4.3 Writing the literature review

Learning Objectives

  • Begin to write your literature review
  • Identify the purpose of a problem statement
  • Apply the components of a formal argument to your topic
  • Use elements of formal writing style, including signposting and transitions

 

Congratulations! By now, you should have discovered, retrieved, evaluated, synthesized, and organized the information you need for your literature review. It’s now time to turn that stack of articles, papers, and notes into a literature review–it’s time to start writing!

 

a person typing on a laptop with a magazine open on the side

If you’ve followed the steps in this chapter, you likely have developed an outline that will guide you through the writing process. If you are still unsure of what to include in the literature review, here is a summary. A literature review should:

…clearly describe the questions that are being asked. They also locate the research within the ongoing scholarly dialogue. This is done by summarizing current understandings and by discussing why what we already knows leads to the need for the present research. Literature reviews also define the primary concepts. While this information can appear in any order, these are the elements in all literature reviews. (Loseke, 2017, p. 61) [1]

Do you have enough facts and sources to accomplish these tasks? It’s a good time to consult your outline and notes on each article you plan to include in your literature review. You may also want to consult with your professor on what they expect from you. If there is something that you are missing, you may want to jump back to section 2.3 where we discussed how to search for literature on your topic. While you can always fill in material later, you may run the risk of writing about a topic that you do not fully understand yet. For example, if you don’t have a solid definition of your key concepts or a sense of how the literature has developed over time, it will be difficult to make coherent scholarly claims about your topic.

There is no magical point at which everyone is ready to write. As you consider whether you are ready or not, it may be useful to ask yourself these questions:

  • How will my literature review be organized?
  • What section headings will I be using?
  • How do the various studies relate to each other?
  • What contributions do they make to the field?
  • What are the limitations of a study/where are the gaps in the research?
  • Most importantly, how does my own research fit into what has already been done?

The problem statement

Many scholarly works begin with a problem statement. The problem statement serves two functions:  1) it establishes the importance of your topic as a social problem  and 2) it catches the reader’s attention and piques their interest. Who would want to read about something unimportant?

 

solution and problem written on a chalkboard with lines going to and from each other

A problem statement generally answers the following questions, though these are far from exhaustive:

  • Why is this an important problem to study?
  • How many people are affected by the problem?
  • How does this problem impact other social issues or target populations relevant to social work?
  • Why is your target population an important one to study?

Like the rest of your literature review, a strong problem statement should be filled with facts, theories, and arguments based on the literature you’ve found.

Research proposals are significantly different than other essays you’ve likely completed during your social work studies. If your topic were domestic violence in rural Appalachia in the USA, I’m sure you could come up with answers to the above questions without looking at a single source. However, the purpose of the literature review is not to test your intuition, personal experience, or empathy. Instead, research methods are about learning specific and articulable facts to inform social work action. With a problem statement, you can take a “boring” topic like transportation patterns in major cities and readers to see the topic as an important part of the social world that impacts social work practice.

The structure of a literature review

Problem statement

The problem statement generally belongs at the beginning of the literature review. I recommend limiting the length of the problem statement to one or two paragraphs, as you do not want it to be too lengthy. For the rest of your literature review, there is no set formula for how it should be organized. However, a literature review generally follows the format of any other essay—Introduction, Body, and Conclusion.

Introduction

The introduction to the literature review contains a statement or statements about the overall topic. At minimum, the introduction should define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern. You might consider presenting historical background, mentioning the results of a seminal study, or providing definitions of important terms. The introduction may also point to overall trends in what has been previously published on the topic; conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship. In addition, I suggest adding a few sentences that walk the reader through the rest of the literature review by highlighting your main arguments from the body and by previewing your conclusion.

 

a person typing at a typewriter

Body

The body of your literature review is where you demonstrate your synthesis and analysis of the literature on your topic, so be sure that you are doing more than just summarizing the facts you’ve found. I would also caution against organizing your literature review by source—that is, one paragraph for source A, one paragraph for source B, etc. That structure will provide a mediocre summary of the information but will not provide the synthesis that we are aiming for in this section. It also fails to demonstrate the relationships among facts, potential disagreements among research findings, and how each study builds on the work of another. In short, summarization does not demonstrate critical thinking.

Instead of simply summarizing, use your outlines and notes as a guide to the important topics you will to cover, and more importantly, what you have to say about those topics. Literature reviews are written from the perspective of an expert in the field. After an exhaustive literature review, you should feel like you are able to make strong claims about what is true—so make them! There is no need to hide behind “I believe” or “I think.” Put your voice out in front, loud and proud, but make sure you have facts and sources to support your argument.

I’ve used the term “argument” here in a specific way. An argument in writing means more than simply disagreeing with what someone else said. Toulman, Rieke, and Janik (1984) identify six elements of an argument:

  1. Claim: the thesis statement—what you are trying to prove
  2. Grounds: theoretical or empirical evidence that supports your claim
  3. Warrant: your reasoning (rule or principle) connecting the claim and its grounds
  4. Backing: further facts used to support or legitimize the warrant
  5. Qualifier: acknowledging that the argument may not be true for all cases
  6. Rebuttal: considering both sides (as cited in Burnette, 2012) [2]

Let’s walk through an example of an argument. Let’s say that I am writing a literature review on a negative income tax, a policy in which people in poverty receive an unconditional cash stipend from the government each month equal to the federal poverty level. I would want to lay out the following:

  1. Claim: the negative income tax is superior to other forms of anti-poverty assistance.
  2. Grounds: data comparing negative income tax recipients to those in existing programs, theory supporting a negative income tax, data from evaluations of existing anti-poverty programs, etc.
  3. Warrant: cash-based programs like the negative income tax are superior to existing anti-poverty programs because they allow the recipient greater self-determination over how to spend their money.
  4. Backing: data demonstrating the beneficial effects of self-determination on people in poverty.
  5. Qualifier: the negative income tax does not provide taxpayers and voters with enough control to make sure people in poverty are not wasting financial assistance on frivolous items.
  6. Rebuttal: policy should be about empowering the oppressed, not protecting the taxpayer, and there are ways of addressing taxpayer opposition through policy design.

Like any effective argument, your literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that provide some detail, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or, it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another phenomenon that seems inconsistent with the first one, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.

Another important issue is signposting. It may not be a term you are familiar with, but you are likely familiar with the concept. Signposting refers to the words used to identify the organization and structure of your literature review to your reader.  The most basic form of signposting is using a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph. A topic sentence introduces the argument you plan to make in that paragraph. For example, you might start a paragraph stating, “There is strong disagreement in the literature as to whether the use of psychedelic drugs causes the experience of psychotic disorders, or whether the experience of a psychotic disorder causes the use of psychedelic drugs.” Within that paragraph, your reader would likely assume you will present evidence for both arguments. The concluding sentence of your paragraph should relate to the topic sentence by addressing how the facts and arguments from other authors support a specific conclusion. To continue with our example, I might say, “There is likely a reciprocal effect in which both the use of psychedelic drugs worsens pre-psychotic symptoms and worsening psychosis causes use of psychedelic drugs to self-medicate or escape.”

 

signpost listing distances to various cities

Signposting also involves using headings and subheadings. Your literature review will use APA formatting, which means you need to follow their rules for bolding, capitalization, italicization, and indentation of headings. Headings help your reader understand the structure of your literature review. They can also help if the reader gets lost and needs to re-orient themselves within the document. I often tell my students to assume that I know nothing and that I need to be shown exactly where they are addressing each part of the literature review. I am sure that they don’t mind pretending to walk me through their paper like you would a small child, explaining “first we’ll do this, then we’ll do that, and when we’re done, we’ll know this!”

Another way to use signposting is to open each paragraph with a sentence that links the topic of the paragraph with the one before it. Alternatively, one could end each paragraph with a sentence that links it with the next paragraph. For example, imagine we wanted to link a paragraph about barriers to accessing healthcare with one about the relationship between the patient and physician. We could use a transition sentence like this: “Even if patients overcome these barriers to accessing care, the physician-patient relationship can create new barriers to positive health outcomes.” A transition sentence like this builds a connection between two distinct topics. Transition sentences are also useful within paragraphs. They tell the reader how to consider one piece of information in light of previous information. Even simple transitions like however, similarly, and others demonstrate critical thinking and make your arguments clearer.

Many beginning researchers have difficulty with incorporating transitions into their writing. Let’s look at an example. Instead of beginning a sentence or paragraph by launching into a description of a study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

  • Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004).
  • Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon.
  • An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004).

Now that we know to use signposts, the natural question is “What goes on the signposts?” First, it is extremely important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organized in the order that you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument then should be apparent from the outline itself. Unfortunately, there is no formula I can give you that will work for everyone. I can provide some general pointers on structuring your literature review, though.

The literature review generally moves from general ideas to more specific ones. You can build a review by identifying areas of consensus and areas of disagreement. You may choose to present earlier, historical studies—preferably seminal studies that are of significant importance—and close with most recent work. Another approach is to start with the most distantly related facts and literature and then report on those most closely related to your specific research question. You could also compare and contrast valid approaches, features, characteristics, theories – that is, one approach, then a second approach, followed by a third approach.

Here are some additional tips for writing the body of your literature review:

  • Start broad and then narrow down to more specific information.
  • When appropriate, cite two or more sources for a single point, but avoid long strings of references for a single point.
  • Use quotes sparingly. Quotations for definitions are okay, but reserve quotes for when an author says something so well that you couldn’t possibly phrase it differently. Never use quotes for statistics.
  • Paraphrase when you need to relate the specific details within an article, and try to reword it in a way that is understandable to your audience.
  • Include only the aspects of the study that are relevant to your literature review. Don’t insert extra facts about a study just to take up space.
  • Avoid using first-person language like “I” and “we” to maintain objectivity.
  • Avoid using informal language like contractions, idioms, and rhetorical questions.
  • Note any sections of your review that lack citations and facts from literature. Your arguments need to be based in specific empirical or theoretical facts. Do not approach this like a reflective journal entry.
  • Point out consistent findings and emphasize stronger studies over weaker ones.
  • Point out important strengths and weaknesses of research studies, as well as contradictions and inconsistent findings.
  • Be specific when pointing out implications and suggestions for further research.

Conclusion

The conclusion should summarize your literature review, discuss implications, and create a space for future or further research needed in this area. Your conclusion, like the rest of your literature review, should have a point that you are trying to make. What are the important implications of your literature review? How do they inform the question you are trying to answer?

Structure overview

While you should consult with your professor and their syllabus for the final structure your literature review should take, here is an example:

  • Problem statement
    • Establish the importance of the topic
    • Number and type of people affected
    • Seriousness of the impact
    • Physical, psychological, economic, social consequences of the problem
  • Introduction
    • Definitions of key terms
    • Important arguments you will make
    • Overview of the organization of the rest of the review
  • Body of the review
    • Topic 1
      • Supporting evidence
    • Topic 2
      • Supporting evidence
    • Topic 3
      • Supporting evidence
    • Conclusion
      • Implications
      • Specific suggestions for future research
      • How your research topic adds to the literature

Here are some additional resources, if you are having trouble putting together your literature review:

Doing a literature review / University of Leicester

Get Lit: The Literature Review / Texas A&M Writing Centre

Editing your literature review

For your literature review, remember that your goal is to construct an argument for why your research question is interesting and worth addressing—not argue why your favorite answer to your research question is correct. As you start editing your literature review, make sure that it is balanced. If you want to emphasize the generally accepted understanding of a phenomenon, then of course you should discuss various studies that have demonstrated it. However, if there are other studies that have found contradictory findings, you should discuss them, too. If you are proposing a new theory, then you should discuss findings that are consistent with that theory. However, if there are other findings that are inconsistent with it, again, you should discuss them too. It is acceptable to argue that the balance of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory, but it is never acceptable to ignore contradictory evidence. Besides, a large part of what makes a research question interesting is the uncertainty about its answer (University of Minnesota, 2016). [3]

 

a typewritten paper with corrections in red ink written on it

In addition to subjectivity and bias, another obstruction to getting your literature review written is writer’s block. Often times, writer’s block can come from confusing the creating and editing parts of the writing process. Many writers often start by simply trying to type out what they want to say, regardless of how good it is. Author Anne Lamott (1995) [4] terms these “shitty first drafts” and we all write them. They are a natural and important part of the writing process. Even if you have a detailed outline to work from, the words are not going to fall into place perfectly the first time you start writing. You should consider turning off the editing and critiquing part of your brain for a little while and allow your thoughts to flow. Don’t worry about putting the correct internal citation when you first write. Just get the information out. Only after you’ve reached a natural stopping point might you go back and edit your draft for grammar, APA formatting, organization, flow, and more. Divorcing the writing and editing process can go a long way to addressing writer’s block—as can picking a topic about which you have something to say!

As you are editing, keep in mind these questions adapted from Green (2012): [5]

  • Content: Have I clearly stated the main idea or purpose of the paper and addressed all the issues? Is the thesis or focus clearly presented and appropriate for the reader?
  • Organization: How well is it structured? Is the organization spelled out for the reader and easy to follow?
  • Flow: Is there a logical flow from section to section, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence? Are there transitions between and within paragraphs that link ideas together?
  • Development: Have I validated the main idea with supporting material? Are supporting data sufficient? Does the conclusion match the introduction?
  • Form: Are there any issues regarding APA styling and formatting? Have you proof-read for redundancy, spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Are there any problems with the wording of your writing or the sentence structure? Have you used terminology properly and checked the definitions of any words you may not be sure of?

 

Key Takeaways

  • The problem statement draws the reader into your topic by highlighting how important the topic is to social work and overall society.
  • Signposting is an important component of academic writing that helps your reader follow the structure of your argument and literature review.
  • Transitions demonstrate critical thinking and help guide your reader through your arguments.
  • Editing and writing are separate processes.

 

Glossary

  • Signposting- words that identify the organization and structure of a literature review

 

Image attributions

Startup notebooks by StartupStockPhotos CC-0

Board front problem by geralt CC-0

Person holding white paper and typewriter by Pexels CC-0

Signs direction Bergen by Mariamichelle CC-0

Mistakes by annekarakash CC-0

 


  1. Loseke, D. (2017). Methodological thinking: Basic principles of social research design (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
  2. Burnett, D. (2012). Inscribing knowledge: Writing research in social work. In W. Green & B. L. Simon (Eds.), The Columbia guide to social work writing (pp. 65-82). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  3. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2016). This is a derivative of Research Methods in Psychology by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
  4. Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Penguin.
  5. Green, W. Writing strategies for academic papers. In W. Green & B. L. Simon (Eds.), The Columbia guide to social work writing (pp. 25-47). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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