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Literature Reviews: Writing the Review

Outline of Review Sections

Your Literature Review should not be a summary and evaluation of each article, one after the other. Your sources should be integrated together to create a narrative on your topic.

Consider the following ways to organize your review:

  • By themes, variables, or issues
  • By varying perspectives regarding a topic of controversy
  • Chronologically, to show how the topic and research have developed over time

Use an outline to organize your sources and ideas in a logical sequence. Identify main points and subpoints, and consider the flow of your review. Outlines can be revised as your ideas develop. They help guide your readers through your ideas and show the hierarchy of your thoughts. What do your readers need to understand first? Where might certain studies fit most naturally? These are the kinds of questions that an outline can clarify.


An example outline for a Literature Review might look like this:

  1. Introduction

    • Background information on the topic & definitions
    • Purpose of the literature review
    • Scope and limitations of the review (what is included /excluded)
  2. Body

    • Historical background 
    • Overview of the existing research on the topic
    • Principle question being asked
    • Organization of the literature into categories or themes
    • Evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each study
  3. Synthesis

    • Combining the findings from multiple sources to identify patterns and trends
    • Insight into the relationship between your central topic and a larger area of study
    • Development of a new research question or hypothesis
  4. Conclusion

    • Summary of the key points and findings in the literature
    • Discussion of gaps in the existing knowledge
    • Implications for future research

Strategies for Writing

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

An annotated bibliography collects short descriptions of each source in one place. After you have read each source carefully, set aside some time to write a brief summary. Your summary might be simply informative (e.g. identify the main argument/hypothesis, methods, major findings, and/or conclusions), or it might be evaluative (e.g. state why the source is interesting or useful for your review, or why it is not).

This method is more narrative than the Literature Matrix talked about on the Documenting Your Search page.

Taking the time to write short informative and/or evaluative summaries of your sources while you are researching can help you transition into the drafting stage later on. By making a record of your sources’ contents and your reactions to them, you make it less likely that you will need to go back and re-read many sources while drafting, and you might also start to gain a clearer idea of the overarching shape of your review.


READ EXTANT LIT REVIEWS CLOSELY

As you conduct your research, you will likely read many sources that model the same kind of literature review that you are researching and writing. While your original intent in reading those sources is likely to learn from the studies’ content (e.g. their results and discussion), it will benefit you to re-read these articles rhetorically.

Reading rhetorically means paying attention to how a text is written—how it has been structured, how it presents its claims and analyses, how it employs transitional words and phrases to move from one idea to the next. You might also pay attention to an author’s stylistic choices, like the use of first-person pronouns, active and passive voice, or technical terminology.

See Finding Example Literature Reviews on the Developing a Research Question page for tips on finding reviews relevant to your topic.


MIND-MAPPING

Creating a mind-map is a form of brainstorming that lets you visualize how your ideas function and relate. Draw the diagram freehand or download software that lets you easily manipulate and group text, images, and shapes (CoggleFreeMind, MindMaple).

Write down a central idea, then identify associated concepts, features, or questions around that idea. Make lines attaching various ideas, or arrows to signify directional relationships. Use different shapes, sizes, or colors to indicate commonalities, sequences, or relative importance.

This drafting technique allows you to generate ideas while thinking visually about how they function together. As you follow lines of thought, you can see which ideas can be connected, where certain pathways lead, and what the scope of your project might be. By drawing out a mind-map you may be able to see what elements of your review are underdeveloped and will benefit from more focused attention.


USE VISUALIZATION TOOLS

Creating a mind-map is a form of brainstorming that lets you visualize how your ideas function and relate. Draw the diagram freehand or download software that lets you easily manipulate and group text, images, and shapes (CoggleFreeMind, MindMaple).

Write down a central idea, then identify associated concepts, features, or questions around that idea. Make lines attaching various ideas, or arrows to signify directional relationships. Use different shapes, sizes, or colors to indicate commonalities, sequences, or relative importance.

 

This drafting technique allows you to generate ideas while thinking visually about how they function together. As you follow lines of thought, you can see which ideas can be connected, where certain pathways lead, and what the scope of your project might be. By drawing out a mind-map you may be able to see what elements of your review are underdeveloped and will benefit from more focused attention.

Attribution

Thanks to Librarian Jamie Niehof at the University of Michigan for providing permission to reuse and remix this Literature Reviews guide.

Creative Commons Attribution License Image This work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license