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Tools for Academic Writing: Literature Review

This guide contains resources to improve academic writing including: Literature Reviews, Annotated Bibliographies, Writing in Various Disciplines, and Giving Peer Feedback.
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Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a discussion of previously published information on a particular topic, providing summary and connections to help readers understand the research that has been completed on a subject and why it is important. Unlike a research paper, a literature review does not develop a new argument, instead focusing on what has been argued or proven in past papers. However, a literature review should not just be an annotated bibliography that lists the sources found; the literature review should be organized thematically as a cohesive paper.

Why write a literature review?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes literature reviews?

Literature reviews are sometimes written in the humanities, but more often in the sciences and social sciences. In scientific reports and longer papers, they constitute one section of the work. Literature reviews can also be written as stand-alone papers.

How Should I Organize My Literature Review?

Here are some ways to organize a literature review from Purdue OWL: 

  • Chronological: The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. 
  • Thematic: If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Methodological: If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods, you can compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example: Qualitative versus quantitative research, empirical versus theoretical scholarship, divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources.
  • Theoretical: In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Outline Your Literature Review's Structure

How to Write a Literature Review

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

Writing the Literature Review

Find a focus
Just like a term paper, a literature review is organized around ideas, not just sources. Use the research question you developed in planning your review and the issues or themes that connect your sources together to create a thesis statement. Yes, literature reviews have thesis statements! But your literature review thesis statement will be presenting a perspective on the material, rather than arguing for a position or opinion. For example:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine.

More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization
Once you have your thesis statement, you will need to think about the best way to effectively organize the information you have in your review. Like most academic papers, literature reviews should have an introduction, body, and conclusion. 

Use evidence and be selective
When making your points in your literature review, you should refer to several sources as evidence, just like in any academic paper. Your interpretation of the available information must be backed up with evidence to show that your ideas are valid. You also need to be selective about the information you choose to include in your review. Select only the most important points in each source, making sure everything you mention relates to the review's focus.

Summarize and synthesize
Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources in each paragraph as well as throughout the review. You should not be doing in-depth analysis in your review, so keep your use of quotes to a minimum. A literature review is not just a summary of current sources; you should be keeping your own voice and saying something new about the collection of sources you have put together.

Revise, revise, revise
When you have finished writing the literature review, you still have one final step! Spending a lot of time revising is important to make sure you have presented your information in the best way possible. Check your review to see if it follows the assignment instructions and/or your outline. Rewrite or rework your language to be more concise and double check that you have documented your sources and formatted your review appropriately.

The Literature Review Model

Machi, Lawrence A, and Brenda T McEvoy. The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success. 2Nd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2012.

What the Literature Review IS and ISN'T:

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Organizing Your Review

As you read and evaluate your literature there are several different ways to organize your research. Courtesy of Dr. Gary Burkholder in the School of Psychology, these sample matrices are one option to help organize your articles. These documents allow you to compile details about your sources, such as the foundational theories, methodologies, and conclusions; begin to note similarities among the authors; and retrieve citation information for easy insertion within a document.

How to Create a Literature Matrix using Excel

Synthesis for Literature Reviews

Developing a Research Question 

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