Structure and Content

There are a variety of ways you can structure a literature review, however most students use a single chapter format. There are a number of steps you can take that will ensure your literature review is clear, concise and results in a critical review of the literature rather than a list of published work and its authors.

Step 1: Planning and reading

You can’t escape the fact that at this point you will need to undertake a large amount of reading. Start off on a broad topic range (this will save you a lot of time later) and as you start to see themes emerge or start to identify possible gaps in the existing work, you will be able to focus on increasingly specific literature. This will also enable you to have a broader understanding of the research topics you’ve chosen supporting your own work.

It’s also important to make notes as you go along concerning the topics and literature you discover. This will make step 2 much easier.

Step 2: Summarise

Once you’ve specified your topic area and literature you should be comparing what you find; namely the themes, problems and omissions of the current research. At this point you should be able to confirm your own research questions and project proposal but also map out the story you wish to tell throughout your literature review.

Remember, at its most basic level, a literature review is a story of past research in your topic area identifying the key characters (academics), events (major research publications) and general storyline (themes throughout the research). You also need to remember to be critical and include your own opinions on the previous research.

Step 3: Map out the flow of your review

This may be as simple as writing down a list of themes you wish to cover and arranging them into the most logical order. The review needs to flow from one idea to another (this will not necessarily be in a chronological order). You will need to identify the key academics and dates (ensuring you follow an established referencing system) making connections and relationships between them and make sure you sketch out areas where you want to agree/disagree, highlight gaps or raise research weaknesses.

Step 4: Writing the review

As you write the review you need to constantly ask yourself two questions:
1) Is the literature I am reviewing building a structured case for my own research questions?
2) Have I been critical in my approach?

If you answer yes to both of these questions you will be on the right track.

Step 5: The next step

Once you’ve finished the critical analysis of the literature you need to summarise what you’ve found and educate the reader about the issues you intend to address in the rest of your report.