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Literature Review, Pt. 3 Writing the Literature Review

Literature Review, Pt. 3
Writing the Literature Review
Writing the thesis or dissertation literature review can be a daunting task. Many candidates cannot define a literature review let alone conceive of actually writing one. Knopf (2006) states:
“A literature review summarizes and evaluates a body of writing on a specific topic.” (page 127)
There are numerous books, blogs, and articles about how to write an effective literature review. All incorporate the same five steps that traditionally form the backbone of a literature review: 1) decide on a research area; (2) search the literature; (3) find relevant excerpts or information in the literature; (4) organize the information/excerpts into an outline; and (5) following the outline, write the literature review. The main differences between the books, blogs, and articles are how the authors approach steps 3 and 4. Some describe an elaborate string and card system while others prefer basic methods of selecting and organizing information. One method I like is described by Sonja Foss and William Walters in their book: Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation (2007). They champion a system that has worked well for many of my students. The particulars of that system follow.
Finding relevant information involves seeking out articles, reports, papers, etc. on your topic of choice. For each article, report, or paper, you should: (1) Determine what each has examined and what the author’s claims, conclusions and findings are from their study. (2) Summarize the studies focusing on areas of consensus and disagreement, presence of knowledge gaps, and methodological innovations or problems (these are just a few foci of literature examination). (3) Describe how your study addresses some of the foci written in step 2. Once you find these gems of information, you should write them on pieces of paper (or a 3 x 5) card (always including the citation). Once you have a critical mass of information, code the information, separating the pieces of paper (or 3 x 5 cards) into similar topics or themes. When all pieces of paper have been separated into appropriate piles, place each pile into an envelope or box labeled with the topic or theme. Next, write the name of each of your coded themes on pieces of paper and move them around until they are in a form that makes sense to you. Again, there are myriad ways to organize the information, just keep moving paper around until you get a clear picture of how your coded themes fit together. Outline this picture on a large piece of paper. Now that you have an outline, you can begin to write various sections of the literature review – just take one envelope or box at a time, laying the pieces of paper on the table, grouping them by ideas. Do this for each envelope or box. Before you know it, you’ll have a full draft literature review. This is just one technique of many. All are equally valid but this seems to be the one that has helped my students the most. I hope it helps you too!!

Foss, S. & Walters, W. (2007). Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to A Done Dissertation. Knopf, J.W. (2006). Doing a Literature Review. PS Online:


Colleen L.

Professor for Theses and Doctoral Guidance and Standardized Test Prep

300+ hours