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Literature Review Essentials: Define Goals

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This is first in a four-part series focused exclusively on the literature review. Throughout March, my colleagues will focus on specific aspects of this specific writing endeavor, like note taking and organizing your literature review. Today, I want to clarify the definition and purposes of a literature review and provide a few tips for successfully creating one. That way, as you proceed through the next week’s posts, you’ll have a solid foundation for developing your literature review skills.

Literature Review Essentials: Define Goals

So, what is a literature review? A literature review is a “written approach to examining published information on a particular topic or field.” A well-crafted review can demonstrate a researcher’s mastery of a field as well as substantiate his or her assertion that more research is needed on a topic. It can also lay the foundation for the justification of an extended research project like a capstone study. (Note that some researchers complete a literature review as an end in itself [e.g., for a class assignment] and not as a basis for a study.)

Writing a literature review is challenging, it is true, but it can also be very rewarding. One reason the review may be difficult to write is because it lacks a roadmap. Its content and some aspects of its form will vary based on your needs and purpose. While you may have some required parameters such as page length and number and type of sources, you will probably have more latitude in regard to content and subheadings.

One reason that this process is rewarding is that it allows you an opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge about your topic as well as skills (e.g., in library search, critical reading, time management, synthesis, and APA). Developing such knowledge and skills will probably foster a sense of competence, which can be very satisfying.

A second reason is that writing the review helps you clarify key aspects of your study.. In writing the review, you develop more understanding of critical vocabulary and relevant research methods related to your investigation. You also gain confidence that your work has merit (i.e., that you are addressing a bona fide research problem).

To be as effective and successful as possible in writing your review, try to keep in mind that your review has multiple audiences – for example, your instructor or committee members, other researchers, and the general public, among others.

Rather than try to cover x, y, and z topics or include every source you found in your literature search, try to craft a narrative that provides a foundation for readers, some of whom may not be knowledgeable about your field of study. You need to guide your readers so that they, too, understand key vocabulary, core concepts, and developments in your field of study and “buy” your argument that further research is needed.

Adopting a reader’s perspective should be helpful for organizing your narrative as well as developing skills in synthesis. Synthesis involves “comparing different material and highlighting similarities, differences, and connections.” The end result is the “present[ation] of new ideas based on interpretations of other evidence or arguments.” This is a challenging skill to master; summarizing is much easier. Viewing yourself as a reader’s guide, whose purpose is to draw connections, should help.

This post, hopefully, has given you a good introduction to the literature review, and my colleagues will share more specific information with you in the weeks ahead. But for now, as you begin work on this challenging yet rewarding writing project, embrace your role and think of how you will tell your reader the story of the literature in your field.

Tara Kachgal
 is a dissertation editor in the Walden University Writing Center. She has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and teaches for the School of Government's online MPA@UNC program. She resides in Chapel Hill and, in her spare time, serves as a mentor for her local running store's training program.

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