Tag Archives: Literature review

How to Structure Your Chapters in 3 Quick Steps

Structure photo Structure.jpg

One of the things inexperienced writers struggle the most with is getting the structure right!

And I’m not talking about… ‘first comes the introduction, then the literature review, then the methods, data analysis, results and so on’…

That’s the easy bit. Everyone gets that.

I’m talking about writing the actual chapters and arranging your content in a way that makes sense. That’s when the text suddenly loses its structure. And like a body without skeleton, the whole thing just falls apart.

If you constantly receive feedback along the lines… ‘this chapter is unclear’… ‘there are lots of repetitions’… ‘I cannot see where you are going here’… ‘what is the point you are trying to make?’… ‘I think these paragraphs completely lack focus’… chances are the problem may be in the structure (or rather lack thereof!).

In fact, these are just a few examples of the feedback some of the students I coach receive from their supervisors.

It is frustrating, both for the students and for their supervisor.

So what I try to do first and foremost when I work with these students is to take them through a process of creating a structure.

I do not claim that this is the only way to do it, but it works for me. And for my students.

I describe it here in the hope that it can help you too.

1. Make a mind map.

Mind maps are a great tool to quickly generate a comprehensive overview of what you want to put in your chapter. One of the main advantages of this approach is its ‘scalability’. You can use a mind map for your entire thesis, for an individual chapter, or even for a section. The principles remain exactly the same. If you have never done one before, here are some practical tips.

Take a piece of paper (landscape orientation works best) and write in the middle the core topic. For example, literature review, or data analysis, or the name of whatever other chapter you are working on.

From this central ‘node’, start drawing a line (just like the branch of a tree) and at its end write one of the topics that you want to include in this particular chapter. This could be one section. From there, branch out to other bits that should be included in that particular section: draw one branch per item. If appropriate, you may also link items with other lines, just to show that there is a connection or a relation between the two.

When you have exhausted all the topics for that section, move back to the main node (your chapter) and start another branch: a new section. Again branch out with its sub-branches to the various bits that will go into this other section.

Keep going until you think you have included all your key ingredients in your map.

For example, If you are trying to write a literature review to discuss the experience of women in the labor market in your country, your mind map may look something like this:


2. Revise your mind map to give it some structure

Most likely your mind map will look rather messy. That’s fine! That’s how is should be.

Remember, a mind map is a visual representation of what you have in your mind when it comes to ‘which items am I going to include/present/discuss in this chapter?’.

But probably, there will be far too many details that you do not want to have into the actual layout of your chapter.

So, an intermediate step may be needed before you get to your final goal (i.e. producing a layout of the chapter’s structure): re-arrange the various nodes and possibly cut down some branches.

This doesn’t mean you are going to leave out the corresponding topics from your text, but you will leave them out from your layout.

A revised version of your mind map may look like this:


3. Turn your mind map into a structured layout

Now it’s time to create your chapter’s layout. This is critical because it will provide the bare bones structure for your ‘meat’.

Unlike a mind map, a layout represents an ordered and logical (I repeat, ordered and logical) sequence of the topics in your chapter.

It will showcase the content in a way that should (ideally!) make sense for your reader.

So, this step now is all about looking at the mind map you have just produced and decide which box (with its branches) comes first (in a logical sequence).

Say you are describing the situation of women’s employment in your country and want to compare it to that in different welfare state types.

A good logical sequence would be to provide a brief general introduction about different welfare states FIRST, and THEN about the specific situation in your country. (Remember: always from the general to the specific)

Proceed like this until you have covered all the main nodes (and their main branches) in your mind map.

Your chapter layout may now look something like this (in fact, this is just an excerpt of the full chapter):


Make sure your sections and sub-sections titles are clear and sufficiently descriptive so that your reader can quickly figure out what he/she can expect to find in them.

Eh voila’! Your chapter’s structure is laid out nicely before you.

At this point – I hope – it will become a lot easier to see what goes where and to write each section accordingly. You will avoid un-necessary repetitions and deliver your reader a much better (and clearer!) experience.

Also, once you know what the overall length of your document should be, you can plan more carefully for how many pages each section should be!


I hope this helps. If you have questions, please post them in the comments below.

[Note: the examples in this post were taken from real case drafts and have been reproduced with the author’s permission]

PS If you found this post useful, you may also like: City Maps and Theses Layouts, Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing, and What Can Celebrity Chefs Teach You About Writing

Effective, Easy, and Enjoyable: The Best Way I Know to Improve Your Academic Critical Skills

I’m sure you have heard this before!

If you want to write a good literature review you need to develop your critical skills.

‘But how?!’ – you may ask.


Physics Journal Club Presentation, R. T. Birge Lecturing seated at left: Lawrence and Oppenheimer [UARC PIC 04:268]

Simple: Join a Journal Club!

(and if you don’t have one to join, create your own – keep reading and I’ll tell you how)

A journal club is a group of people who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature and to discuss in detail a specific research paper.

The members of the club can range from PhD students and post-docs, to more experienced researchers and highly accomplished professors. A mix of people at different stages in their careers is a blessing to further stimulate discussion (even though it may feel slightly intimidating to the inexperienced student).

Regardless of its composition, a journal club will help you to:

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest literature in your field
  • Become a more careful reader (and therefore a better writer!)
  • Learn and practice your critical skills
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Build your confidence and ability to evaluate the work of others
  • Promote your sense of belonging (to your research group or department)
  • Turn a social occasion into an enjoyable educational treat.

Of course, you may be in the unfortunate position of not having a journal club to join.

If so, just start one yourself!

Ideally, you should aim for a group of four or five members, but again don’t let this stop you dead in your tracks. All you need to make a start is just one more person. So, ask a fellow PhD student or an early-career post-doctoral fellow from your own discipline.

And if you are still complaining that you can’t (I know… you are the only student in your group!), then consider creating a virtual Journal Club that meets online.

Once you have found and assembled your buddies, here is what you need to do:

  • Schedule your meetings to take place regularly (ideally once a week, for about one hour)
  • Design a facilitator before each meeting (make sure this role is taken in turn by all members of the group)
  • The facilitator chooses a paper for discussion and distributes it to all members a few days before the meeting
  • The facilitator circulates a few questions about the paper (this is optional, but may prove useful to focus people’s minds to specific issues, especially if the paper is very long)
  • Each member commits to reading the paper before the meeting and to think about the questions posed
  • At the meeting, the facilitator presents a brief overview of the paper. Keep this informal: no need to prepare slides or anything. A piece of chalk and a blackboard is all you need to write down key points if necessary
  • The facilitator initiates the discussion and encourages everyone to take part (see below for suggestions of possible topics)
  • Before the meeting ends, agree on the date, time and facilitator for the following meeting
  • Make sure you start and finish at the agreed times. 

If you are in doubt as to what to discuss about, here some pointers to get you started (feel free to add your own)

Description of the study:

  • What was the purpose of the research?
  • Why is the research important in the wider context?
  • Were the key objectives clearly stated?
  • What was the nature of the study (experimental, theoretical, computational)?

Literature evaluation

  • Was the literature review well presented and sufficiently up to date?
  • Was any major recent study left out? If so try to figure out why
  • Is the paper clear and well written?

Approach and Analysis

  • What was the method used in the study? Can you clearly identify it?
  • How were data obtained and analysed?
  • Is/was there any fault in the approach used?
  • Is the statistical analysis of the data appropriate and sound?

Results and Conclusions

  • What were the key findings of the study?
  • Were results clearly presented and properly discussed?
  • Did the author(s) offer an interpretation of their results?
  • Did the study suffer from any potential limitations? Were these discussed?
  • Could the study be replicated?
  • Was the study successful in solving the research gap(s) identified?
  • What additional questions does the study raise?

I hope this post serves you well.

A final secret for success?

Just take action now. Go talk to one of your colleagues or friends, share this post and arrange your first meeting.

I’ll wait to hear from you 🙂

My Own Personal 100% Ripped-Off Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (guest post)

Ever wondered how on earth you are going to start your literature review? That’s right: first of all you need to be able to assess other people’s work. In today’s post, Ben from Literature Review HQ shares some excellent advice on how to develop your own skills at critical reading and writing. I am sure you’ll find it very useful. Thanks a lot, Ben!

Bio I’m Ben the writer from Literature Review HQ. I’m an early career researcher who developed my website as a resource for anyone who needs help with their literature review. I write weekly blog posts as well as providing a Literature Review Toolbox for anyone who signs up to receive my emails. If you need more tailored help, I also offer 1:1, or group training over the Internet. You can contact me via Twitter (@LitReviewHQ) or email (Ben@LiteratureReviewHQ.com). 

Hands up if you find criticizing other people’s writing tough. As grad students it’s especially hard because we are expected to criticize our peers while we are still learning our craft. Furthermore, our peers are normally world-leading experts in the field. How are we, as lowly grad students and early career researchers supposed to criticize Professor Big-Shot and their enormous research group?

Errrr…I don’t know!

Sorry folks. While I was writing my thesis and my blog, I developed a lot of ways to cope with many different aspects of writing. However, critical reading and writing was something that I just couldn’t seem to crack. So, what did I do? I went around and asked other people and read up about critical reading and writing. It turns out there are some pretty clever people out there who have some really good advice on how to be critical. So my first piece of advice is…

…Interact with other people

You can read an article until you are blue in the face and not find any ways to critique it. However, if you and a friend (or your supervisor) have read the same paper and you have a 5-minute discussion, you’ll be amazed what will come out. If you read relevant papers together you will pick out points you can use in your writing, however, by regularly interacting with people, you will quickly learn how to draw critical conclusions of your own. I’m a strong advocate of journal clubs, whether they be in person or online. I think this is a great way to learn the skill of being critical. Join a journal club this week if you have one, or start one if you don’t. My second piece of advice comes from an interview I did with Alison Wray and Mike Wallace who have written a very good book on how to be a critical writer…

…Be systematic

Many people have their own way of doing this and you can develop your own way too… or copy someone else’s! It doesn’t make that much difference but if you can tailor a systematic approach to your own circumstances then I think you will benefit more. What exactly am I talking about? I’m talking about question asking and note taking. For every paper you read, you should develop a set of questions that you can ask of the paper to try and tease out any flaws and criticisms. There are several lists of questions available online and I would start by downloading the question sheet from this blog. You should answer the questions and find a way to store the answers with the paper, either electronically or physically, so that you can easily access your notes with the paper and use them or alter them as needed. Some good critical questions to ask are:

  • What are the main findings?
  • How does this work relate to the central theme of my literature review?
  • What does this work claim?
  • How do they back up their claims?

This brings me nicely onto my third point that I stole from Alec Fisher and Stephen Toulmin.

The Claim vs The Evidence

Firstly, I have to say that Fisher and Toulmin present great methods for critical analysis that aren’t the same. However, it would take too long to go through them both here so I will talk about the similarities and the general principle behind their methods. To put it simply, any article that you read will make not just one, but many claims. They will state that something is true based on evidence that they SHOULD present. To understand this is a powerful tool to unlock the floodgates of critical analysis – it’s so powerful, that you could end up being too critical!

The crux of these methods is to analyze the claims that articles make and then check that the evidence for these claims stacks up and is present in the first place. This is where you can really take advantage of being new to a field because you can more easily unpick assumptions that people too familiar with the work might make. Do the authors have sufficient evidence to make that claim? Have they misinterpreted the evidence they have? Have they assumed too much?

When I first discovered these methods I went a bit crazy and I found that most academic articles were flawed in some way. I needed to rein in my critical reading rampage. It was then that I discovered some more advice on critical writing from the amazing writer Pat Thomson.

The Literature is a conversation

When you are reading and writing, you are interacting with the literature as if it were a conversation, not an argument or a blazing row. This is an important distinction. Your goal in critical writing is not to tear other literature to pieces but to effectively engage with it in an interesting and appropriate way. The way Pat puts it is to imagine you are inviting the authors of the papers in your literature review to a dinner party. How are you going to interact with them? You’re not going to agree with everything they say (boring) neither are you going to tear them to pieces and shout at them (antisocial). You’re going to be somewhere in the middle. You are going to identify with some things that people say and contradict others. However, you are going to do all of this in a civilized way.

So that’s how I critically read and write now. I’m lucky to have interacted with some great people to help me on the way. I know I still have a long way to go but I get better every week. This raises another important point, which is…

Practice makes perfect

The more you read and practice the art of critical analysis, the better you will get. This will happen over the course of your career but also over the course of a project. Not only will you have more experience, but also you will have more context in which to set all of the articles you are reading.

I hope this guide helps; I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comment or on Twitter (@LitReviewHQ).