How to Write a Literature Review: Actionable Tips & Links

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So you have to write a literature review. You find your favorite novel, and then start analyzing it.

This is how it’s usually done, right?

In fact, it’s not.

The “literature” here means any collection of materials on a given topic. In this case, “literature” can be anything from a set of poems about love to serious scholarly articles about the treatment for pneumonia. And the word “review” does not actually mean that you have to give your personal opinion about these sources.

What is a literature review?

Literature review definition

A literature review is a thorough review and analysis of the literature available in a chosen or given subject area. It shouldn’t just look like a chronological catalogue of the sources you have found or the quotes you might find relevant.

Instead, a literature review:

  • Locates your research focus within the context of the existing literature in the field
  • Presents your critical review of the relevant literature
  • Explains all sides of the argument
  • Evaluates the research findings and their quality

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Objectives

There are a few basic purposes of a literature review.

It:

  • Identifies and narrows down the problem you are studying
  • Synthesizes the information from your literature survey into a summary
  • Presents the literature in an organized way
  • Critically evaluates the available information by:
    • Finding gaps in current studies
    • Showing limitations of the proposed points of view and theories
  • Provides suggestions for further research and reviews controversial areas

Main elements of literature review

There are five essential elements in any review of literature, and each one of them plays an important role in the overall study.

main elements of literature review table

These links will help you get more closely acquainted with a literature review:

- Literature Reviews
- What is a Literature Review?
- The Best Literature Review: 45 Great Tips on Format and Structure
- The Literature Review: a Few Tips on Conducting It
- Literature Review Tutorial
- Literature Review
- The Literature Review (25 min video)
- Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (9 min video)

How to write a literature review

1. Review the given citation style guidelines

Before you get started with your paper, you need to get acquainted with the required citation style guidelines to have your literature review formatted correctly. Here are several reasons why you need to do this first:

  • To recognize the author(s) of the materials you’re using in your research
  • To give context to your study and show that your paper is properly researched
  • To enable your readers to immediately find the original sources for more detailed information if needed
  • To allow for further research by informing others about what has already been studied on a given topic

Be sure to cite other authors’ ideas and words whenever you:

  • Paraphrase
  • Make a summary
  • Quote directly
  • Use relatively unknown facts or ones that directly relate to your argument

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2. Choose a topic

Choosing the right topic for your literature review is a very important step towards writing an effective paper.

Want to get the best tips?

Here they are:

a) Look for a topic that you find interesting.

The reason is obvious:

The right choice will make the researching and writing process more pleasurable and rewarding in the end.

b) Brainstorm your ideas.

Try this method to make your ideas flow more freely. Keep refining your ideas until you find something that will pique your curiosity.

c) Make sure that there is enough literature available for your review.

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Have you chosen a great topic?

Cool!

You still won’t be able to properly write a literature review on this topic if it hasn’t been researched by others yet. To make sure you find an appropriate topic, you can even choose a few topics and do preliminary research for each one of them.

d) Adhere to the golden middle: neither too general nor too specific.

This is clear, right?

Too broad of a topic will spread your and your readers’ attention thin, and it will be difficult to study. Too narrow of a topic might not have enough supporting articles for your literature review. However, if you find enough studies on a very specific topic, that would be ideal!

3. Find core materials for review

Thorough academic research will certainly take some time.

The good news is this:

Once it’s done the way it should be, the research almost writes the literature review for you.

So:

By now, you have defined the topic and scope of your literature review.

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Your next step is to start identifying specific resources for your review.

Here are some tips:

Write down any keywords that describe your topic. Use a reference tool or a thesaurus to generate this list. Then use these keywords to research scholarly databases. These search terms will help you find useful sources.

Choosing incorrect or non-descriptive keywords will return results that are too shallow.

Here are some suggestions for online multidisciplinary databases that you might use:

4. Analyze the sources you’ve found

Before deciding whether the material you’ve found should be included in your review, you should critically evaluate all the available sources.

Why?

Some of the materials retrieved from the Internet may end up being irrelevant or not valuable enough for your project.

You can use this table as a guide to evaluating your sources.

analyze the sources you’ve found table

5. Evaluate websites

Before you use or cite any information you find on a website, you should carefully evaluate the source in a few ways:

  • Search for information about the author: "About Us", "About This Site", etc.
  • Make sure you can reach the website’s author/webmaster by e-mail or some other means.
  • Assess the authority of the URL (site’s web address). Pay special attention to top-level domains:

- .com – most likely a commercial site (may be selling products or services)
- .edu – an educational institution (mostly reliable, but still may be a personal web page of an institution’s member)
- .gov – highly reliable, representing a government department or agent
- .net – network access provider
- .org – a non-profit organization (reliability level may vary)

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6. Make a literature review summary

Summarizing your findings in the format of a table or concept map will help you review, manage, and summarize the literature you’ve dug up.

  • If you use tables for your review, they must include an analysis to summarize, explain, and synthesize the material that you’re reviewing.

Wondering what´s the best way to create tables?

You can make use of Microsoft Word’s table functionality, or you can create the table in Excel first and then copy→paste/import the completed Excel sheet into Word. Using Excel will let you incorporate some useful functions like sorting your findings (e.g. by date, by author, by method and then by date, etc.)

  • You can plan your table or do the entire summary chart of your literature using a concept map. Use these services to create your maps:

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- Bubbl.us
- MindMup2
- Canva
- MindMeister
- WiseMapping

  • As a starting point, try organizing the following data for your literature review into tables or maps:

- Keywords and concepts
- Points of view
- Facts and statistics
- Research methods
- Research results summary, etc.

7. Outline and write a literature review

Do you still think you can do without a literature review outline when translating your research into writing?

You might end up having to spend too much time writing without one!

Go ahead and create an outline before you actually start writing your paper.

As soon as you’re ready to begin writing, make sure to follow our valuable tips and you’ll easily end up with a great literature review!

part of the paper table

Pay special attention to these important details as well:

  • Define the general problem you’re studying without making global statements.
  • Somewhere in the beginning of the paper, mention why your topic is important.
  • Make sure to highlight only the essential points from each source. And these points should refer directly to the focus of your review.
  • Explain the difference between your own research and that of other sources.
  • Break your findings up by concepts and categories (in defense of or opposition to a certain position).
  • Synthetize the materials under consideration: compare the studies, reveal their strengths and weaknesses, highlight gaps and trends in the research, etc.
  • Describe the timeframe if you’re going to comment on the topic’s timeliness.
  • If you need to cite a classic or landmark study, define it as it is.
  • If you replicate some landmark study, point it out.
  • Keep your voice front and center. Even though a literature review describes ideas from other authors, you should maintain your own voice. Try to start and end the paragraph with your own ideas and words.

glasses read learn book

  • Just like any other academic paper, you should make references to a few other resources when you make a point. Always back up your explanations with evidence to confirm the validity of your words.
  • Comments like "no studies were found" should be always justified.
  • Always give credit to authors whenever you use their ideas. And quote reasonably. Use quotes only to highlight a certain idea or fact that exemplifies your research.
  • Draw conclusions about the literature that made the biggest contribution in your study area.

Are you still wondering how to do a literature review?

These useful links will help you do just that:

- Guidelines for Writing a Literature Review
- Writing a Literature Review
- Literature Review – Finding the Resources
- Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review
- How to Write a Literature Review (ppt 32 slides)

Literature reviews in various study areas: helpful links

The links below will provide you with useful literature review guidelines in different study areas.

Even better:

You’ll find great literature review examples below!

Science
- Writing in Science: the Literature Review
- Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences
- Scientific Literature Review: What it is and what it's not (13 min video)

Medicine
- I Want To Do a Systematic Review
- Arts in Medicine Literature Review (sample of literature review in pdf)

Sociology
- Literature Reviews in Sociology
- Sociology: Literature Review Checklist (pdf)

Psychology literature review
- How to Write a Literature Review in Psychology
- Conducting Literature Review in Education and the Behavioral Sciences (audio tutorial)

Business and economics
- Business and Economics Literature Review
- Writing a literature review in Business and Economics
- Projects and Their Management: A Literature Review (sample in pdf)