Approaching the literature review as a puzzle

Carrying out a literature review is probably something we are all familiar with, because for conducting any piece of research or writing an academic paper, we have to do some reading of previously published work related to our topic of interest. This may seem like a rather “intuitive” thing to do, read previous work and summarise it, but when it comes to conducting and writing up a great literature review, things are not so straightforward. In this blog article, we want to share some practical tips for the literature review based on the advice of Dr. Christy Ley from Harvard University. In particular, we were inspired by her approach in which she likens the literature review to completing a puzzle.

Why is the literature review important?

  1. To identify a puzzle in current academic conversations around your topic: What issues or problems remain unsolved?
  2. To build a solid research question that is geared towards solving this puzzle: How are you going to solve this puzzle?
  3. To show how your “completed puzzle” makes a meaningful contribution to the current conversation around your topic: What is important or novel about your puzzle solution?

    At this point it is worth pointing out that the literature review does not consist of simply summarising past research! Although the literature review is important for developing our own understanding of what has been done regarding our topic, our primary goal is to develop our own argument and drive the conversation forward by building on this previous work and contributing something new — not simply repeating what others have already done.

So how do I conduct a literature review?

1. Identify the puzzle on which you want to work

Read extensively about your topic of interest, and pay special attention to what research published in top journals is saying. You also want to contribute to the current conversation, so try to also identify highly-cited as well as recent work to get a sense of what the current state of the art is. As you read articles, pay special attention to the limitations and suggestions for further research that authors propose — these are effectively gaps in the current conversation!

2. Write while reading, and read while writing

Take notes on the articles you are reading and reflect on how each article may (or may not) help you in developing your own argument. Remember, you do not need to simply summarise what everyone else has done, rather you want to show that you are aware of what is currently known about this topic and thus build your own unique contribution that brings something new to this conversation. It is always important to write, write, write, because it is through writing that we hone our thinking. Moreover, the literature review is an iterative process, and we will be visiting the literature throughout the entire research process as we continue refining our ideas.

3. Develop your argument and logical flow of ideas, then write your literature review around this flow

What is the puzzle you are addressing, why is it important, and how are you going to solve it? Your literature review will serve as a key guide for your readers to understand your topic and how you are contributing something novel and important. Thus, as you guide readers through this topic, you also want to make sure that your overall narrative is following a coherent logic that will be easy for readers to understand. That’s why it’s always good practice to establish your main argument (i.e., in one or two sentences), outline the key points that form a part of this argument, and then fill out your literature review by synthesising the previous work that is relevant to each key point that culminates in your central argument.

4. Give yourself plenty of time to edit!

When it comes to writing, the majority of our time is almost always spent editing, rather than writing, the content. In other words, put your ideas down on paper and get a first draft done as early as possible. The first draft does not need to be perfect or polished, since you will continue refining the writing as you edit. Only once you have a first draft done can you “take a step back” and look at how your ideas are flowing together. Are there any points that need further clarification? Is each paragraph contributing something important to your discussion (or have some parts perhaps gone off on a tangent)? The most important (and hardest) part is to establish a clear flow of ideas that convince your readers of the importance of your puzzle and the value of your solution. A helpful practice is to jot down the main point of each paragraph and make sure this is being communicated in the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Then, consider how the order of the paragraphs and subsections can best guide readers through the logical development of your argument.

5. Use your literature review as the base from which you build the rest of your study

Aside from letting you get to know what the current academic conversation around your topic is, the literature review serves as an important springboard from which you can build the rest of your study. You may have identified relevant theories or conceptual frameworks which you will adapt to analyse your own primary data. Perhaps you got inspired by others’ methodologies and want to collect or analyse data following these examples. When it comes to writing the all-important introduction to your paper, you’ll want to extract the essence of this current conversation, point out the puzzle that remains to be solved that you’ve identified, and explain how you will solve that puzzle — in other words, you’ll extract and condense the most important and impacting points from your literature review to write a compelling introduction that convinces readers your study is contributing something worthwhile to the current conversation.

Conducting and writing the literature review is a craft, so it is best developed simply through practice. When it comes to managing and organising all of the literature, there are a variety of tools that can be used. At NkQualitas, it’s no secret that we are huge fans of the qualitative data analysis software ATLAS.ti, and we rely on ATLAS.ti 100% for carrying out the literature review. If you’re interested in learning how you can harness ATLAS.ti for your literature reviews, feel free to explore our free webinars and online courses.

December 15, 2020 Writing & publishing
Ivana Radivojevic
About NkQualitas

Thank you for visiting NkQualitas, we appreciate your interest! After more than a decade of teaching and assisting qualitative researchers and leaders, we are embarking on a new adventure. I am excited and honored to take on a new role as Director of Training and Collaboration at ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH. This new position brings with it a great deal of responsibility, and I am glad that my team and I can continue to support qualitative researchers around the world.