Preparing and Organizing a Literature Review

Hello, and welcome to the IU Southeast
Writing Center’s mini-module on literature reviews. My name is Taryn, and
in this brief video, I will be walking you through the steps of preparing to
organize and write a literature review. This mini-module will cover what a
literature review is, when and why you might be assigned or expected to write a
literature review, what steps you should take to prepare to write your literature review, what the key genre and structural conventions are, and some common ways
writers organize their literature reviews. First, let’s discuss what a
literature review is and what it does. A common misconception about literature
reviews is that they merely contain summaries of the research being
discussed. While summaries are important, what is key in a literature review is
that it contains synthesis. Synthesis refers to combining or building
relationships between two things to create something new. In other words, you
are going to summarize available research in such a way that your review
highlights relationships between sources to establish connections that might not
have been made before. A literature review is important for a researcher
because it allows them to demonstrate their knowledge of existing research
about a topic, including how it all fits together and what might be missing, which is
key if the next step of your research project is to provide something new. Thus
literature reviews include only research that has previously been done, and
typically do not include your new and original contribution to the academic
conversation, which would be included in other parts of the research process.
There will likely be specific times when you are asked to write a literature
review. If you are working on a large-scale
project, particularly one that includes your own study design, you will
frequently write a literature review as a way of establishing the academic
conversation and positioning your research within it.
However, literature reviews might also be assigned as standalone projects that are
often important as a way of teaching students how research works together to
inform our understanding of issues. Literature reviews are common in most
disciplines, particularly in the fields like the sciences, social sciences, and
education, where writers will likely be conducting their own studies. You may be
asked to write a literature review for many different reasons,
including to give yourself and your readers a better understanding of what
is being said and what has been researched already concerning a topic.
Literature reviews are also important because of their use of synthesis. You
will likely find sources about a topic that all seem quite different at first,
but that actually share similar themes or concepts that you can use to help
form the bigger picture surrounding an issue. Literature reviews are also a
great way of helping to establish your ethos, or credibility, as a researcher
because you are able to show that you know and understand what has already
been written about your topic. Before you begin writing, there are some steps you
should take to ensure that you are getting off on the right foot. First, if
you have been given an assignment sheet, be sure to read it closely and make note
of your professor’s requirements, as well as any information you need clarified.
Second, be sure to ask your professor anything about which you are unsure. It’s
important that you know, for instance, how many sources to include, what kinds of
organizing strategies they might prefer you use, and what documentation style,
like MLA or APA, you should use. Another consideration is what timeframe you
will use for your review. While some topics, for example women’s rights in the
United States, might lend themselves to an examination
of sources written over a long period of time, other topics, for example, current
best practices in ESL education might be better suited by using only research
published in the last five to ten years. Remember that your literature should be
useful to yourself and those who might read it. Choose a time frame that is
manageable and appropriate to your topic. Once you have the technical specifics of
the assignment in place, you can locate suitable sources and annotate them,
paying close attention to patterns that become apparent throughout the research.
As with all academic writing genres, literature reviews have certain generic
and structural conventions that writers should consider. In your introduction, for
example, literature reviews typically contain a few sentences describing the
topic or issue. This is an opportunity to give background information or define
key terms that the reader needs to know. The introduction should also include a
brief summary of the academic conversation taking place as a whole. For
instance, you might describe that there is a dearth of research on this topic
but explain what has been discussed that is similar to the topic, or you might say
that there is a wealth of information, most of it published in the last 10
years. In general, this statement should give a broad glimpse into what you are
going to describe in detail in the body of your paper. Your introduction should
conclude with a sort of thesis statement or forecasting passage that highlights
your goal in writing this review and what organizational strategy you will be
using. See the next slide for more information about organization. The body
of your literature review should use a single organizational technique as a
lens that helps you describe and synthesize the research you have found.
Remember that you must do more than summarize. You should work to build
connections and describe how your sources relate and differ. The body of
your literature review should also appropriately and completely use in-text
citations according to the documentation style you have chosen.
Because so much of a literature review will be the words of others, it is key that you
use in-text citations to avoid plagiarism. Finally, your conclusion will
wrap up the review and might include a description of the next stage of your
research process. Now that you have given an overview of what research has already
been done, what will you be performing yourself? How might you use this research
in the future? You may also describe implications of available research for
your topic, or describe whether there are important limitations that need to be
addressed. One aspect of the literature review that is helpful to consider, as it
simplifies both the research and writing process, is how you might organize your
review. While there are several commonly used and accepted techniques, this slide
will describe three of the simplest and most common. Some writers opt for a
methodological approach. This organizational strategy is not
interested in WHAT arguments are being made in the research, but HOW the
authors are making them. You will choose and describe research that uses a
specific research method. This strategy frequently allows for a more narrow
scope, since it becomes simpler to eliminate non-essential literature, but
it has limited usefulness for many kinds of projects. You may also choose to use a
chronological organization. This strategy organizes research by publication date
within your chosen timeframe, typically starting with the oldest and moving
toward the most recent. This strategy is perhaps the simplest, but be sure you are
still locating patterns and performing synthesis. The most common organizational
strategy is the thematic literature review. A thematic review locates
concepts, themes, or patterns that are common across the research you have
found and organizes them in the body of the review according to these groupings.
Some writers may blend pattern and chronology, particularly if the
literature in a specific time frame utilizes a specific theme, but the theme or
concept should be prioritized and chronology used only when appropriate to
the theme. The IU Southeast Writing Center hopes
you have found this brief primer helpful. If you’d like more information
about literature reviews, documentation styles, or other writing requirements
please visit us online at for handouts and
links to additional resources. If you are an IU Southeast student and would
like to work with a consultant one-on-one to discuss your literature
review or other writing assignments, feel free to visit us in Knobview Hall, room
208, contact us by phone at 812-941-2498, or email us
at [email protected]

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