sense of a large pile of research by grouping it into smaller, more easily managed conceptual areas.
This style of organization requires a little bit more work than the others and also requires you to already be familiar with most of the research. When you already have a feel for your research, you can start ranking articles and books in a hierarchy, i.e., you can decide which ones are most important and which ones have the least value. Keep in mind that everyone's measure of what's "important" will be different, and you want to focus on what's going to be valuable for your paper in particular.
Often you'll find that you need to combine several of these methods. For example, you might group your research by category, then file things alphabetically within those categories; or, you might divide your research into a hierarchy with several levels of importance, then organize chronocially within those groups. Again, it's important to find a system that works will for you.
Once you've develop a system it's important you stick with it. When you read new papers, immediately file them in the correct place in your system so you'll be able to find them when you need them.
Look for Patterns
One of the main benefit to staying organized (in addition to being able to easily find stuff when you need it) is that it will help with another vital part of the literature review writing process - spotting trends and patterns. A good literature review won't just regurgitate a hundred studies one by one, but will instead attempt to illustrate for the reader the relationship between all those individual papers.
To do this job well, you need to be able to analyze your research and identify trends and patterns. When do particular ideas, theories, or methodologies first appear and how do they change over time? Do certain kinds of studies report similar or dissimilar results? You also want to look at the relationship between studies. How are researchers influencing each other? Do you see evidence of a debate around a particular issue?
One of the best ways to look for trends and patterns is to use a diagram or other visual aid. If you're just looking at individual papers one after the other, it's going to be hard to see connections between them. However, if you're able to create a picture of how these studies relate to each other, the trends and patterns become much clearer. Below are two examples of mapping techniques.
A spider diagram is a way to visually map out the relationship between lots of different categories. Start by putting your main concept in a central bubble; for example, if you're going to be reviewing literature on The Great Gatsby, you'd put the novel's name in the center. Then, draw lines out from there to circles that represent the sub-areas you'll be covering in your review. From those circles you can draw lines to sub-sub-areas, or, when you get to the smallest concept area you're working with, draw lines to particular papers you want to cite. Below is a (very simple) example:
Obviously, spider diagrams can get a whole lot more complicated, but the basic idea will be the same no matter how big it gets: to visually describe the relationship between ideas and individual research papers.
If you're using reference software like Endnotes or a database like Ebsco, you can create citation maps, which are graphical representations of citations. Basically, a citation map will show you all the papers a particular study cited (also known as going backward) and also all the papers that cite that study (known as going forward).
You can easily create citation maps in software packages that are tailored to your needs. For example, you can select only certain authors to show and also color-code specific entries. In addition, most programs will let you map citations backwards and forwards several generations, meaning you can easily trace the impact of certain papers and authors.
Citation maps are one of the best ways to spot trends and patterns in the literature. For instance, you can quickly identify papers that link certain research areas together. You can also use citation maps to make sure that you haven't missed any important studies; e.g., if there's a study that has been cited by hundreds of other researchers, than you probably need to figure out why it's so important.
Have an Position
The goal of a literature review is not to provide a balanced, unbiased view of all the research out there. Just throwing out dozens of references isn't going to impress your readers and also isn't going to help them understand what's going on in your particular paper. Instead, the literature review needs to present to the reader a view of the research landscape that highlights why your work is important.
In order to do this job well, you need to be clear about what position you're going to take in your literature review. In general terms, a literature review should 1) give an overview of the current research landscape, 2) identify gaps or holes in the literature, and 3) explain how you're going to fill those holes. So, before you start writing, you need to have a very clear plan that details which resources you will need to fully explain those three points.
Note that this doesn't mean that you should omit references that don't fit with your study or otherwise try to fudge the literature review to make your work seem important. Rather, you should address those studies and explain how why the problems they present have been addressed in your work. Remember, you're not trying to trick the reader-your teacher or professor is probably already familiar with a lot of your resources already-but rather present the information in such a way as to convince the reader what you're doing matters.
Know When to Stop Researching and Start Writing
Once you get started with your research you may find that you have trouble knowing when to stop. Every paper you find will lead you to five or ten new ones, and just when you're ready to call it finished you can run into one paper that changes your whole thesis. In addition to the problem of the overwhelming amount of resources out there, there's always the concern that you've missed something really important. Nobody wants to hand in a literature review only to have a teacher tell you that you've left out a well-known, vital study. And, on top of all that, it's also a fact that the rest of the world isn't standing still around you. Even as you work on your research, new papers are being published every day.
So how can you know when it's time to step researching and start writing? The answer, sadly, is that there's no clear answer. There's always going to be more resources out there, more studies you haven't read, and more studies that have just been published. You can, however, follow some general guidelines that will help you decide when it's time to put down the reading and get started on work of your own.
Balance your time. Unless you're working on just a literature review for a class, it's likely that your review will be part of a larger research paper. And, while it's tempting to keep researching, it's also important to remember that you are going to need time to work on the rest of your paper as well. Think about how much time you're going to need to devote to the other aspects of your project, and if your research has started to cut into that time, then you need to move one.
Get comfortable with feeling incomplete. There's never going to be a time when you feel like you've seen all the research there is to see, and the sooner you can get comfortable with that fact the better off you'll be. Instead of trying to cover each and every single source out there, accept that at some point you'll need to work with what you've got.
Don't lose focus. Part of the reason that the research process can drag on so long is that students often stray into areas that are only tangentially related to their work. It's easy to follow a trail of citations only to find yourself neck-deep in papers that, while interesting, aren't related to the central focus on your work. If you find that you've amassed a long list of resources like this that aren't going to be used in your literature review, you need to either refocus or start the writing process.
More isn't always better. There's often the sense among students that the more sources you can pack into a literature review, the better it will be. After all, you want to be thorough, right? But after a certain point you'll likely find that including more sources is really just obscuring the main focus of your paper. When you bury yourself and your audience in citations, it becomes harder to find what's really important.
This probably all sounds a like a lot of work to put into the research process-all this and you haven't even started writing yet! But keeping your research organized from the very beginning is guaranteed to help you write a better paper. Not only will these research techniques help you develop your ideas and spot patterns you might have missed otherwise, but it will also save you lots of time and hassle when you actually sit down and start writing.
Martha is a good freelance writer and loves sharing posts on different topics including tips and guidelines for articles and academic writing. Her professional experience helps to create interesting and useful material.
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