Organizing Your Literature Review
As you begin to write your literature review, think about how you are going to organize it. Literature reviews are often organized in one of the following ways: chronologically, thematically, methodologically, or some combination of these. What is the most logical arrangement of the material? The arrangement that you use will often be determined by your topic. For example, a topic which requires some historical background, or one where there has been a significant shift in thinking might use a chronological arrangement for the literature review, because this is creates a logical progression through the material. For example, a discussion of literature related to the treatment of mental illness, which has varied significantly over time, might best use a chronological approach. A thematic literature review groups sources by the topics covered within the sources, and can be used to clearly identify how the documents relate to each other, and where agreement and/or disagreement is found. A literature review that is grouped methodologically can be useful if there are several main methodologies used in the field. This can not only lead to a discussion of the specific sources, but of the methodological approaches as well. Sometimes it is appropriate to organize a literature by more than one of these methods, for example, by theme, and then chronologically within the themes.
In writing your literature review, it may be useful to provide a description of the field as it currently stands, as well as some historical background. This helps to provide context for the reader. Including a discussion of the methods used to locate materials, and the “inclusionary principles”, that is, the factors you used to determine whether a source should be included or not, e.g. peer reviewed, etc., is also beneficial.
Once you have decided how the literature review will be structured, construct an outline which identifies the order in which you will present materials, and a few quick notes about the points you plan to make in each section. Think also about the headings you will use in the literature review, as this will ensure that you have covered the most important points, and will help you to construct a well reasoned argument.
Tips on Writing:
Literature reviews should be written in an academic voice rather than in an informal tone. Be sure to be fair in your discussion of the materials that you are reviewing, even if you think that something is a poor piece of scholarship. If you are being critical of a document, be sure to provide evidence to back up your claims, rather than just stating your opinion. If absolutely necessary, use direct quotes from the items you are reviewing, but try wherever possible to describe the points the author makes in your own words, and if appropriate, relate it to the other items you have reviewed. Do not shy away from citing controversial literature or literature that supports a view different from your own – including these documents will result in a balanced look at the topic.
Once you have read the materials you are going to include in your literature review, it can be helpful to create an outline, and categorize each of the readings by theme, so that you know which area of the literature review each reading fits.