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Deciding what to include and exclude as you begin to write your literature review

Once you have completed your literature search, you can start thinking about creating a structure to best explain the literature and to link existing studies to your paper. Having a firm structure provides the foundation for laying out your discussions of the literature and/or the development of your research question(s) or hypothesis. Before that, though, you may still need to make some key decisions regarding what literature or texts should be included and excluded in your paper. This article highlights four essential considerations as you start drafting a structure for your literature review.

Comprehensiveness

There are two types of literature review: one is the literature review section within a paper and the other is a literature review synthesis paper that aims to provide a framework for future studies. For the first, a more focused review of only relevant studies would be more appropriate and useful. For the second type, however, you would usually be expected to provide a much more comprehensive review.

For a literature review section within a paper, a focused review that is more tightly related to your study will help you to build arguments more succinctly, and enable you to link existing studies to your own research more easily. If you find that the literature that is most relevant to your study still falls in large, broad categories, then breaking this section down into different, smaller subsections can be helpful for making sure the various ideas and themes are presented clearly and are easy to follow.

Level of detail

In the literature review, you should be aiming to clearly explain prior and current studies so you can better contextualise your own research within the field. However, the level of detail that you include in this section needs to be carefully considered. 

If several studies are key to your paper or sound similar to your study, you may need to compare and contrast them more closely in order to differentiate them from prior studies, create connections between them or to build on existing literature. 

In addition, if you need to draw from specific papers for your methodology or your theoretical framework, it is a good idea to go into slightly more detail and provide as much information as is reasonably possible, rather than assuming that the reader already knows about these studies.

However, too many detailed descriptions can be distracting and it is important to try to strike a balance between providing enough information for your reader to follow your argument without overwhelming them with too much detail. In some instances therefore, offering a summarised key message can work more effectively. 

In order to better gauge the level of detail needed, go through your writing several times to sharpen your focus, ask your colleagues for feedback or engage professional editing services to check that your structure and overall narrative are clear. 

Online sources and extended quotations

Sometimes, you may want to include online sources in your discussion of the literature. For example, government reports or reputable reports released by major organisations can be quite useful for helping you develop your narrative and arguments. These reports may also provide some initial evidence. However, if you do choose to use such studies, they should be engaged alongside other studies from different sources to make them more plausible. 

In addition, unless really necessary, try to avoid very long or extended quotations. A better practice is to paraphrase and/or summarise the key points that you are trying to make. Drawing from your notes can be useful here and will also help to avoid potential concerns about plagiarism. Using your own words to explain complex issues or to summarise long quotations can also make reading easier for the reader.

Just facts

The literature review is supposed to comprise a summary of thoughts and findings in prior or existing studies related to the topic that you are addressing in your study. Accordingly, the discussion of these studies should be as objective as possible and should not include your personal opinions, comments or even article preferences. This will help you to describe what has already been done in the field more clearly and use this review as a basis for developing your own research.

Summary

Use the above four points to help you stay on track as you write. By being very clear about what your literature review will include or exclude, you will be able to provide an effective, focused overview of existing research, upon which you can build and structure your own study.

 

Read next (fourth) in series: How to refer to other studies or literature in the different sections of a research paper

Read previous (second) in series: How to structure and write your literature review

 

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