Tips for Writing a Literature Review

It may be that you think – as some people do - that reviewing literature involves reading particular books before deciding whether these are worthwhile or not. However, this is not the case. Literature reviews are thorough reviews of different works of literature on a given topic, and these works may range from short texts such as articles and pamphlets to entire books. At times, a literature review is a smaller part of a much more bulky research essay or paper. The purpose of such a review is to avoid duplicating effort, resolving possible conflicts, and setting the direction for future research.   

First Part

Prior to Writing

Make sure you are clear about what your professor requires. It can happen that some course instructors ask for a literature review without being any more specific. Or it may be that they did want more but you were busy playing a video game. Whatever the case, however, the first step to achieving an A grade is knowing exactly what it is your professor wants.

  • What number of sources do you need to include? Has your professor asked for a particular number for each source type? Do these need to be reasonably current?
  • When you are discussing themes for your paper, are you critiquing or just summing-up? A thesis is required in some reviews but not in others.
  • Are you expected to give your own opinion on the different sources?
  • Are you expected to give some background or historical information e.g. the history of an event or any definitions to help readers better understand your paper?
  • Are there any specific requirements in terms of word or page count?

Narrow down your subject or topic. Narrow the topic down as much as possible while allowing sufficient room for the required number of sources. Studies concerning birth order can lead to numerous books but narrower studies about same-gender siblings can make searching more manageable and a lot quicker.

  • Using current sources. When writing papers that concern history, humanities, or the social sciences, there is less need to worry about timings (indeed, showing how opinions on a subject have changed throughout the course of history could well be a feature of a particular assignment). However, if your task is to review various pieces of literature for a scientific paper such as, for example, the treating of diabetes, data older than five years may be out-of-date. You will need to look at current literature reviews or bibliographies in the relevant field to understand what your subject area expects.

Find the right focus for your paper. With this type of review, the task is more than merely collecting sources and summarizing what they are saying. You need to identify and consider any unifying ideas and themes. Think of the books you are reading as though it were groups of your friends or fellow students arguing or discussing the same subject or topic. What assumptions are they all making? In what ways are these similar and different?

  • Look for underlying meaning. Remember, in your review, you need not necessarily look for explicit meaning or content. Is any aspect of the topic or field of study missing? Does every source advocate or point to one particular theory? Are specific trends becoming obvious? Zooming in on those elements that give purpose to your work should prove an immense help in developing a structure for your paper.

Develop a thesis for your paper. Once you have found the right focus, you are ready to build your paper’s thesis statement. It is part true and part false to say a literature review does not have a thesis statement. Reviews are constructed around a thesis, but these are not necessarily the usual type. The thesis statement in a literature review does not especially argue in favor of a particular opinion or position; rather, it usually argues in favor of a specific perspective on the reading matter.

  • Here is an example: “A, B, and C are notable trends in this topic,” or “From 1995 onwards, most sources assume the XYZ theory.” This type of statement raises a few probing questions, which adds interest and meaningfulness to a review: How are trends likely to change over time? Is it possible the theories put forward now are incorrect?
  • Once again, this information is not new. With this method, you will not be analyzing literary works from a fresh perspective and giving new insight. This approach is quite computer-like in that it notes assumptions, patterns, and holes in source materials.

Evaluate your source materials. No matter how good your intentions or how well you develop a prose capable of convincing the most skeptical reader, it is of no use if your source materials are not credible. You should evaluate sources on several levels such as:

  • What credentials does the author have? How do they support any arguments they make i.e. with facts, statistics, historical data, narratives, etc.?
  • Does the author offer an unbiased perspective and is this objective? Is any information or data that could strengthen a point or argument missing?
  • How convincing or persuasive is a particular author? Are there any shortcomings in any of the points they make?
  • Does any particular author’s work provide better understanding of the topic or subject?

Second Part

Developing Your Essay or Paper 

Begin with a strong introduction. As always, the first impression you make does matter. Therefore, your introductory paragraph should provide a brief overview of your chosen topic, whether this is thematical or by the pattern of its organization.

Help your readers by giving them an idea of what type of experience is ahead of them. If your review needs a thesis statement, place this near the end of the introduction paragraph. As this part nears its end, readers should expect to be settling in to the bulk of your work and any supporting evidence. 

Organize your paper’s main body. You have a number of options in this part since you have an array of sources and it is likely they have a lot in common since they relate to one topic. Select the method that seems best for the particular approach you have taken. For example, you could:

  • Arrange your paper in chronological order. If it is the case, your sources cover different eras or trends that have changed over time, chronological order can be the most sensible.
  • Organize it according to publication. This method of organization is a good option where publications take a different view or stance. It works well where the progression of sources occurs naturally (e.g., conservative or radical).
  • Organize by trend. Where you see patterns in the sources you are using, the most obvious organizational method may be by noticeable trends. Collectively, some sources may point to one particular pattern that alters over time, geographical area, or other factor(s).
  • Organize by theme. This method can depend on your paper’s thesis statement and your chosen sources. If your focus is an abstract one, e.g., “Colonization is seen as ineffective,” you may arrange subsections according to the methods used to convey the individual themes.  

Arrive at a clear and concise conclusion. Your concluding paragraph should bring your paper to a smooth close, recap on the introduction, and reiterate the main points from the body section.

  • A concluding paragraph can be suggestive. How might your paper’s discussion move forward if it were picked up by another person where you finished? What consequences might arise from the patterns, trends, and gaps in current sources?  

Make use of evidence. In this type of writing, you are free to pick out and combine information from a number of different sources and present your findings in the form of your own worded argument. Essentially, this is your words supported by the work of various experts. Nonetheless, you should:

  • Use quotations in a sparing manner. Since a review of literature is a type of survey, there is little scope for detailed discussion or in-depth quotes from the texts you are reviewing. It is fine to use some short quotations but, for the most part, this type of review should be your own written work.  

Use your own words/voice. Sure, the information you are presenting has not come exclusively from yourself, but every paragraph should begin and end with words of your own choosing. Your own voice should be at the forefront throughout.

  • Where you need to paraphrase an external source, make sure you present the opinions or information of the author in an accurate manner using your own choice of words. Relate this in a contextual sense to your work.
  • Some tutors or professors may ask you to evaluate sources and decide which texts contribute most significantly to the given field. If this is a requirement of your professor, set out your perspective in the introductory paragraph and maintain it for the rest of your review.

Third Part

Revise Your Literature Review

Review your professor’s guidelines. Tutors and professors often like papers to be written in a particular way. So, be sure that yours meets all guidelines both in terms of content and formatting.

  • Has your tutor asked you to format your paper in the APA style? What margin width have they requested? Likewise, what are the requirements for page numbering, headers, footers, and footnotes? How should your name be presented and what about headings and subheadings? How should the works cited page be laid out?

Check that your paper flows coherently and has proper transitions. Clear, concise writing is always best but this is not always easy to achieve at the first attempt. Re-read your written work and reword any parts that seem ambiguous or too wordy.

  • When everything is clearly stated, does your review flow well? Do your sentences and paragraphs transition smoothly from one to another? Make sure all supporting evidence matches the sources they came from and that these are arranged in logical manner.
  • Remove any unnecessary slang or jargon. This project may have caused you to develop a completely new vocabulary, but the same does not apply to your readers. Make sure the masses can read the paper you have written. It should not be too esoteric.

Your written work will need to be proofread. Now that the difficult part is done, all that is left is for you to check your paper’s punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Leave a break – take a rest – between completing the written part and starting to proofread. Your mind and brain may be overloaded. Return when you feel ready.

  • It is a good idea to get another person to also ready your written work. It may be you have read it so often you cannot spot obvious mistakes or absent-mindedness. Fresh eyes should identify errors you missed, ask questions you did not know were unanswered, or point out any areas that are foggy.

Useful Tips

Cite sources correctly. It is likely you will receive instructions on what type of formatting to use for in-text citation. Professors usually expect this formatting to be strictly adhered to and it will be taken into account at the grading stage.

  • Create an outline for your review. This will help you put your thoughts in order, organize the presentation and, ultimately, make it easier to complete your paper.

Things to Avoid

Plagiarism should be avoided at all costs. Paraphrasing and writing in your own words can help you achieve this. Most academic institutions and departments take plagiarism seriously and it can cause students to get suspended or otherwise penalized, even to the point of failing. So, make sure that all direct quotations are correctly attributed.