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If you’re a college or graduate student, you will likely have to write a thesis or dissertation. As an employee in a corporate office, you may also be called on to do some research. 

Writing an academic paper doesn’t have to be daunting when you know the different components, why they matter, and how to write them. The literature review is one of the first steps to writing an academic paper, and also one of the most important. 

What Is a Literature Review? 

A literature review is a compilation of scholarly sources that discuss the topic you are researching. Because it serves as an overview of existing research, a literature review lets you highlight relevant principles and methods, while also identifying gaps in whatever research currently exists. This builds a strong foundation for everything else in your paper. 

Note that a literature review may also be a stand-alone paper you are assigned to write. This is the case when you are called on to look into the current state of research around your topic, and to analyze and synthesize your findings. 

Writing a literature review requires you to collect, evaluate, and analyze existing publications, including journal articles and books that relate to the research question you have chosen.

Purpose of a Literature Review

The literature review is an important part of the research process. It serves the following critical functions: 

  • It helps familiarize you with the topic.
  • It helps you construct a theoretical framework and come up with a methodology for your research. 
  • It lets you place yourself within the context of other theorists and researchers. 
  • It shows readers how your paper adds to an existing debate or addresses a given gap that you highlight from existing research. 

In addition, if you’re a nonfiction author, you might want to write up a literature review to survey the existing research surrounding your topic, so you can be sure to fill any gaps and address new reader needs.

What Should Be Included in the Literature Review? 

Your literature review should include the following information: 

  • All relevant findings related to your subject, with their sources properly cited 
  • Any existing debates or controversial discussions
  • Any gaps in the existing research that you can meet in your research

How to Write a Literature Review

Since the literature review forms the backbone of your research, writing a clear and thorough review is essential. The steps below will help you do so: 

1. Search for relevant information and findings. 

In research, information published on a given subject is called “literature” or “background literature.”  Assuming you already have a clearly-defined topic, the first step you need to take is searching for the relevant literature. 

Before the boom of the internet, searching for relevant literature involved going to the library and weeding through tons of journal articles or research papers on a subject. These days, you can quickly access these articles and other publications with a simple internet search. 

Because of this, your first step will include listing down the keywords that will help you find the results you need. List down everything that is related to your research topic. For example, if your research question is “What effect does social media have on depression?” you might include specific keywords like “Facebook” and “Instagram” to find more results.

Also, because the Internet is overflowing with information and not all of it may be relevant, you will have to learn how to do an efficient search. This includes learning technical search phrases that let you refine your results.

One of the most important tools is the term “site:” which lets you specify which website to search in. 

For example, when you type “site: www.usa.gov” followed by a space and then the keyword, the search will be done automatically only on the U.S. Data and Statistics website. 

Other tools include what we call boolean operators or search terms, which can help you focus your search: 

  • AND – helps you find sources that have more than one keyword
  • OR – helps you find sources containing one of a given number of keywords
  • NOT – lets you exclude results that contain certain keywords 

Some examples of useful databases where you can search for articles and journals are: 

  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse – for social sciences and humanities topics
  • Medline – for biomedicine and life sciences research subjects
  • EconLit – for economic research
  • Inspec – for computer science, physics, and engineering topics

2. Evaluate your sources and select the most relevant ones.

Because you will not have the time to read every single article you find, you need to evaluate which sources will be the most relevant to your research question. First, look through the most credible sources, and also be sure to read major theories and landmark studies. 

For publications that may not be too clear in terms of credibility or undisputed authority, the following questions can help you evaluate them: 

  • What problem does this article address? 
  • What are its key concepts and how does the author define them? 
  • What key theories, models, or methods does the author use? Do they use established frameworks or a more innovative slant? 
  • What conclusions does the author reach in this study? 
  • How does this article relate to other publications in the same field? Does it add to, confirm, or refute other articles? 
  • How does this article add to your understanding of your research question? What key insights and arguments can you glean from it? 
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses? 
  • How many times has it been cited on Google Scholar? (This helps you determine how influential the article is in its field: the higher the citation count, the greater its influence.) 

3. Identify key topics, debates, and research gaps. 

After you’ve compiled your sources, it’s time to start organizing them. You can do this by first identifying any underlying themes. These can come in the form of: 

  • Patterns or trends: Are there approaches that are becoming more or less well-known over time? 
  • Themes: Are there recurring concepts that stand out to you from all the literature you compiled? 
  • Conflicts, contradictions, or debates: In what areas do your sources disagree? 
  • Landmark publications: What other study or theory is greatly impacting the way the field is developing? 
  • Research gaps: What areas have not been covered in detail in the background literature you compiled? What weaknesses do you think should be addressed in your paper? 

4. Prepare your outline. 

For academic papers, it’s always best to formulate your outline before you begin writing. This helps you organize your thoughts and all your findings into a coherent whole. 

After all, you don’t want your literature review to look like a shopping list that simply compiles every piece of information you found, without any thought as to how they all come together.

Your outline should include an introduction, main body, and conclusion. 

5. Write the contents of your literature review. 

With your outline in place, you can now start to write your literature review. 

For the introduction, establish the purpose of your literature review. Here you can explain whether the literature review is part of a larger work or if it’s a stand-alone piece. 

In the body of the paper, you will start to elaborate on the points you put in your outline. Use subheadings to make the paragraphs clearer.

These additional tips will also help you make a literature review that adds value to others: 

  • Summarize your findings: When writing your literature review, don’t just copy and paste whatever you find. Summarize and paraphrase as much as possible. 
  • Analyze: Then, add your own analysis. A literature review is valuable because of the insights you provide. 
  • Evaluate critically: Be sure to remain as objective as possible. 
  • Structure your paragraphs: Keep each paragraph to one main theme, and include transitional sentences to make each paragraph flow neatly to the next. 
  • State your references: As you write, be sure to note down which sources gave which ideas or findings. Depending on the requirements, you can use the AP Style or Chicago Style of referencing. 

How Do You Structure a Literature Review? 

You can structure your literature review in the following ways: 

  • Thematic: In a thematic outline, you will be compiling your information to revolve around a specific theme. Different parts of your research may go into different subsections that focus on certain parts of your topic. 
  • Chronological: This approach lets you show the development of your topic over time. While this is helpful in showing how theories change, be sure to add your own analysis of patterns, turning points, or debates, showing how they helped shape where the field is going. One way of doing this is interpreting how or why the specific developments happened. 
  • Methodological: In this format, you will be looking at the different research methods your sources used, comparing how they arrived at conclusions or recommendations. You can discuss how and why the different sources opted for those methods, perhaps looking at whether the source is sociological, cultural, or historical. 
  • Theoretical: A theoretical framework lets you focus on discussing the different models, theories, and key concepts surrounding your topic. 

Writing a Lit Review 

Writing a literature review does not have to be a tedious process as long as you know what you need to do.

Knowing how to choose sources will save you a lot of time and energy, and analyzing the information as you read it will also let you write more efficiently, resulting in a literature review that is useful for your own research. 

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