How to Write a Literature Review

Denny and Tewksbury (2012) assert that knowing how to write a literature review is critical for success both in the academic and professional sphere. Further, the ability to summarize and synthesize existing research demonstrates an author’s grasp of the subject in question. The two scholars also agree that learning how to write a literature review is a crucial step of the learning process.

However, many undergraduate and graduates students do not always know how to develop a quality literature review. That is why we wrote this post. Here, you will learn how to write a literature review that deserves a gleaming grade.

How Does a Literature Review Differ from a Research Paper?

It is easy to confuse a literature review with a research paper. But the two papers are different. While there may be similarities, there is a clear difference between a research paper and a literature review. But what is the main difference between the two? The difference between these two types of papers is a difference in focus.

A research paper focuses on adding a new insight to existing research. A research paper is about contributing to the current body knowledge. In contrast, a literature review does not focus on adding new contributions to existing research. In fact, a literature review is an integral part of a research paper.

While a research paper seeks to build new arguments, a literature review strives to summarize, synthesize, and reorganize existing arguments. Understanding these differences is essential to learning how to write a literature review.

But What is a Literature Review?

Different sources define a literature review somewhat differently. But that does not necessarily mean scholars do not agree on what a literature review is. It is just that different authorities or sources may use slightly different words to say essentially the same thing. Concordia University, for instance, defines a literature review as “a written overview of major writings and other sources.”

The University of Carolina’s Writing Center gives a slightly different definition. The university’s website says that a literature review “discusses published information” in a given subject area. The site further says that a literature review summarizes sources while also reorganizing the information from those sources.

Combining these two definitions, we can say that a literature review summarizes and reorganizes information from selected published sources. Knowing what a literature review is and what it is not is critical. It is a big step toward leaning how to write a literature review.

Two Types of Literature Reviews

There are two types of literature reviews. The first type includes stand-alone reviews. If your professor gives you a topic and asks you to write a literature review, she most likely wants a stand-alone review. Just like the name suggests, a stand-alone review stands alone. While such a review may study other works, it still retains its independence from them.

The second type includes reviews that are a part of larger works such as dissertations, theses, or research reports. The purpose of this kind of review is to lay a foundation for another study. Such a review typically serves as an introduction to the main work. But this review is not much different than a stand-alone review. Whether it is a stand-alone review or not, how you write a literature review remains the exact same process.

Why Do I Have to Write Literature Reviews All the Time?

The question “why do I have to write literature reviews all the time?” is not a surprising one. A lot of college and grad school students hate writing papers in general. When you are a bag of total exhaustion with so much that remains undone, asking such a question comes naturally. But there are several reasons you should learn how to write a literature review. The following are some of the most important reasons you should take review writing seriously.

Reasons to Learn How to Write a Literature Review

Let’s dive right in and learn why learning how to craft an effective literature review matters. There are at least seven good reasons you should master how to build a grade-winning literature review. These are the very reasons you should read this post through to the end:

  • A literature review helps readers gain quick access to quality research on a specific topic. While writing a review, you choose high-quality and relevant sources that directly discuss the issue at hand. A successful literature review distills the essence of all the sources examined. It allows the reader to quickly learn what different authorities say on the topic. Therefore, learning how to develop an effective review is learning how to be of value to your readers.
  • A literature review is where all successful research starts. While writing a review, you must summarize, evaluate, compare, and contrast existing original research on the topic at hand. If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, therefore, you should understand how to write a literature review.
  • A well-conducted literature review makes sure researchers do not choose research areas that others have adequately covered. Writing reviews reveal what prior research has focused on. That forces researchers to start thinking hard about how they might contribute to existing knowledge.
  • A well-written literature review helps researchers to form an idea of what topics future research might consider. It recommends topic areas that may add impetus to the debate surrounding a given subject area.
  • Another reason to learn how to put together a good literature review is that it highlights key findings from existing research. The key findings on a particular topic become crucial while writing the discussion section of a research paper or dissertation.
  • This is very important. A literature review enables you to easily spot inconsistencies and contradictions in different sources. More important, a well-developed literature review helps you to identify gaps in existing research. It helps you spot topic areas you can investigate.
  • Finally, a literature review helps you to critically analyze the approaches and methodologies of other researchers.

The Structure of a Properly Written Literature Review

Just like a regular essay, a literature review features three main parts namely introduction, body, and conclusion. Let us consider each of these parts and see how you might make them work for you.

The Introduction to Your Literature Review

The introduction should encourage readers to do more than skim your literature review. It should help the reader quickly understand what topic you intend to cover. The reader should easily identify the central theme your work roots for.

As you write your intro, ask yourself whether it clearly establishes the reason your subject area matters. Further, the intro should discuss what others have written on the topic. A good literature review writer keeps their eyes peeled for controversies or recent studies that have questioned earlier assertions or assumptions. You may also want to provide a bit of background or history for your topic. A concisely crafted thesis statement or purpose statement should end your review’s introductory paragraph.

Note that how you write the thesis statement depends on the type of review you intend to write. A stand-alone review has its thesis statement summarizing and evaluating the state of current research on the topic. But a review that is a part of a larger work such as a dissertation handles the statement slightly differently.

Here, the author aims to reveal the relevance of the findings to the research she proposes to conduct. A properly written introduction quickly identifies the importance, relevance, and central theme of your literature review.

The Body of Your Literature Review

The body is where you must focus most of your effort. The body of a literature review presents a summary and a critical evaluation of your particular field’s current state of knowledge. It sheds light on the major topics and themes that dominate debate on the field.

Further, the body outlines the findings for and against a given position. Your review should consider both supporting evidence and opposing evidence. It should establish a harmonious balance between the two. Additionally, the body showcases the significant trends in current research.

Again, how you develop the body depends on the nature of your review. If you are writing a stand-alone review, you are interested in the value of arguments relative to similar or opposing arguments. If your review is a part of another work, it may have a different aim.

In that case, it attempts to ease the reader into the rest of your work. For that reason, such a review concerns itself with such research as is relevant to your study. Read on to get more tips on how to write a body that works hard for your literature review.

The Conclusion of Your Literature Review

The conclusion is a concise summary of all the evidence you have encountered and its significance. How you conclude your literature review depends to a large extent on its purpose. If its purpose is to support your proposed research, the review focuses on highlighting research gaps in existing studies.

In such a review, you aim to show that previous research informs and supports your current study. You also strive to show how previous studies inform the research methodologies you favor. A stand-alone literature review spells out the practical applications of the research examined.

Also, this type of review reveals the implications of the reviewed research. Additionally, it offers recommendations for future research. As you write your conclusion, ask yourself: what is the key takeaway here? What is the one idea I want the reader to remember after reading this?

Here are the Steps to Follow While Writing a Literature Review

We all love steps. We love steps because one of our deepest fears is making mistakes when we could have avoided them. You likely have learned loads of useful knowledge on the Internet by typing: “How to…..” That is why we decided to give you concrete steps for writing a literature review that gets you glittering grades. Here are the steps:

The 1st Step; Be Sure You Understand Exactly What You Should Do

It is imperative to gain a crystal clear understanding of what you are supposed to do. For stand-alone literature reviews, you may get different instructions for different assignments. At one time, your professor may want you to summarize sources and do nothing more. At another time, your instructor may request you to summarize and synthesize sources.

A different assignment may require you to write a standard literature review. In such a case, you would have to summarize, synthesize, and reorganize the information you gleaned from the sources. So, consider the action verb your teacher has used in the instructions. Do they want you to summarize, critically evaluate, or simply evaluate? Each of these phrases may have you following a somewhat different approach. Understanding your instructor’s requirements makes sure you are handling your assignment right.

The 2nd Step: Choose a Good Topic

You knew this already but we had to repeat it because it is important. Choosing a suitable topic may not seem challenging at first. However, many students may struggle with picking a good topic. The best topic for your literature review depends on your specific area of study. You may want to read your lecture notes for ideas. You may also read journal articles that focus on your area of interest.

A Google search should also give you an idea of the most recent issues in your field. In addition, you may consider talking to your professor. Sometimes, though, your instructor may choose a specific topic and ask you to build your review around it. If that is the case, you’ve got off to a good start. If not, grab the opportunity and select a topic you can research confidently.

The 3rd Step: Narrow the Topic Down to a Manageable Scope

Sometimes, the topic you settle on may be way too broad. You may want to narrow it down a bit. Generally, the narrower the topic, the better. But you must be careful not to narrow the topic too much. If you do that, you are going to end up with an issue that lacks sources. Even worse, you may get a topic no one (including you!) cares about.

Keep these ideas in mind as you trim down your topic. Answer these questions. What am I particularly interested in? What do my intended readers care about? What research time span should I choose? If you handle this step correctly, you should be able to get the right topic.

The 4th Step: Search for Quality Sources

The internet supports researchers in many ways. It carries vast amounts of information. It’s highly likely the sources you seek are there. Some respected journals no longer produce printed research material. Instead, they publish research articles online. Additionally, the web offers hundreds of content-rich databases that come in handy at a time like now. That’s why the web is becoming increasingly important as a research tool.

However, it is not always easy to locate the sources you need to complete your literature review. Harris (2007) asserts that the internet provides a wide range of research material. But he also points out that ascertaining the reliability, accuracy, and value of such sources is often challenging. Anyone can publish any kind of information at any time.

No one ever needs permission to publish content online. That is why you must be careful as you search for sources on the Internet. Harris (2007) also says that the information found on the Internet ranges from “very good to very bad” (p. 1). Your job is to identify “very good” information and examine it for your paper.

How to Decide What Research Material on the Internet to Use

Harris (2007) suggests a useful formula for assessing internet sources. The author calls it the CARS checklist. In this approach, C stands for Credibility, A for Accuracy, R for Reasonableness, and S for Support. Let us briefly consider each element.

Credibility: Your Literature Review Should Feature Credible Sources

Ask yourself: what makes this source credible? Why should I take the information it presents as truth? You need to convince yourself that the author of the source possesses adequate knowledge to make the assertions they make.

But how would you know that? Look at the title of the author and their education or training and its relevance to your topic. Also, check if the author provides contact information or organizational affiliation. More important, what do other authors or readers think of this author? All these questions help you establish whether a particular source is credible or not.

If the author is an organization, make sure it is a respected and recognized one. That could be a well-known company, a nonprofit, or a government department. Typically, such sources have the extension .org as part of their domain name. A source that is anonymous, not peer-reviewed, or one that draws a lot of negative reviews is most likely not a credible source.

It is best to use peer-reviewed journal articles, books and other sources. Google Scholar is a very useful source for scholarly or peer-reviewed articles. ScienceDirect, EBSCO and ProQuest are great databases that provide peer-reviewed sources. Reading the meta-information of sources (e.g. abstracts and content summaries) should help you sift through sources fast and efficiently.

Accuracy: Sources that are Inaccurate Detract from Your Literature Review

You should only use sources that are up-to-date, factual, and comprehensive. You generally want sources five years old or younger. That said, some sources are timeless and you can still use them even if they are centuries old. Classical novels, stories or the masterful works of greats such as Aristotle and Plato are examples of timeless sources.

Some information tends to become irrelevant pretty fast. Technology news becomes outdated rapidly, for example. For these reasons, you should always check the creation date of every source you want to use. In every case, you must use your judgment to decide whether a source is still valuable. You must also decide to what extent the source is still relevant.

But you must be very careful when it comes to dates. Some web pages may carry content that shows today’s date, but the author may not have created it today. Also, an accurate source is one that is comprehensive. Honestly, it is not impossible to find a source that has considered every piece of research available on the topic. However, it should be pretty easy to identify a comprehensive source. A source that omits important facts, opposing views, qualifications, or alternatives is likely not a comprehensive one.

Another way to decide if a source is accurate is to consider the intended audience. Some sources may pretend to be objective and reliable, but their authors may have intended to sway readers a particular way. You can still use such sources, but you must confront the obvious bias noted.

Similarly, you should avoid sources that make too many general statements. Also, avoid sources that fail to acknowledge opposing views, choosing to present only favorable viewpoints. You’ve learned what an accurate source looks like. Can you easily identify such a source?

Reasonableness: Use Sources that Demonstrate Objectivity, Fairness, Consistency, and Moderateness

A good source must demonstrate fairness and objectivity. In addition, a source worth consideration should reflect a clear sense of moderateness and consistency. A fair source offers a “balanced, reasoned argument” (Harris, 2007, p. 7). Such a source remains accurate and balanced even when presenting an opponent’s viewpoint.

You probably want to avoid sources that seem to promote what Harris (2007) calls “the straw man fallacy” (p. 7). In this fallacy, the author may claim their opponent’s ideas or assertions are wild or irrational. Generally, reasonable sources never use angry, unfairly critical, spiteful, or hateful tones. Any kind of writing that comes across as emotional often lacks in this quality: reasonableness.

Reasonable sources favor objectivity over biases. Sources that do not control their biases fail the test of reasonableness, and you do well to avoid them. Conflict of interest is often the reason some sources do not present information objectively.

Such authors may have vested interests that cloud their judgment. If a source would benefit in some way by making a certain claim, it is biased and you should stay away from it. Identifying sources that pass the test of reasonableness should be pretty easy.

Additionally, reasonable sources usually use moderate claims and statements. A source that makes claims that seem significantly improbable may not be a good one. Also, shun sources that make claims refuting or questioning natural laws. Obviously, you should ask for more convincing evidence than you would if the source didn’t make such significant claims. For example, a source that states that “50 percent of Americans lie every day” needs further scrutiny.

Finally, a reasonable source rarely contradicts itself. Inconsistencies and contradictions are often a sign of serious flaws in the claims and arguments presented. More important, you should consider an author’s worldview.

Harriet (2007) says that an author’s worldview determines the kind of issues they focus on. It also determines the sort of issues they may not give adequate attention to. Harriet even suggests that an author’s worldview may influence them to “fabricate evidence” (p. 8).

Support: Shun Sources Other Researchers Do Not Seem to be Familiar with or Support

You need to be sure the sources you choose obtain their information from reliable sources. A good source tells you where it got the data, facts, or statistics it presented. Such a source lists the sources it relied on, allowing you an opportunity to examine the sources if you wish. Also, a good source enjoys the support of other credible sources.

If no other source supports a given source, you should be wary of it. A well-reasoned source will naturally have a few people rooting for it or at least agreeing with some of its ideas. You want to look at two or three sources that support a particular source. Support is particularly important if a source has made statements or claims that challenge generally accepted positions.

Here is another way you can identify bad sources. When a source discusses a fact or concept you already understand, it should be factual and accurate. If a source provides false information about something you know, it will likely mislead you in many other areas.

Generally, you should stay away from sources that present important information including statistics or facts without indicating the source. Good sources have adequate support from several credible sources.

Note: deciding whether a source is good or not does not require you to do detailed reading. Often, skimming the sources and making quick decisions will suffice.

The 5th Step: Read and Evaluate Your Sources

Reading and evaluating sources can be overwhelming. But if you cannot do it right, your entire literature is going nowhere. By now, you have gathered all the sources you need to write your literature review. Begin by skimming your sources.

The idea here is to identify the main points of each source. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by detailed sections, sentences, or phrases. The goal of skimming your sources is to pinpoint any useful information you may want to explore further. In the end, you should have a few chapters or pages you want to examine in greater detail.

At this point, you must start to do detailed reading. Take notes. Underline or highlight every terminology, word, idea, concept, or phrase that stands out to you. Collect keywords. You should have a keyword for every main point you glean. Ask yourself questions as you review your sources. Note down every important question you feel requires an answer(s).

Every time you have read a substantial portion of a source, pause for a couple minutes. Write the points grasped using your own words. After you have jotted down these points, skim through the text to check whether it is accurate. See if any gaps exist and address them.

Taking notes encourage active engagement with the text you are reviewing. Avoid the temptation to read large portions of text in a bid to read faster. That’s passive reading. Passing reading is of little use. Effective note making enables you to stay focused, letting you develop a clear understanding of the content in each research material.

The average person reads around 240-300 words per minute, according to a website operated by the University of Leicester. Remember, improving your reading skills is more important than improving your reading speed. But it is best to increase both.

As you read, note down the assumptions the sources make. Also, identify the methodologies favored by each source. Take note of the testing procedures, the subjects used, or the materials tested. Additionally, note any conflicting theories, findings, or even methodologies. At this point, you should be able to evaluate and synthesize the conclusions and findings of your sources.

Note down all the findings that are common across the sources. Also, identify any discernible trends that characterize the research you have considered. Where is the research in the field going? Additionally, notice the theories that seem to be popular.

Determine what theories are the most influential regarding the topic in question. Ask yourself this question. How has this particular theory evolved (or not) over time? In this step, you are essentially looking for any patterns that seem to emerge from your evaluation of the sources.

The 7th Step: Write Down Your Working Thesis

By now, you have decided what the most influential theories are. You have also identified all the important trends. Further, you have discovered several key findings and drawn the conclusion (s). Now, you should craft a tentative thesis statement. Your thesis statement should succinctly summarize the conclusion (s) you have drawn concerning the developments and trends you have identified.

Your thesis is a dynamic reality. It continues to evolve as new ideas and facts get exposed. Do not worry if your thesis statement does not look neat and refined at this stage of the literature review writing process. You are likely going to fine-tune the thesis after you have completed a substantial part of your paper.

You might even opt to wait until it’s time to revise the review. The thesis statement of a literature review is not static. The statement keeps expanding and contracting until your review has considered every valuable idea that might benefit your work.

The 8th Step: Organize Your Literature Review According to the Findings

Depending on the number of sources you have examined, you may have quite a few findings. You should arrange and organize these findings into categories. If the work is extensive and you have many sources (many findings), you may need a large working surface.

A flat desk or table may come in handy at this point. Filing cards or post-it notes can help you sort your findings into various categories. You may find it reasonable and helpful to put certain findings together under the same sub-heading. Other findings may fit better under different subheadings.

That is why the body of your literature review (especially for science and social sciences) should have sub-headings and headings. As you organize your findings, put those that support particular viewpoints together. Similarly, present together those that seem to support opposing views.

The 9th Step: Write Your Literature Review: Analyze Your Sources More Than You Describe Them

Previously, we mentioned that a literature review contains three main sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. We also described the specific content that goes into each of these sections. At this point, you’re ready to write the outline of your review. An outline forces you to arrange your thoughts, arguments, and findings logically, creating an element of flow in your work.

Each paragraph must begin with a well-written topic sentence. A properly written topic sentence summarizes the main point of the paragraph. Ask yourself: if a reader looked at my topic sentences, would they quickly discern what my paragraphs are about? A good topic sentence helps you present a clear, logically built position.

A quality literature review focuses more of its energy on analyzing sources than it does on describing them. Topic sentences that describe rather than analyze tend to start off by mentioning the author’s name. But reader are often more interested in the contribution of an author than in her name. If all your sentences start like this “Denny and Tewksbury (2012)  …….” you have likely described rather than analyzed sources. You probably should restructure your paper until it reflects more detailed analysis and evaluation than it does description.

Generally, a literature review that has analyzed sources uses various phrases that indicate in-depth consideration of the sources. It intelligently uses transition words to create a sense of flow from one idea or point to the next. Such a paper usually uses facts and statistics as evidence for the powerful claims it makes. In a review that analyzes more than it describes, you will likely find phrases such as the following.

Similarly, however, admittedly, consequently, otherwise, in contrast, comparatively, further, moreover, and substantiates. However, you must not overuse transitions. A poorly used transition is worse than none at all.

10th Step: Edit and Proofread Your Literature Review

Not surprisingly, editing and proofreading have come last in this post. However, they are not the least important aspects of the writing process. They may not seem to be very important. But they can perfect a good literature review.

Editing and proofreading don’t do much good to a bad literature review, though. You should step away from your work for a few days before embarking on editing and proofreading. Doing that allows you to come back to the work with a fresh, energized pair of eyes that misses no mistakes.

While editing, make sure you have properly cited and referenced your sources using a discipline-specific referencing style. Different disciplines often use different styles. For that reason, always confirm with your professor. There shouldn’t be any claims that lack citations. We previously discussed how to find quality sources. However, you may want to read and understand the various rules followed by the referencing style in question.

Writing citations and referencing help you avoid plagiarism. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to read a source and capture the ideas you get from that source using your own words. That is, paraphrasing your sources. Where you have borrowed more than three words from the same source consecutively, put the words in quotation marks. Then, indicate the page number. For example: Harriet even suggests that an author’s worldview may influence them to “fabricate evidence” (p. 8).

Use acceptable language to write your paper. Avoid the kind of language people use in casual conversations. Contractions are also a big no. Also, avoid liberally using phrasal verbs and idioms. Proper editing makes sure your review is free from grammatical errors. Further, it clarifies the meaning of your work, rights the tone as well as the language.

Proofreading does the final touches that perfect your document. As you edit and proofread, try reading your paper out loud. That helps you catch small mistakes you would not otherwise detect. Dear reader, that is how to write a literature review. As you can see, it is something you can do relatively easily.

Final Thoughts on How to Write a Literature Review

You’ve just learned how to write a literature review. It doesn’t get any easier than that. Look at each step and see how you can make the best out of it. Is this the only way to write a literature review? No. Others may talk of only four steps while others may say there are as many as 15 or 20 steps. It is best to understand what sort of content goes into a well-written literature.

Do not obsess about the 10 steps discussed. That said, the steps described above guide you as you build your paper, making sure you never miss an essential element. Here’s the main takeaway. Unlike a research paper, a literature review is not interested in adding new ideas to existing research.

Instead, it summarizes, synthesizes, and organizes existing knowledge, leading to a broader understanding of a particular subject. You may decide to follow this gudeline or get literature review writing service from professionals who will guide you throughout the whole process of your writing