Conducting a thorough critique of the literature is incredibly important, but as a writer, you may feel daunted by the enormity of the task. Following these 10 tips can help you focus your writing efforts. These tips can also help you write a literature review that moves beyond summarizing the research and toward critiquing it well.
Going beyond a summary and creating a discussion of published work can be accomplished through the thorough tracking of sources and the source highlights and links. While this can sound tricky and time consuming when referencing hundreds of source materials ranging from journal articles and books to research papers and videos, reference manager and writing tools like Citavi can help streamline this process (and more as we’ll cover in the upcoming tips).
Tip 1. Understand what a literature review is.
A literature review is a well-reasoned, evidence-based, scholarly argument that demonstrates the need for your study. While your literature review will contain a great deal of information, it is not (primarily) an informative text. Keeping this in mind at the outset can lead you toward a critique that situates your study within the scholarly discourse relevant to your research topic.
Learn more in the on-demand webinar Conducting and Constructing a Literature Review for Maximum Impact.
Tip 2. Write a draft of your research problem statement.
A well-written literature review thoroughly analyzes and critiques the key concepts or quantitative variables central to your research topic. These key concepts or variables are generally expressed in a problem statement, so having a problem statement drafted can help you align your literature review to your research topic. For instance, rather than writing about “Burnout in Education,” your problem statement could lead you to focus your review on “Burnout in K-12 School Leaders.” This narrowed focus makes your literature review relevant and, importantly, doable.
Learn more about writing a compelling argument and developing your voice in the free on-demand trainings from the Research and Technical Writing Institute.
Tip 3. Create an outline of your literature review.
Even though your outline is likely to change, create a document with headings that describe the pockets of literature you will review. In the above example about burnout in school leaders, you might have a heading called "Factors Influencing Burnout." You might already know that some factors to consider are lack of work/life balance, lack of resources, and dissatisfaction with pay and benefits. Create those subheadings.
If you use a reference manager like Citavi, you can breeze through this step! With Citavi, you can save your sources directly in the program, create your literature review outline within the knowledge organizer, then export it to Word.
Tip 4. Use your outline to guide your search.
The headings in your lit review outline can be used as keywords to search for relevant literature. Remember to document your search strategy and use synonyms. You might also locate a systematic review on your research topic, which is rich with references. If you have Citavi, data bases like Scopus and EBSCCO integrate with the software – letting you easily search for sources. You can also use the Citavi Picker which helps bring sources in from sites like Google Scholar by identifying ISBNs and DOIs on web pages and sending reference information to your Citavi project.
Tip 5. Organize your research articles.
We recommend using reference management software such as Citavi to organize your research articles. This saves you tremendous time as Citavi helps you methodically manage quotes, sources, notes, and articles.
If that isn’t an option, create folders and save your research articles as the in-text citation (e.g., an article by Parker et al. 2021 would be saved as such). Having one folder for all of your articles is the equivalent of piling your desk with stacks of articles that you can't remember if you have read or not. If you organize your research articles, you will be able to review all of the articles that relate to a specific topic in your literature review.
Learn more in this on-demand webinar Organizing Information in Your Field of Study.
Tip 6. Use an annotation table to document relevant study information.
This step is critical to literature review success. You will search for trends in the literature. Therefore, you need to extract relevant information from articles and group this information together to analyze it. Writers often begin by sharing the results of one study, then the next, and so on, without offering up any synthesis of the literature. Synthesis is the result of analysis, and analysis needs to encompass articles that are grouped in some way. In the burnout example above, you may have extracted several findings that demonstrate that lack of work/life balance is a major factor in school leader burnout. You will want to state this finding clearly and review all of the articles about it together, so go ahead and group them in an annotation table at this stage.
An alternative to the annotation table is Citavi’s knowledge organizer which essentially replaces an annotation table. This feature in Citavi lets you save notes, memos, and quotes from articles in the knowledge organizer while still linking to the original source. Even better, you can add categories to your notes, memos, and sources based on your keywords and themes.
Tip 7. Analyze your annotation table.
Once you have annotated several articles, analyze them for patterns, discrepancies, and gaps. A pattern could be a similar finding that you have noticed across several studies. It could also be a pattern of participants (e.g., the phenomenon has mostly been studied in female-identifying participants) or methodology (e.g., 10 of the 12 studies are quantitative). Often, we can infer from a pattern to identify a gap in the literature. Using NVivo in your literature review can help you find the patterns and themes in your literature, piece together which researchers often write together, and keep you organized throughout the process of synthesizing literature.
Learn more in the on-demand webinar Accelerating your Literature Review with Citavi & NVivo 14.
Tip 8. Write clear and concise synthesis statements.
So, you located a pattern, discrepancy, or gap in the literature, what next? Make sure that you state your finding clearly and concisely in the form of a synthesis statement. For instance, "Much of the research regarding school leader burnout focuses on the reasons why school leaders burnout" is a synthesis statement. Reporting that a single author "X" found something interesting is not.
Tip 9. Place your synthesis statements “front and center” in your writing.
As you report your findings, place your synthesis statements as topic sentences (main ideas) of the paragraphs you write. Then put the evidence you pull from your studies to support that main idea. A hallmark of well-synthesized writing is that paragraphs weave information from several studies together around a central claim. Using the MEAL plan structure (Main Idea, Evidence, Analysis, Link) can help you craft paragraphs that are cohesive and analytical — hallmarks of good literature review writing.
Learn more in this on-demand webinar from the Research and Technical Writing Institute, Developing Your Voice: How to Paraphrase, Make Claims, and Synthesize Literature.
Tip 10. Schedule time for revision.
When you are writing your literature review, you are wielding large amounts of information, and you are likely writing in complex ways that are likely new to you. As with all writing, expect that you will need to revise your work. Schedule time and, if necessary, ask for help about areas that you need to revise. Then, systematically, dive into your writing (e.g., do not revise for everything at once).
The above tips are important because they provide much-needed structure for you as you write your literature review. Often, writers set out with vague notions about what a literature review is, and the process begins to feel amorphous. These tips, and reference management software like Citavi, can help you break the process of writing a literature review down, organize your notes and sources, automatically create citations, and bring focus to the writing process. Return to this list again and again if you feel lost in “literature review land.” They will help you regain your footing and return to your writing with a renewed sense of clarity.
ABOUT DISSERTATION BY DESIGN
Dissertation by Design is an organization that supports and coaches all types of writers including students, academics, and research professionals.