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Literature Reviews: Synthesise & Write

Synthesis & theme

Synthesising = put back together, explain, interpret.

Synthesising the content of your analysis means you need to explain and provide an original interpretation of what you've read by highlighting relationships (or lack thereof), between your sources.

How to synthesise

Organise and categorise your content into themes or patterns. Examples of themes include:

  • Chronological
  • Geographical
  • Theory, issue or question
  • Importance (most to least); or
  • Topical (general to specific).

Evaluate or score resources as you go - you may like to add a column to your matrix for recording some type of coding system such as a + or -  or numerical value.

Synthesis, a written example

How not to write.

Smith (1970) reported that bilbies come out at night and eat chocolates. Jones (1972) described the variety of beetles eaten by bilbies on their daytime trips. Wheeler (1974) reported that bilbies eat only apples.

How to write.

The elusive bilby has provoked considerable disagreement over such essential facts as whether it is diurnal or nocturnal, and what constitutes its staple diet. Smith (1970) considered them to be nocturnal whereas Jones (1972) reported that they are daytime foragers. A similar disagreement about food preference can be observed in Smith (1970) who  reported bilbies had a fondness for chocolate, and in Jones (1974) who believed bilbies eat beetles and Wheeler (1974) who maintained that apples were the staple food. However, neither chocolate nor apples are indigenous to the bilby habitat, and it seems improbable that they are the main foodstuffs for bilbies.

Synthesising tools

Grouping papers by theme

Use this matrix to group papers according to themes you have identified in your topic.

Answering a specific question

Use this matrix to group papers according to the questions you asked when analysing your sources.

 Remember, it is common to use more than one method to record your notes.

Evaluating or scoring resources as you go can be helpful, you may like to add a column to your matrix for recording some type of coding system such as a + or -  or numerical value.

Spreadsheets: Creating Matrixes using spreadsheets can be useful if you have a lot of resources and you need to sort the information you have collected.

Now for the hard part - the writing!

A literature review is a purposeful kind of writing which should be:

  • Well argued.
  • Well supported by evidence.
  • Well documented.

Be aware of your audience.

  • Do not assume that your markers or reviewers know much about your specific narrow topic.
  • They may need to be reminded of some background and need you to signpost the importance of the various parts.

You should:

  • Write in a straightforward style - not too informal or formal.
  • Use clear and unadorned English appropriate for your audience.
  • Use the jargon of your discipline only when it is necessary. 

Source: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

Differences between standalone literature reviews and those that are part of a larger body of work?

Both types of literature reviews should include:

  • What is already known in the research area
  • The characteristics of the key concepts/factors/variables
  • The relationships between the key concepts/factors/variables
  • The existing theories?
  • The shortcomings in our knowledge, understanding and methods
  • Views that need to be further tested

In addition to these, literature reviews that are part of a larger body of work should include:

  • What contribution my research is expected to make?

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