How to Write a Stellar Literature Review (2024)

When you’re conducting academic research, a literature review is a survey of the scholarly sources you’ve consulted in your research. Typically, literature reviews are only necessary when you’re doing a significant academic project, such as a dissertation, research paper, or athesis. For shorter pieces of academic writing, including essays, your works cited page is sufficient.

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When would I write a literature review?

As we mentioned above, writing a literature review is part of writing an academic paper. The purpose of writing a literature review is to present thesources you’ve used in your research to your work’s readers. By doing this, you’re communicating several things:

  • Research methodology: In other words, you’re explaining the type of research you conducted, how you conducted your research and collected your data, your reasons for choosing the sources you chose, and how you analyzed the data you collected.
  • Theoretical framework you established: This is essentially a map of your research showing where you started, which concepts you chose to dive into deeply, and where following those concepts brought you. Generally, these concepts are theories and models established by academics in your field.
  • Where your work fits into the bigger picture: Here, you explain how your findings connect to the existing body of research on your topic. This means how it relates to other pieces of research, any existing gaps it fills, any debates to which it contributes, and where you fit in among others in your field.

Writing a literature review is no small undertaking! But then again, neither is writing your thesis, dissertation, or even a lengthy, comprehensive research paper.

In many cases, you’re required to write a literature review and submit it to your academic supervisor before getting started on your paper. This gives your supervisor the opportunity to see what you’re researching, how you’re conducting that research, and, if necessary, provide feedback and suggestions to make your research stronger. This could mean suggesting alternative sources or redirecting your research’s scope.

A literature review is not the same thing as anabstract. Both are critical parts of a research project, but while an abstract summarizes your work, a literature review summarizes the research you conducted to complete your work. In many cases, an abstract’s goal is to engage readers and help researchers and cataloguers determine whether your work is a relevant source for their work and whether it’s a good fit for a specific collection or academic journal. A literature review’s goal is to provide a “behind the scenes” look at how you did your research, underpinning it as a valid piece of scholarly research.

How to write a literature review

Literature review structure

A literature review isstructured similarly to an essay. It begins with an introduction that states the research question and explains how you tackled it. Following are body paragraphs that explain your research in further detail. Then, it ends with a conclusion section that reiterates the research question while summarizing the insights you had through your research.

A literature review’s length depends largely on the type of research it’s being written for. For a short paper, it might only be a few pages long, but for a lengthy work like a thesis or dissertation, it’s often an entire chapter.

Literature review style

A literature review requires the same style as any other piece ofacademic writing. That means no contractions or colloquialisms, concise language, formal tone, and an objective perspective at all times.

To distinguish between your analysis and prior scholarly work in the field, use the past tense when discussing the previous research conducted on your topic and the present tense when discussing your point of view. For example, you might write that a specific author conducted research or that they had been influenced by earlier researchers in the field, but also that you are exploring different research methods and that you are posing certain questions.

Writing a literature review, step-by-step

Define your research scope

If you haven’t yet narrowed your research focus down to a specific, answerable question, do that before you move forward with finding sources. Once you have a clear, specific thesis for your work, write a list of keywords related to that thesis you can use to streamline your source-gathering process.

Find relevant literature

Using the keywords you listed, search for relevant sources through your university library and/or databases like Google Scholar, JSTOR, EBSCO, and field-specific databases like Project Muse and EconLit.

As you find potential sources, read their abstracts to determine whether they are within your research’s scope. By reading a quick preview of each source (and taking note of recurring authors, contributors, and citations) you can pare down your list to a collection of works that provide the data, insights, and additional content you need to conduct your research.

Identify themes, patterns, and gaps within your body of sources

Read your pared-down body of sources. As you conduct your research, take note of the themes present in them and ask questions:

  • Do different authors agree with each other on these themes?
  • Where do they disagree?
  • How does each author support their position?

Examine the research methods each author used in their work. If your sources involve studies or experiments, note whether the results were replicated and where, if at all, the studies’ results varied from each other.

Write down your key insights and how each source you consult contributes to the existing pool of knowledge on its subject. Explore how the sources challenge and contradict each other and where they agree or expand upon each other.

Create a literature review outline

Writing an outline is an important part of the writing process. Once you’ve read your sources and you understand their themes, patterns, and connections to each other, it’s time to organize your strategy for writing about how you’ve used them in your research by creating an outline.

There are a few different ways you can organize your outline. You can organize it chronologically, listing and discussing the oldest sources you’ve consulted and working up to the latest pieces. You can also organize your sources according to their themes, creating a section for each shared theme you encountered and discussing it there. Another way to organize your sources in your outline is to group them according to the research methods used by their authors.

The best way to organize your literature review often depends on your subject area. In the humanities, presenting your sources chronologically or according to their themes can effectively highlight how existing research on your subject has evolved, whereas in the hard sciences, organizing your sources according to their research methods can enable you to highlight why the current scholarly consensus (if there is one!) is what it is.

Write your literature review

Once your outline is complete, it’s time to start writing. In nearly all cases, literature reviews are written in the third person. For example, you might discuss a scholarly article by stating “this paper argues . . .” or “in her work, the author elaborates on . . .” However, there are cases where first person is appropriate in a literature review, such as when you’re referencing your own research. For example, if you’re citing an earlier paper you’ve written or data collected from a study you conducted, you may use phrases like “I argue,” “I propose,” and “through my research, I found that . . .”

Remember to follow the style you’re using for your research paper, whether that’s MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style format. Similarly, use the same objective academic tone you’ll use in your research paper. Don’t just list and describe the sources you’ve read; respond to them, interpret them, and critically evaluate them. Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with every source you use—in fact, exploring where your findings diverge from a source’s findings can be a strong point in your literature review and your research as a whole.

Don’t forget to write an annotated bibliography of all your sources. Failing to cite your sources correctly can get you in trouble for plagiarism, which can potentially result in having your work discredited or even being expelled from your university.

Literature review examples

Reading others’ literature reviews, especially literature reviews for research in your academic field, can be a very helpful way for you to understand how they work and see what you need to include in yours.

Read the literature reviews of the sources you read in your own research. Your university might also have a resources page of literature review examples you can read. University of West Florida is one university that publishes literature review examples online.

Get academic writing just right

Academic writing is a lot different from other types of writing. While you want to strive for spot-on grammar and clear wording in everything you write, these factors are especially important in academic writing. There, you’re establishing yourself as a credible source on the topic you’ve covered—making polished, coherent writing essential.

That’s also why it’s so important to strike the right tone in your academic writing—and it’s a tone you don’t find in many other kinds of work. Grammarly does more than catch your grammar mistakes and unclear writing; it detects your tone and offers valuable suggestions you can use to polish your writing into its final, submission-ready version.

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Literature Review in Academic Research

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources that researchers consult during their academic research. It is typically conducted for significant academic projects such as dissertations, research papers, or theses. The purpose of a literature review is to present the sources used in the research to the readers of the work [[1]].

Purpose of a Literature Review

A literature review serves several purposes in academic writing:

  1. Research Methodology: It explains the type of research conducted, how the research was conducted, data collection methods, reasons for choosing specific sources, and data analysis techniques [[1]].
  2. Theoretical Framework: It provides a map of the research, showing the starting point, the concepts explored in-depth, and the outcomes of following those concepts. These concepts are often theories and models established by academics in the field [[1]].
  3. Contribution to Existing Research: It explains how the findings of the research connect to the existing body of research on the topic. This includes discussing how the research relates to other studies, fills existing gaps, contributes to ongoing debates, and positions the researcher among others in the field [[1]].

Writing a Literature Review

Writing a literature review is a significant undertaking and follows a structured approach. Here are the key steps involved:

  1. Define Your Research Scope: Narrow down your research focus to a specific, answerable question before finding sources. This helps streamline the source-gathering process [[1]].
  2. Find Relevant Literature: Use keywords related to your thesis to search for relevant sources through university libraries and databases like Google Scholar, JSTOR, EBSCO, and field-specific databases. Read abstracts to determine if they are within your research scope [[1]].
  3. Identify Themes, Patterns, and Gaps: Read your selected sources, take note of recurring themes, and analyze how different authors agree or disagree on those themes. Examine research methods used by authors and note key insights from each source [[1]].
  4. Create a Literature Review Outline: Organize your literature review by creating an outline. You can organize it chronologically, thematically, or based on research methods used by authors. The best approach depends on your subject area [[1]].
  5. Write Your Literature Review: Write your literature review in the third person, maintaining an objective academic tone. Respond to, interpret, and critically evaluate the sources you've read. Follow the citation style (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style) used in your research paper and include an annotated bibliography of all your sources [[1]].

Examples and Resources

Reading literature reviews written by others in your academic field can be helpful in understanding how they work and what to include in your own review. You can find literature review examples in the sources you read during your research or check if your university provides online resources with literature review examples. For instance, the University of West Florida publishes literature review examples online [[1]].

Academic Writing and Grammarly

Academic writing requires precise grammar and clear wording to establish credibility and communicate effectively. Grammarly is a tool that can help you improve your academic writing by checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and offering suggestions to polish your work. It can also help you maintain the appropriate tone for academic writing [[1]].

I hope this information helps you understand the concepts related to literature reviews in academic research. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask!

How to Write a Stellar Literature Review (2024)


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