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how to write literature review

How to Write Your Literature Review Critically?

In the earlier blog, I discussed how to read critically for your literature review. You may want to write a comprehensive literature review in several different situations. Each purposive literature review has its structure.

As students, we get to write literature reviews for term papers, research articles, review essays, etc. Now, how do you go about sitting and writing your literature review?

Let’s say you have read through your journals, books, and articles, and now you want to sit and write your literature review. You have now made several pointers about the kinds of arguments the scholars are making and then the kinds of criticisms they are accruing for making such arguments.

You also now know what is commonly known as “the lay of the land”—meaning what is out there and what is not known yet.

writing your literature review
Photo by Eliabe Costa on Unsplash

What is wrong with how you are writing your literature review?

At present, we begin our literature review research as a mechanism to summarise books and their generic arguments in a paragraph. We get hold of several books that are essential for our research. We either read them as a whole or the book’s introductory chapter, or maybe if we are too lazy, even use AI tools for summarization.

This process does not really solve the problem. It may make our work easier. Moreover, this process does not necessarily expand our own thinking so much that we can grasp all that others are arguing and that we need to argue something else.

To develop a good thesis, a good puzzle, or a good question, you need to know the central questions the scholars in the field are asking and how they seek to respond to them.

You may not get all answers at once, but you sure will get some direction into approaching your research. And that is precisely the aim of your research literature review. It should be able to nudge you to think differently, ask different questions, and think of different ways to answer them.

How should you write your literature review?

Writing a literature review is one of the most challenging aspects of any proposal or project. A critically engaging literature review is even more complex than a generic one. Ideally, it would be best if you lay a certain frame for your methods and approach that flow your review.

You should be able to lead your literature review to a point where you can really ask questions that are not asked before or asked before. Still, you are not satisfied with their responses, have something new to say about what is already being said, or have new sources that drive you in different directions. Writing a literature review is a step-by-step process.

Create an outline for your literature review.

Before writing your literature review, you need to sketch out your outline. One of the structures you need to follow is the FUNNEL METHOD. The method was first introduced to me at Delhi University. The funnel method moves from broad to detailed, general to specific, and abstract to concrete.

You begin with broader questions in the field, like the “role of Identity in International relations”, to a more detailed, specific topic of the “role of civilisational identity in India’s foreign policy”. Using this approach, you are helping the reader make sense of how a debate takes shape in a social science field.

Once you have decided on the brief outline of the topics you may want to address in your research, you will then break down each of these topics to add the books you may address in them. You may also add the different arguments within that topic through books. You may also need to show connections between different topics—specifically, how they flow from one another.

Once you have created a brief outline of the literature review, you should also think of a broader introduction, body, and conclusion of the literature review through your outline. A literature review should always begin with an introductory paragraph. It should explain your literature review and the broader themes you will cover in your section.

It is then followed by the body, summarised forms of argumentations in various thematic sections. Then, finally, there is a conclusion that follows. The concluding paragraph should broadly drive us to the questions the academic seeks to answer. Once your outline is complete, it is time to start writing.

Organise the select arguments according to topics and subtopics

The second important element of working with your literature review is organising your arguments into several groups. You need to note what is common among the following author’s arguments.

Are they belonging to the same school of thought, or are there differences within the strands they follow? If they are from the same school of thought, how are they then different from each other?

You need to move each of the literature’s arguments around to see where it fits best. If they do not fit a particular heading, you need to create another heading that fits the authors you are referring to.

While writing, you might begin with “this paper argues…” Or “Ken Waltz’s Theory of International Politics discusses…” Or “in her work, the author [author name] elaborates on….”

Or if you are making an argument about the school of thought, then you need to write, “the realist school of thought in International Relations argues that…” etc. Let’s say you want to cite your writing, then begin with, “In the earlier study on…, I argue,” “I propose”, etc.

As you make these arguments about how the current scholarship discusses something, you do not need to, in any sense, agree with everything out there. You must be able to reflect on these themes and build your own study. You must be able to write in a manner that pushes you to think of your own question.

Writing the structure of the literature review section.

Now, about the structure of writing these literature review sections. There are three ways to approach them. You can either write them chronologically (if it is a historical work), thematically (if it is a qualitative study), methodologically (if it is a methodological intervention) or theoretically (if it is extensively a theoretical work).

Chronological: To understand how a topic has developed over time, the best approach to dividing topics is chronological. However, you should avoid simply adding dense summaries of events and actions. You need to assess various patterns, turning points, and critical debates within a field.

Thematic: If there are some recurring themes within your literature, you must follow the study I referred to earlier. You could make an analysis based on thematic sections. You could then assess if they make sense and what drawbacks they hold.

Methodological: For instance, your study draws on interdisciplinary aspects. Let’s say you want to add a methodological intervention to a theory broadly studied through a particular historical approach. For instance, feminist scholarship heavily relies on methodological intervention in the existing knowledge system. It draws on women’s experiences in heavily male-dominated worldly affairs.

Theoretical: Several studies are also theoretically rich. Such studies draw on the kinds of theoretical contributions done to the field. They also reflect on various newer ways to draw from and expand on the current research.

Here you need to engage with these works theoretically. What is out there? How is it insufficient? Is there any way to improve it? But, more importantly, you need to be able to establish your theoretical questions at the end of such an analysis.

Begin with the oldest literature in the field to newer ones

In each section, you should always begin with the oldest to establish the scope of the scholarship and broader theoretical imperatives. The literature review ideally begins with the oldest articles, essays, and books, and then you move to newer and more interesting research done in the field. It helps people make sense of the significant developments in the field.

More importantly, each section, each part of your essay, should contain an introductory line (where you introduce what you want to convey in the paragraph).

You add the body (which is where you add all the dense literature around various themes), and then you add a conclusion (where you discuss how you connect this para with the next one that follows or what is lacking in the existing scholarship).

Are you finding a literature gap or advancing the existing knowledge?

Now, there are two arguments for approaching the literature review. One is to say that I want to do a literature review to fill the literature gap. This is one of the mainstream approaches to literature review. It pervades our academic system. When you seek to study anything, the first thing you encounter is what you are trying to fill. How is it that your research is trying to show that there is a certain lack of existing literature?

But, this way of approaching literature review has been criticised recently. As a scholar, you are made to feel empathetic and appreciative of others and their research. You are made to think of others as contributing to your own research. This way, you are not saying that I am filling something that is yet unfilled but seeking to be more empathetic.

Using this method, you would say: “I seek to draw on and advance the so and so scholarship…” Rather than being a messianic, or rather than feeling that you hold the authority to really tell everyone that they are wrong and what you would do is the right thing. I tend to take this approach to my literature review.

It makes me feel humbled in how I see myself within the broader spectrum of researchers. I suggest that you may use this approach to writing your literature review.

Write, Edit, Revise, Rewrite, and Repeat.

The final stage of writing a literature review is writing, editing, revising, rewriting, and repeating all over again and again and again. You can never be sure if you have covered everything in the first go. You don’t need to cover everything under the sun. But, you may, it so happens with all of us that miss out on essential books you would have referred to but haven’t.

You would have written it shabbily the first time. Your paragraphs don’t connect. It happens. It is a process. You can never really be a great writer the first time you decide to write something. So, always go back to what you have written. And humbly, start all over. There is nothing wrong with not getting it right the first time.

Trust me; you can never really get it right the first time. Acknowledging that fact would add to your ability to be better.

I hope these tips helped shape both your critical reading for your literature review and writing for your literature review. If you have found this essay useful, share it with those who may benefit from it 😊


Important Links:

  1. Other Related Articles: http://adarshbadri.me/guide-to-research-in-politics-and-ir/
  2. Critically Read for Literature Review: https://adarshbadri.me/how-to-critically-read-for-literature-review/

Suggested Readings:

  1. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Blog: http://www.raulpacheco.org/2021/06/a-sequential-strategy-for-teaching-how-to-write-a-literature-review/
  2. University of Guelph: https://guides.lib.uoguelph.ca/c.php?g=130964&p=5000948
  3. UC San Diago’s Guide: https://psychology.ucsd.edu/undergraduate-program/undergraduate-resources/academic-writing-resources/writing-research-papers/writing-lit-review.html
  4. University of Purdue’s Library Resource: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/conducting_research/writing_a_literature_review.html
  5. Grammarly: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/literature-review/

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