Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. “The literature” seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible when completing this gargantuan task.
Sonja Foss and William Walters* describe an efficient and effective way of writing a literature review. Their system provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a dissertation, an M.A. thesis, or an article or book in any field of study. Below is a summary of the steps they outline as well as a step-by-step method for writing a literature review.
Step One: Decide on your areas of research:
Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas. A literature review I am currently working on, for example, explores barriers to higher education for undocumented students.
Step Two: Search for the literature:
Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated sessions.
Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:
Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:
1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
2. Definitions of terms
3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
4. Gaps you notice in the literature
5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating
When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.
Step Four: Code the literature:
Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.
Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema:
Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper.
Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review:
Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.
Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.
I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review is ideal for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.
It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.
For people writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.
*Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Image Credit/Source: Goldmund Lukic/Getty Images
Researching and creating a dissertation literature review
Choosing a general thesis topic is relatively easy, but deciding on specific and realistic research questions requires considerable thought and enquiry. Appropriate and relevant research questions and the methods employed to answer them must be framed in the context of existing research.
The dissertation literature review is one of the most demanding tasks in the thesis writing process. Remember that a thorough, refined literature review is the foundation of solid research.
The goals of a literature review
Let's go over what a dissertation literature review should accomplish. It helps in:
- refining the research problem
- seeking new lines of inquiry
- avoiding fruitless approaches
- gaining methodological insights
- identifying recommendations for further research
- distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done
- discovering important relevant variables
- gaining a new perspective
- rationalizing the significance of the problem
- relating ideas and theory to applications
- placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments
Preparing to write a literature review
A useful first step when starting your dissertation literature review is to identify relevant "key words" to help navigate your way through the existing literature. When searching for information, remember to give preference to primary research.
Determining which literature is relevant to your research is challenging. The goal of a literature review is to gather a representative collection of the most pertinent material. It is important to accurately document how the material is collected so that others using the same procedure will be able to find the same information.
The dissertation literature review is somewhat similar to a major term paper. In order to construct an effective review, you must maintain a coherent and logical progression of ideas. To that end, you might write the title, author(s), and date of each study you wish to include on small index cards. Then summarize the main results of the study in a single sentence. Use these cards to create "reference piles" corresponding to specific sections of the dissertation literature review.
The next stages of the dissertation literature review are: 1) data evaluation, during which you assess the information in the chosen articles; 2) data analysis and interpretation, during which you try to make sense of the extracted data; 3) presentation, during which you determine the most important information to include; and 4) formulating and justifying empirical research questions, during which you explain how your dissertation will make a meaningful contribution to knowledge in your field.
Organizing a literature review
There are a number of ways you can organize your dissertation literature review. The three most common are: 1) the historical format, in which the review is organized chronologically; 2) the conceptual format, in which the review is built around research propositions or theories; and 3) the methodological format, which is often used for meta-analyses.
Literature reviews can be quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative review documents the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study, supports the theory or explanation used in the study, foreshadows the research questions, and explains the results of other studies.
Two common types of quantitative literature reviews are narrative reviews and meta-analyses. A qualitative literature review documents the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study, does not foreshadow the research questions, and is used to compare and contrast with other studies.
Avoid common mistakes when writing your literature review
No matter what type and format of dissertation literature review you choose, you must avoid some common mistakes researchers often make, such as:
- not employing the best key words and not identifying the best sources
- not relating your study findings to the findings of the literature review
- relying on secondary rather than primary sources
- blindly accepting other researchers' findings rather than critically examining them
Editing your literature review
Writing a literature review is one of the most complicated and time-consuming components of the thesis writing process. You must start early and leave yourself ample time for revision. There is nothing worse than submitting a thesis literature review that is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. If you need a second pair of eyes, send your literature review to our dissertation and thesis editors for their critical revisions. Good luck!
Image source: PhilippaB/Pixabay.com
Movie buffs and bookworms can tell a bestseller from a dud within the first few moments. The same is true of any thesis statement you write.
This is the second article in a series that outlines the mechanics of doctorial dissertation writing. It provides potential PhDs with tips on how to handle the difficult tasks of selecting a thesis topic, a supervisor and a thesis committee.
Here we look at the mechanics of writing, editing and proofreading a thesis in greater detail.
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