What is a literature review?
The usual purpose of a literature review is to show a gap in existing research or to show a field’s overall view of a topic.
A "literature review" is a summary of what previous studies have demonstrated or argued about a topic. It may stand on its own as the focus of a paper, with just an introduction and conclusion summarizing the relevant literature, or it may be part of a more extensive research paper, such as a journal article, research proposal, thesis, or dissertation. Here are a couple of literature review examples:
Standalone literature review: What Is Corruption?: A History of Corruption Studies and the Great Definitions Debate
Literature review as part of a longer paper: Seagrass Mapping and Monitoring Along the Coasts of Crete, Greece
Steps to Write a Literature Review
Starting is always the hardest part, so let's dive right in. While every writer’s process may differ, these are six basic steps that writers will find helpful when trying to draft literature reviews.
1. Laser focus on your topic
Professional painters say the key to a superior paint job is in prepping the surface, not in the painting itself. In the same way, you’ll set yourself up for success in writing your literature review if you prepare by narrowing down exactly what you’ll be looking for as you search for sources.
Your research topic shouldn’t be too broad or too narrow. You can’t look at every aspect of the topic. But you also don’t want to choose a topic that few others have examined, which will leave you without much to discuss.
Ask yourself: What question(s) am I trying to answer?
2. Gather and sort sources
Once you’ve settled on a niche topic, you can begin collecting sources and reviewing them to determine which key findings lend the most helpful insight and the sharpest focus on your topic.
Choose primary sources where possible, ideally ones that appear in reliable publications or are written by other researchers who are authorities on the topic. Also consider the time frame and background of each source in relation to your topic.
For example, if your research focuses on how 17th-century European colonization affected citizens of colonized nations, firsthand accounts from those 17th-century citizens will hold more weight than surveys of present-day Europeans.
It's important to critically evaluate each source with an open mind, keeping your topic's specificities in mind.
Ask yourself: Is this source qualified to add to the discussion?
How closely does this source’s topic align with the question I’m trying to answer?
3. Make connections and identify themes
Your job is to draw out the most important aspects of what the author of each source is saying. Then, as you write, combine them into a cohesive view of the topic, including your own interpretations of their work.
The skill of combining ideas from multiple sources is called synthesis. Synthesizing ideas is an invaluable skill when you’re learning how to write a literature review. Combine arguments and findings from all of your sources to form a new view or show where knowledge is lacking.
As you review and analyze sources, remember to take notes on what you find and write down reference information.
Ask yourself: Do the authors agree or disagree?
What are the differences between their viewpoints?
How has the predominant view of the topic changed over time?
Do the authors agree on definitions of key terms and concepts?
Do the authors base their research on the same theories and frameworks?
Which authors’ studies are more reliable, and why?
Am I emphasizing one viewpoint over another? If so, is it because the evidence supports it or because I have bias?
4. Develop a structure
By the time you finish analyzing the sources you chose, you will probably notice some patterns, categories, and themes. You can use these patterns to structure your literature review. Here are some examples:
- You see a gradual shift in the prevailing view of your topic over time or a sudden shift after a landmark finding: present the sources in chronological order to show the evolution of thought or compare them before and after the major finding
- You find that the studies fall easily into two methodological camps: compare and contrast the two camps
- Certain aspects of the topic pop up in many studies: divide your literature review into paragraphs focusing on each aspect
Ask yourself: What is the most effective way to organize this information?
When you’ve developed the overall structure, use the notes from Step 3 to write your literature review. Maintain a formal tone, like in any other piece of academic writing. And include the following organizational components to connect all the parts into a well-rounded whole:
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- An introductory paragraph or two to let the reader know how you’ll present the information
- Transition words and phrases that show how the studies, and the major sections you developed in Step 4, relate to each other
- A sentence to start each paragraph that makes it clear to the reader what that paragraph is about
- Headings that guide the reader through your presentation of sources in a logical way
- A conclusion that summarizes what you found in the literature and what the reader should take away from it
And finally, cite your sources thoroughly. Following your style guide, add in-text citations for every idea, claim, or quote you draw from another source. Then compile a complete reference list, making sure to include every source you used in the body of the literature review. Plagiarism can seriously derail your academic career, so you don’t want to risk it.
At every step, remember to keep the focus sharp on your main research question (the one you asked in Step 1).
Ask yourself: Is my thought process clear?
Have I shown a complete view of my topic?
Have I shown how these sources do or don’t answer the research question?
What should the reader understand after reading my literature review?
Ideally some time should pass between when you finish the writing step and when you edit. This helps you review your writing with fresh eyes so that you can more easily spot errors and oversights.
First, look at your paper from a bird’s-eye view: make sure the formatting is neat and consistent and the overall organization of ideas makes sense and flows logically. Make sure you’ve included the most important sources on your topic and cited each one.
Ask yourself: Is my literature review well written and easy to understand?
Enlist expert help
Now you know the basics of how to write a literature review for a research paper. But there’s one more thing you can do to take your literature review from good to great: bring in expert writing tools.
QuillBot provides a Plagiarism Checker, Citation Generator, Grammar Checker, and Summarizer that can make a real difference in your final document. They’ll come in handy at every step of the literature review writing process, as well as when you’re writing the rest of your research paper, because they check and improve your work with the click of a button.
QuillBot's detects plagiarism in your text and makes sure that it is plagiarism-free.
So get to researching, and QuillBot will be here when you need it!
How long should a literature review be?
The literature review is often the longest part of a research paper, typically 20%–25% of the total content.
Can I write a literature review in one day?
Maybe, if you’ve already gathered all your sources, a pot of coffee, a full night’s sleep, and superhuman focus. But we don’t recommend it, and it’s unlikely to result in great work. And if your paper is not a short one, forget about it—there’s no way.
Because the literature review is such a core component of most papers, you should start on it long before your deadline and devote serious time and effort to getting it right.
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