Writing the literature review
What we are talking about here is the writing of the review. We assume that you have made sense of the literature, and that you know the role of the literature and its place in your thesis. Below are links to other sections covering these aspects.

You will doubtless write your literature review several times. Since each version will serve a different purpose, you should not think you are writing the same thing over and over and getting nowhere. Where you may strike trouble is if you just try to take whole sections out of an earlier version and paste them into the final version which, by now, has to be differently conceived.

In practical terms, it is necessary to have an overall picture of how the thread runs through your analysis of the literature before you can get down to actually writing a particular section. The strategy which writers use as a way to begin the literature review is to proceed from the general, wider view of the research you are reviewing to the specific problem. This is not a formula but is a common pattern and may be worth trying.

Let's look at an example taken from the first pages of a literature review. This shows us the progression from general to specific and the beginning of that thread which then continues through the text leading to the aims.

Despite the undisputed success of quantum mechanics, many important fundamental problems and questions remain unanswered (see for example X, 1973): the measuring process cannot be satisfactorily described in QM formalism; there are great mathematical stumbling blocks to attempt to make QM consistent with the assumptions of special relativity; ……….., just to name a few.

[This is basically an introductory section, which starts with a statement of the problem in very broad terms, alerting us to the fact that not everything is rosy, and proceeds to sketch in specific aspects.]
Without doubt, one of the most widely discussed of these… is …[this closes in on what the focus of the problem is] Like most fundamental issues in physics, this question leads to challenges at several levels of thought. At the philosophical level this issue poses questions about …. At the physical level we are forced to examine …. At the mathematical level many questions are raised about the completeness and logical consistency ….

[The text moves on to specify issues at various levels. Although the focus is sharper, the coverage at the same time opens out.]
An important instance in which all of these challenges converge occurs with the concept of 'angle' in the description of quantum systems…
[Thus the text has set up the situation where all aspects of the problem--theoretical, practical, etc.--are brought together.]
Whatever the pattern which fits your work best, you need to keep in mind that what you are doing is writing about what was done before. But, you are not simply reporting on previous research. You have to write about it in terms of how well it was done and what it achieved. This has to be organised and presented in such a way that it inevitably leads to what you want to do and shows it is worth doing. You are setting up the stage for your work.

For example, a series of paragraphs of the kind:
"Green (1975) discovered ….";
"In 1978, Black conducted experiments and discovered that ….";
"Later Brown (1980) illustrated this in ……";
demonstrates neither your understanding of the literature nor your ability to evaluate other people's work.

Maybe at an earlier stage, or in your first version of your literature review, you needed a summary of who did what. But in your final version, you have to show that you've thought about it, can synthesise the work and can succinctly pass judgement on the relative merits of research conducted in your field. So, to take the above example, it would be better to say something like:
"There seems to be general agreement on x, (for example, White 1987, Brown 1980, Black 1978, Green 1975) but Green (1975) sees x as a consequence of y, while Black(1978) puts x and y as …. While Green's work has some limitations in that it …., its main value lies in …."
Approaching it in this way forces you to make judgements and, furthermore, to distinguish your thoughts from assessments made by others. It is this whole process of revealing limitations or recognising the possibility of taking research further which allows you to formulate and justify your aims.

* Making sense of the literature.
* Making sense of the literature - first pass.
* Making sense of the literature - second pass.
* Making sense of the literature - final pass.
* I have made several attempts at beginning to write my literature review but I keep changing it. Is there a 'correct' or proper way to organise it?
* Seeking, receiving and handling feedback.
* Strategies for getting the best feedback possible.
* Overcoming reluctance to seek feedback.
* Apparently I have to write a research proposal. What do I need to do?
* Why do I have to have a literature review
* Keeping your research focused.
* Writing a proposal.
* What style of writing is expected?
* Use of the personal pronoun.
* Active vs passive voice.
* The use of tenses.
* Tackling the writing of drafts.
* Working on a section.
* Revising and editing.
* Revision.
* Editing.
* Some writing tips.


Top home