How to Organize a Literature Review

When I was in middle school, my language arts teacher made our class present a report on a historical topic. She start off the unit by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—very memorable—and then we got to pick any topic we wanted. I was thrilled. I chose to research the Holocaust.

At the time I was morbidly fascinated with the subject; now I can’t stand to read or watch anything about it. I think having a child finally made it feel real. But anyway, my waning interest in World War II really isn’t the point.

The point is, Mrs. Sampson made us buy a set of 4-by-6 index cards, and when I organized my paper, I laid down on my bedroom floor and grouped and regrouped my index cards until I got them to make sense together. That’s basically what you have to do to organize all of the notes you’ve taken about your sources as you start to write your literature review for your dissertation, master’s thesis, or even class paper. 

(Consider using Excel to sort your notes for your literature review.)

Literature reviews for research papers will typically be organized into certain standard sections. You’ll have an introduction, in which you broadly review your topic and your problem statement. Then, you’ll include your actual review of your sources, and finally, you’ll end with your conclusion, where you’ll review your problem statement again and preview your upcoming sections.

Try Organizing Your Notes from Broad to Narrow

Obviously, the review is the difficult part to organize. A good literature review will flow logically from one topic to the next, but there are several ways to organize your literature review. One way is from problem to, well, problem. (You’re not ready for solutions yet.) After you’ve introduced your research question, start by explaining the most obvious question or wondering. What broad topic were you first introduced to that led to your research? Then, narrow down the problem for your audience, including literature review as you. End by stating the gap in the literature and then reviewing literature that explains your theoretical framework. So in other words, organize your literature review by moving from broad to narrow or from general to specific.

Introduction, Problem statement/Research Question, Broad Wondering, Narrow Wondering, Theoretical Framework, Conclusion: Review & Preview

Organize It Topically

Another idea break your research question into pieces. If you’re researching the effect of school PLCs on teacher motivation, go with that: explain school PLCs, then explain teacher motivation. Again, end by stating the gap in the literature and then explaining your theoretical framework. This is frequently referred to as a topical order for your literature review.

Make Logical Connections Between Ideas

My final suggestion for you is difficult to explain, but it works. Start with what seems like the most obvious topic. Then, treat your literature review like a puzzle. Find logical connections between your topics, and then write them out. As long as you cover everything, your literature review will be fine. This is a more precise way of using a topical order for your literature review.

So, to summarize, you’ve got options for your organization: broad to narrow, by subtopics, or by making logical connections between the topics that have come up in your research.

Introduction, Problem Statement/Research Question, First Topic, connection, Second Topic, etc., connection, Theoretical Framework, Conclusion

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