by Arnold Wentzel
PART 3: PLANNING THE STRUCTURE AND FLOW
In Part 2, I explained how to generate the content of the literature review. At this stage it is just a list of assumptions (those labelled A to F in Part 2), and each assumption is a claim to be argued. Before expanding on each of these assumptions-as-claims, they have to be organised into a coherent writing plan.
Technique for connecting the content of the literature review
Finding a logical flow between assumptions can be challenging, but I’ve found a method for creating flow that seems to work well. If one can insert a connecting phrase (shown in italics below) between the assumptions so it reads like one long sentence that makes sense, then the order is probably logical. It might take a bit of arranging and rearranging to find a structure that works.
Success is best measured in terms of money (D) and such success is only meaningful if you can achieve it before middle age (E) but fortunately this is possible because there are methods that guarantee financial success (A) which can work because Australia is predictable enough (F) so that people following such methods will live long enough to apply this method (B) and enjoy their results (C).
Of course, there are often many different ways to connect the claims (assumptions). There is again much discretion here, discretion that is more likely to be available to those familiar with the relevant literature. However, unless there is branching, the connections between claims are rarely simple words like ‘and’ or ‘furthermore’; connections are usually phrases that allow one claim to flow smoothly into the next.
Referring to the diagram below, if you can’t find a connection or the connection feels forced (broken arrows below), it is because: (1a) the claims are in the wrong order; (2a) there is a missing claim; or (3a) one of the claims is redundant. The diagnosis here leads to the solution: (1b) try a different sequence of claims; (2b) determine what other claim needs to be made to connect the two claims you are trying to connect; or (3b) see if the connection can be made to another claim if one claim is removed.
Even when there are strong connections between arguments, it can be difficult to follow in a long literature review, so breaking it up into sections can help.
Technique for structuring the content of the literature review
There’s no easy formula for dividing the literature review into sections. However, one way is to look for any natural groupings of the assumptions, or for obvious breakpoints between assumptions. If such groupings are found, give each one a descriptive label that can be used as the section headings of the literature review. It may well be that a single assumption alone contains so much that it could be a section by itself.
Continuing with the example from above, a possible result is:
1 The nature of success: Success is best measured in terms of money (D) and such success is only meaningful if you can achieve it before middle age (E) but fortunately this is possible because…
2 Methods to achieve success: …there are methods that guarantee financial success (A) which can work because…
3 Achieving success in Australia: …Australia is predictable enough (F) so that people following such methods will live long enough to apply this method (B) and enjoy their results (C).
In the case of more complex literature reviews, it is more useful to first group assumptions into sections, and then to work out the logical flow between sections and the flow between the assumptions within sections. This may give rise to sub-sections.
While the process I suggest breaks with convention, it does prevent writing a list-like, incoherent literature review. Because the content, flow and structure are all derived from the research question, it also addresses the biggest challenge people have with the literature review: how to make it fit with the question and make it all hang together. Instead of using sections labelled ‘conceptual framework’ or ‘theoretical framework’, these elements are integrated into the argument and analysed at the points where they most appropriately move the argument forward.
Now we have the content and structure that ensures a logical flow that supports the question. Next we need to elaborate on these claims and design a writing plan that helps us to do this, as will be explained in the final part.