Planning and the Literature Review

giphy 2Hello everyone! I’m back to blogging after a little break. In the interim, I know you’ve been working hard on your research (as well as your other modules).  The process of writing the research proposal has hopefully helped you to focus on your research aims and objectives, which includes fine-tuning the research questions, working out your research methods, and explaining why your research questions are important for advancing youth work policy and practice. Hopefully, Assignment Two also helped you to identify, reflect on, and write about relevant literature that informs your research question.

The focus of this blog post is on strategies that will help you to plan the literature review, concentrating on two specific themes:

  • The literature review: Scoping and traditional versions
  • Organising the literature review

The literature review: The scoping review and the traditional review

It is important to remember that writing your literature review is a process that will continue up to the point that your submit your final dissertation (and even beyond if you intend to publish your research afterwards, which I hope you will do!).  N.B. You will need to factor in some time to write the final draft of your literature review after you have analysed and written up your data. This is an important point to consider in planning both your literature review and your entire dissertation.

At this point, the literature review takes the form of a scoping review.  As Pat Thompson explains:

[The scoping review] sets out to create an agenda for future research. It documents what is already known about a topic, and then focuses on the gaps, niches, disputes, blank and blind spots. It delineates key concepts, questions and theories in order to refine the research question(s) and justify an approach to be taken.

Once your research dissertation is nearing completion, you will revisit your literature review to rewrite it in the form of a traditional review, and this will be included as a chapter in your dissertation.  Again, as Pat Thompson (ibid) puts it:

[The traditional review] is somewhat like a scoping review, but its argument is not to create the space for a research project. It is to position a piece of research that has already been undertaken. In essence the reader gets what’s-already-known, plus the newly conducted piece – this research as the contribution. The literature is used to locate the contribution, the what-we-now-know-that-we-didn’t-before-and-why-this-is-important. Some texts and themes that were in the initial scoping review are omitted, and other things are now emphasized in order to make clear the connections and continuities, similarities and differences of the new research to what’s gone before.

So, the scoping review and the traditional review are similar, but whilst the former sets a frame for the research that will be done, the latter sets a frame for the research that has been done.  Note that both of these emphasise the research’s contribution to the field of knowledge, but in slightly different ways.  As Pat Thompson describes it: ‘One justifies the research to be done, the other locates the contribution in the field of completed research’.  Of course, these purposes are linked and thus there is clear continuity between the scoping and the traditional review. If, from the outset, you can identify gaps in the field of knowledge relevant to your research interests, then you can design your research question and research methods in a way that positions you to respond to that gap through producing new knowledge.  Your potential contribution therefore should frame your research strategy from the beginning and, as you prepare your dissertation for submission, your contribution should be made explicit at various points (i.e. in the Introduction, the Literature Review, the Findings and Analysis, and the Conclusion chapters).

Organising the literature review

At this stage, you will hopefully have amassed a large catalogue of readings relevant to your research question (I’ve mentioned previously the usefulness of Mendeley for organising this literature). The amount of literature on any given topic in social research can become overwhelming, so it is important to develop strategies for working through this literature in a systematic way.

Organising readings by subject will assist you when it comes to writing about the literature.  You need to seek out patterns and groups in the literature and using this process you will end up with clusters of similar/related research.  Below, I outline three approaches to organising your literature:

  1. The mind map
  2. The bucket method
  3. Storyboarding

You might find it useful to apply these separately or to use a combination of these approaches.

The Mind Map

One useful approach is to use a mind map as a method of charting out the different elements/clusters relevant to your research question.  A bare mind map might look like this:


A populated one (on motivation in this example) will look something like this:


As you read through the literature, you may happen upon some new concepts, questions, or ideas that you hadn’t previously considered.  These can be added into your mind map, which will help you to build on the structure of the literature review.  It might be useful to imagine this as a scaffolding process, whereby these clusters ‘prop up’ the central theme of your research question.

The Bucket Method

5-colored-buckets_645x400Another useful approach to organising literature is the ‘bucket method‘.  Drawing on your library of sources, the idea is to create a bucket to represent each major theme that you have identified in your reading.  For each article/chapter/book, your goal is to try to place each reading in one bucket (Some readings might be relevant to two buckets, but try to restrict them to one bucket if possible).  The ‘bucket’ doesn’t have to be real – you can use pieces of paper or flash cards to represent each reading and organise them into piles.  As you progress, you will see which ‘bucket’ is getting full and which looks a bit meagre. You may then (a) need to find literature necessary for filling the emptier bucket or (b) combine emptier buckets to create a new major theme.  Don’t overdo it on the number of buckets/themes.

bucketsOnce you have finished organising your readings, you need to sort your buckets into a hierarchy: which do you need to begin with to explain your topic to the reader?  Beginning with this bucket, you can start to write to that theme.  When you have completed a draft version of your writing on this theme, you can move on to the next bucket, etc.  We will return to this bucket method in a future post on writing your literature review.



This approach comes from Pat Thompson (as you may gather, I am a big fan of hers!).

Drawing inspiration from film director, Ridley Scott, Thompson describes the process of storyboarding as a method of mapping steps of what it is you want to achieve. Ridley Scott is a master of storyboard art, so he is a very worthy role model:


As Thompson outlines it, a storyboarding approach to academic writing (check out #acwri on Twitter) involves three key steps:

start small – the #acwri equivalent of thumbnails is a list of topics, perhaps written as bullet points, perhaps as a set of phrases on post it notes or cards – this is the stuff that needs to be covered, written in summary shorthand, organised in the right order.

amplify – the #acwri equivalent of developing a storyboard in detail is to assemble the material needed for each move in the argument. This might be through cumulative processes of free writing to a set of headings. It might be bringing together pieces or files of material  – analysed data, references, chunks of preexisting writing – around each heading.

rehearse – the #acrwi equivalent of the rehearsal could be writing a tiny text – a concise abstract – of the piece to be written. Or it could be talking through the argument with a writing mentor, peer-writing group, or with a colleague. Or it might be talking things through to yourself, perhaps while walking, swimming or doing something that doesn’t require much concentration.

And, finally, as Thompson observes:

The key to making these three steps work is to give them time. Getting sorted out for the act of writing is not something to be rushed. It may not feel as if this getting-ready-but-not-yet-writing is actually academic writing. It may feel as if it is putting off the Real Thing. Wrong.

Academic writing, like any creative act, is not simply located in the act of putting words on the page or screen. It is also all of the things that happen in order to make that particular stage of the writing go as well as it can. Sometimes you need to spend a lot of time in the “pre-writing” stage.

So that’s it for today.  I hope you have found some inspiration here that will assist you in getting out of any ‘stuck’ places you might find yourselves in. It happens to us all. The point is to develop good strategies for getting ‘unstuck’!

Kind regards,




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