Literature Review Essentials: Align Problems -->

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Literature Review Essentials: Align Problems

Writing an effective review of literature is a necessary step if you are writing a doctoral study or dissertation. It can feel overwhelming, though; it’s almost like doing a research project within a research project, where you devise a strategy, gather evidence (in this case, relevant literature), and then analyze and organize it to present to your reader. Therefore, like all elements of a major research undertaking, planning ahead is key! I’d like to share a strategy today that can help you use the key words in your problem statement to build a preliminary outline for your literature review and can make the drafting process go much, much faster.

Title Image for this blog post: a canyon with blue sky above

Start Planning Your Draft Long Before You’re Ready to Start Writing
One problem researchers can face when writing the literature review is not knowing how to get started. There’s a lot of literature out there, and you will have a lot of articles and notes you will want to cover. Using key words from your problem statement to get you started can keep your literature review on track and help you focus in on what’s most relevant to your individual study without getting too impossibly broad.

To help you with this, the Walden Library has lots of good resources for doctoral students writing their literature review, even specific information on doing research for a literature review. The library also has specific instructions for generating key search terms based on your topic, and using your problem statement to generate a preliminary outline for your literature review follows the same principle, except in reverse.

Make it Easy on Your Reader, and On Yourself
You don’t have to invent new headings for your literature review out of thin air—they should already be embedded in the introduction to your study. When you sat down to generate key words to search in library databases, you took the key words in your study and brainstormed as many options as you could to conduct and exhaustive search. Now, when you are sitting down to write, look at your problem statement again. These are the main ideas your reader is going to latch onto and look for throughout your document.

Circle or highlight the major words and concepts in your problem statement—there may be some repetition, but that’s OK. Once you have a list, instead of generating more examples, see if you can boil it down to a handful of key concepts. Then, organize those concepts and subconcepts into an outline, and voila! Now you’ve broken down your literature review into smaller sections that each cover a key part of research on your topic. Plus, these are the main ideas and concepts your reader will already be looking for, so they’ll be already familiar.

The Table of Contents Test
If you look through a sampling of strong dissertations, you will start to notice how closely the well-organized and synthesized literature reviews correlate to the problem statement.

Here’s just one example. In the following image, the main words in the problem statement are highlighted: 
A Sample Problem Statement with Key Terms Highlighted
A Sample Problem Statement with Key Terms Highlighted

Now, if you look at the headings in this author’s Table of Contents, you can see how much the information in the chapter headings matches the information in the problem statement:

Dissertation Table of Contents Containing the Highlighted Terms from the Problem Statement
Dissertation Table of Contents Containing the Highlighted Terms from the Problem Statement

Instead of organizing the literature review chronologically, or by author, she stuck with the main ideas in her problem statement, then filled in the sections and subheadings based on the research she found. If you do this in your own writing, it will give you a head start on a well-synthesized, clearly organized literature review that stays focused and provides strong support for the kind of original research you want to do.

In Conclusion
Instead of looking at the mound of extant literature you found and building a literature review from scratch, use your problem statement to get you started with your major categories and subheadings. You might eventually want to reorganize and add or subtract headings as you write and make revisions, but this strategy will start you off in the right direction. You want your literature review to support the new work you want to contribute as a scholar, and what better way to do that than by using your own words!

Lydia Lunning
 is a Dissertation Editor and the Writing Center's Coordinator for Capstone Services. She earned degrees from Oberlin College and the University of Minnesota, and served on the editorial staff of Cricket Magazine Group.

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  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This blog post has turn my whole lit review around for the better. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome, Susan. We're glad this source proved to be helpful for you!