When you need to figure out how to write a literature review, you may have quite a few questions. We don’t blame you – writing a literature review can be very tedious, time consuming, and difficult.
If you’ve been assigned a literature review project, it’s very common to be a little confused on what you’re supposed to be doing because there are a lot of different meanings to both of these words. More often than not, when you hear the word “review,” most people tend to think about an opinion-based summary about a book, article, or piece of media. And when they hear “literature,” they tend to think about books.
However, a literature review is a little different than that. You may have encountered the literature review section of a major research paper or a dissertation before.
This blog will walk you through everything you need to know to learn how to write a literature review. We’ll tell you exactly what a literature review is, how to write one, and why you need to write one in the first place.
College student with textbooks and notes doing a literature search
What is a Literature Review?
Chances are if you’re looking up information on how to write a literature review, you’ve probably never written one before and aren’t sure where to start. So, on that note, let’s start with what a literature review actually is.
In academia, a literature review is an overview, summary, or account of literature, research, observations, or other findings that have been published about a particular topic. Sometimes you may see this presented as an annotated bibliography, which is a separate type of assignment you may have to complete before you write a paper. In other cases, you may be required to complete a literature review as part of a research paper, thesis, or dissertation.
Basically, in simpler terms, you’re looking at what has been written on your topic already and putting it all together to review it. In turn, this strengthens your argument to show that you’ve done your research and collected enough information to form the basis of your point of view.
What is the Point of a Literature Review?
So, what’s the point of all of this, anyway? It can be difficult to motivate yourself to focus on writing an assignment if you don’t understand why you have to do it in the first place, and it’s sometimes unclear as to why you’d be summarizing other peoples’ work instead of just writing your own.
Usually, a literature review is conducted in order to identify any strengths and weaknesses in the current discussion or research that is available on a topic. Your professor will assign you a literature review to assess the following skills:
● Research collection: Ability to read and locate relevant information, and scan an article for key points and significant data.
● Critical thinking: Ability to assess information and analyze it according to theoretical framework, identify bias in writing, and place the information in a broader context.
● Contributions to your field: Ability to conduct research and place it within the context of your particular field or discipline to assess trends, themes, patterns, or emerging forecasts.
● Writing skills: Ability to take your findings, communicate them efficiently, and organize them into a cohesive flow through proper writing and use of English grammar.
Stack of textbooks and sources for academic research
Literature Review vs. Literary Analysis
The concept of a literature review can often be confused with a literary analysis, but these are actually two very different types of assignments. Make sure you know which one it is you need to write or you may end up losing marks.
A literary analysis is a type of analytical essay that takes an in-depth look at one particular piece of literature. This might be a book, a movie, a television show, a scholarly article, or even just a newspaper article. In your literary analysis, you’d go over the important details and put them together to make in-depth conclusions and connect a deeper understanding of the material. For example, you might pull out different themes or writing techniques to convey the overall meaning of the work.
Meanwhile, a literature review is an analysis of a collection of pieces of literature on a topic. This is essentially a survey of research you’ll use to go over what’s been covered about your topic or research question, as we discussed above.
Ultimately, the difference between the two is that in a literary analysis, you’re using your own insights to make connections and focus on one article, while in a literature review you’re not adding your own insights and instead, you’re going over the insights other authors have made.
Writing an Annotated Bibliography
When you learn how to write a literature review, you should know what kind of literature review you’re going to be writing.
As we mentioned above, a literature review sometimes takes the form of an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography is sometimes assigned as its own separate assignment, or as a first step when you’re writing a big research paper.
In an annotated bibliography, you will list out all of your sources in alphabetical order, structured the way you’d put them in a bibliography, Works Cited page, or references page (depending on the formatting style you’re using). However, under each author’s entry, you’re going to write a short paragraph that contains the following three things: a quick summary of the article, an assessment of the source, and how this source could be used in your paper or contribute to your knowledge of a particular topic.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a research paper on the topic of why animal testing is wrong and you’ve been assigned to write an annotated bibliography. One of your sources might be an article on the different ways to test products on synthetic materials. In your annotated bibliography, you’d discuss the content of the article, provide an evaluation of the article, and then explain how you can use this information in your paper to suggest possible alternatives and showcase the fact that animal testing isn’t necessary when these options are available.
If you get stuck, the Purdue University Writing Lab has some great annotated bibliography samples you can use to guide your work.
Young college student looking at a book to use as one of her essay sources
How to Write a Literature Review: Where to Start
The first thing you’re going to need to do is identify your research question and/or topic. This will guide you as to where you’ll look for research and what articles to read. Chances are, most of the time your professor will give you a research question to work with, or at the very least a topic within which you can form your own research question.
Next, you want to start to locate some sources you may use in your final review. Acceptable sources for a literature review may include:
● Scholarly journals
● Credible websites (NOT Wikipedia)
● Government publications, reports, or archives
● Conference papers
● Primary sources, such as studies, court records, or archived letters
Sources that are not acceptable for a literature review include sources such as:
● Encyclopedia entries
● Opinion articles
● YouTube videos
While you’re learning how to write a literature review, one thing you can do that will really help you out while you’re getting started is reading other literature reviews in your field. Literature reviews are often published in scholarly journals as standalone articles. Here is an example you can read on school effectiveness to get some ideas flowing.
Female university student doing a literature search by reading through books
Starting Your Literature Search: Where to Find Good Sources
Once you’ve understood which types of sources you’ll need to use and what you need to use them for, you need to know where to start looking for them. There are tons of great places you can look, so let’s narrow some of them down to give you a great starting point.
Your university library website is the best place to start your literature search. Most university libraries let you search by article topic or title, or browse through specific databases. Start with a broad search, and then narrow down your keywords to find specific themes and subtopics.
Another great place to look is the physical library, where you can find books and journals in print. If you need to find primary sources, try websites like the National Archives or DocsTeach.org.
Here is a list of other online resources you can use to find sources during your literature search:
● Google Scholar
● E-book websites
● In the sources list at the bottom of a Wikipedia page (not the Wikipedia page itself)
● EBSCO databases
● Online magazines (credible ones such as National Geographic)
● Websites for professional organizations such as the World Health Organization or the United Nations
● Government websites
● Google Books
Questions to Ask Yourself While You Research Literature
One of the key things to know when you’re learning how to write a literature review is how to analyze the literature you’re reading. After all, this is the information you’re going to be including in your review.
● What research question or topic is the author answering?
● Who is the author and what are their credentials in this particular field of study?
● Which perspective or view did the author take, and was this the most effective approach?
● What theoretical framework is the author using to come to their conclusions?
● Has the author included all views, approaches, or perspectives on the topic, including opposing views?
● What type of evidence does the author use to support their claims? Take a look at the sources they use and how they obtain their data. Are they mostly primary sources or secondary sources? Is there a mix?
● Are there any indications of bias in the author’s writing and/or conclusions?
● How does the flow of the author’s argument work? Are there any areas where you spot any breakdown or disconnect from the data?
● What contributions does this author make to your overall understanding of the particular topic or field of study?
● Can you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the article?
● What gaps can you identify in the research?
● How does this author’s research and overall argument compare to other literature written on the topic? (This is the basis for your literature review).
Formatting Your Literature Review
Since this isn’t your typical academic essay or research paper, you might also have some questions about the format you need to use to put it all together. However, you can format your literature review using the standard five-point essay format you’d use for any other type of essay or written assignment.
This structure includes the following five paragraphs:
2. Body paragraph 1
3. Body paragraph 2
4. Body paragraph 3
When writing an essay or research paper using this format, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be limited to five paragraphs. The amount of body paragraphs you include will vary depending on how long your paper is, how many sources you’re including, and how many different topics or subtopics you’re going to divide the research into. We’ll go into more detail on how to organize your paper in the next section below.
Woman in yellow shirt reading through a stack of books for research in a literature review
What to Include in Your Introduction
As with any written assignment, your literature review should begin with a strong introduction. This includes a catchy hook, some background information or context on your topic, and a thesis statement that identifies your research question.
Your background information in the introduction should go over the scope of your research and what you’re going to be covering in the bulk of your paper. Since you’re going to be outlining the literature based on specific topics or trends in your sources, you can use this section to go over a brief summary of those specific topics that you will expand on later.
For more tips on how to write a great introduction to any type of paper, check out our blog. You can also grab a copy of our most recent ebook, Everything You Need to Know About Thesis Statements, to help structure a great thesis that guides an efficient paper.
Body Paragraphs: How to Organize Your Literature Review
Of course, if you need to know how to write a literature review, you need to know how to organize your body paragraphs. Your body paragraphs are where you’re going to include the bulk of your research and observations. This is the heart of your entire literature review.
Your organizational structure is determined by the type of literature review you’re writing. Here are some of the types of literature reviews you may be required to do:
● Chronological review: A review of the research in chronological order that discusses each work in succession, beginning with the earliest sources and moving through to the most recent.
● Thematic review: A review meant to assess the current or potential future risks of a specific solution to a particular topic or research question.
● Scoping review: A review that is intended to collect all of the literature available on a topic to determine the potential scope of the research on your topic, determine any gaps, and identify opportunities.
● Systematic review: A type of review usually used within the natural and health sciences that reviews sources of literature that meet a specific criteria for data collection and synthesizing and compares answers to specific research questions.
● Narrative (traditional) review: A more generic overview of the literature and research on your topic, reporting on the conclusions that have been made, any potential gaps, effectiveness, and so on.
In most undergraduate programs, you will most likely be writing a narrative review. Other types of reviews, like thematic and systematic reviews, are more comprehensive and usually conducted in graduate programs such as PhDs.
Typically, your narrative literature review will be organized by topic. In an annotated bibliography, you’d have your authors listed separately and alphabetically, but when you’re writing out a literature review, you want to go for the opposite tactic.
You want to avoid your literature review becoming a list of article summaries written out one author at a time. If you read through your work and see that every paragraph begins with an article title or an author’s name, that’s a sign that you didn’t structure your review efficiently.
Organize your paragraphs around a particular topic or theme. For example, you could do this by grouping what all of the authors say about that topic, or by the similarities and differences in their arguments.
The Conclusion: How to End Your Literature Review
In your conclusion, you’re going to write a short, direct summary of the key points you pulled out from your sources and discussed in your literature review. This should be a brief overview with a length relative to the length of your paper. For example, if your paper is 20 pages long, you can write one full page conclusion. If it’s only five pages, you can use half a page.
No matter what type of paper you’re writing, your conclusion should always follow these rules:
● Rephrase and restate your thesis statement.
● Summarize the key points you discussed in your paper.
● Never introduce any new information you didn’t include in the body of your paper.
● End with an answer to your research question or further questions for discussion that your reader might want to think about.
For more tips on how to end your paper, check out our blog on how to start a conclusion.
Female college student writing a paper on a laptop on her couch
Final Literature Review Tips to Remember
Just before we leave you on your own to hunker down and get started on your assignment, here are some final tips to remember when learning how to write a literature review.
● This is not a reflection piece. You’re here to provide an overview on what’s been written about your topic – not to give your opinion about the articles you’ve read.
● Watch your writing. Make sure you always use proper grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and spelling. This is a post-secondary level academic assignment and you can’t get away with those simple mistakes anymore. While we’re on this point, always use third person voice.
● Include only relevant sources. Don’t include anything that doesn’t directly respond to your research question or include information directly related to your topic.
● Make sure there’s variety. Try to include a mix of sources with different types of information. If you can do this, a blend of primary and secondary sources is the most ideal way to go.
● You don’t always have to stick within your specific discipline when looking for sources. Sometimes an interdisciplinary approach to a research question can add a well-rounded approach and show your professor that you did very thorough research for your assignment.
● Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. If you’re stuck, there are always resources available to you and there is no shame in asking to use them. Check out our blog on how to write a good essay for a detailed guide to writing your academic research papers.
Struggling student reading through a book for a research paper
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