Writing literature reviews

Book_loverIn the last post, we looked at planning and the literature review. In this post, we will explore how best to approach the writing of your literature review.

I must confess that I find writing literature reviews quite challenging.  I tend to get lost in the literature because I love reading, but then find it difficult to refocus attention on what needs to be said, and in what order.  I’m not sure if that’s comforting or otherwise, but my point is that writing a literature review is difficult, and while the process of writing a literature review can be learned, it does take time and practice. I’d be delighted if you could comment below with any questions that arise in doing your literature reviews.  In this way, our learning can become more applied to our current research and we can learn from each other: a blog-based powwow, if you like!

The List

In writing literature reviews, the most common mistake is to write the review as a summary list of various sources.  The literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography. Pat Thompson (my favourite writing guru!) has written a useful post about this issue and, as she observes, ‘The List‘ form of Literature Review suggests to the reader/examiner that:

(1) it’s possible the writer hasn’t sorted out the relevant and irrelevant material they’ve read and has simply put down everything
(2) it’s possible that the writer doesn’t know how to be critical because there is no evidence in the text that they have done any evaluation, they have simply summarized a lot of texts
(3) it’s possible that this is a random selection of texts rather than a systematic survey of the field, and
(4) it’s possible that if the writer lacks the critical capacity to sort the literatures, then they may well have the same uncritical approach to their data.

The literature review will appear early in the dissertation, and you do not want to arouse the reader’s suspicions or annoyance unnecessarily.

Remember that it will be impossible to achieve everything in the first draft of the literature review and before you have completed your data collection and analysis. As I wrote in the last post, there will be a difference between your first draft (the scoping review) and the version you will include in the final dissertation (the traditional review).

Zina O’Leary, in her book, The Essential Guide to Doing Research (2004: 79) helpfully delineates between reviewing the literature and the literature review:

Screenshot 2016-02-01 17.29.00

A way of reviewing the literature is to write summaries of your various sources.  But this is only one part of the process.  The second part entails synthesising your sources (and your evaluative summaries of them) so that you can position yourself to tell the story of your research.

The Process

It’s odd thinking about the process involved in getting your literature together, as I tend to just do it and not think about how I’m doing it.  Or at least, I rarely articulate how I do it. I’ve been musing about this over the last few days and this is how I can best represent the process.  I’ve tried to break it down into small steps, so bear with me!

First, I do a preliminary search and amass as many readings as possible relevant to my topic.  I use Google Scholar for this but I also will dig deeper into journals that are most relevant to my research question.  Relevant research might be found in a variety of journals.  For example, if I want to research music education in youth work, I will search in key journals that are relevant to youth work, the sociology of youth, music studies, music education, education etc.

Second, I find it useful to choose, from this collection, a number of empirical research papers that are most like (and as close as possible to) my research topic.  I try to gather 10-15 articles that seem to be most relevant at first glance.

Third, I go through each of these papers, highlighting important themes, methods, theories, concepts, and findings.  If you are working from printed material, then it is useful to use different colour highlighter pens in this task.  You can also write keywords in the margins to keep track of different themes.  If you are using Mendeley, you can highlight the text you find interesting and add a (reflective) note to this as you are reading.  Whichever method you choose, make sure you create your bibliography along the way.

You can start with the first article and build up your themes from there.  Gradually, a number of themes will emerge, some of which will be relevant to one or two articles, and others that will be relevant to most or all of the articles.

For example, when I did this with the literature relevant to blog-based supervision, my preliminary themes looked like this:

Codes blogging

This exercise will help you to get away from ‘The List’ approach and will assist you in thinking in more thematic terms about the literature you have studied. This is exactly where you need to be.

Fourthly, I begin to group together the smaller themes into sets.  Using the above examples, my new ‘big themes’ might look like this:

Theme 1: Blogging in the classroom:

  • Types and modes of blogging activities
  • Using blogs in the classroom
  • Barriers to using blogs in the classroom
  • Advantages of blogging
  • Positive impact
  • Shortcomings

Theme 2: Collaboration

  • Collaborative writing
  • Communities of Practice
  • Making connections and networking
  • Group blogs and collaborative writing
  • Public vs private (blogs)

Theme 3: Pedagogy

  • Pedagogical theory and context
  • Rethinking pedagogy
  • Blended learning

And so on…

The smaller themes can be grouped in a multitude of ways that best suits your thinking and approach. (You may group the above ideas differently to me, and that’s ok as long as it makes sense to you). You may discard less relevant themes at this point as part of the process of refining your review.

Having grouped together the smaller themes into bigger themes, I can now begin to write with some level of confidence, to each of these themes, drawing on the evidence presented in the articles that I have read, but also evaluating this evidence as I progress (Do I agree with the arguments? Or not? Is it convincing? Are there methodological issues in how the data was collected/analysed?)

At the end of this process, you will have written to each theme that you feel is particularly pertinent to your research question.  In this way, you have:

  1. extracted relevant literature;
  2. organised the literature;
  3. prepared the literature for evaluation;
  4. organised the content of the literature into themes;
  5. written the first draft of your literature review.

Happy dance!!!

Happy dance

The beauty of this approach is that you will engage in a very similar process when it comes to analysing your primary research data, so it is very good practice.

Style and Tone

A short note on style and tone in writing your literature review. You are required to evaluate the literature, but neither should this be overly aggressive.  You need to find a happy medium.  O’Leary puts this nicely when she suggests the dinner party analogy:

The good dinner party conversationalist is neither hypercritical nor sycophantic. Rather, the consummate dinner party conversationalist is an individual who engages, learns, debates, argues, contributes, and even evolves his or her own ideas. And this is exactly what needs to happen in order for you to develop and write a good literature review. (O’Leary, 2004: 83)

It is worth thinking about this as you write, but finding the right tone for you will come with time and practice. And remember, you can and will rework your literature review a number of times before it is submitted.

Happy reading and writing!

Kind regards,



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