How to Write A Great Literature Review

Every researcher needs to know how to write a great research paper, and a literature review is part of any great research paper. While the exact format and scope of a literature review varies by discipline, the type and length of your paper, and even the intended audience, a literature review is usually an indispensable part of any research paper. In this article, we are going to talk about what exactly a literature review is (and isn’t), steps to writing a literature review, and offer some tips and tools you can use as a writer to make sure that your literature review is always great.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is exactly what it sounds like: a review of the literature. In this case, “literature” means the articles, books, research papers, and other studies that have been written about a topic already. So, a literature review is an overview of the major scholarly sources and writing about a particular research topic. The literature review is usually at the beginning of a research paper because it helps the reader understand the broader context and background for the author’s research. By summarizing the most influential and widely known writing that experts in the field have conducted, you can draw your reader a kind of roadmap of how you arrived at the particular research question you are investigating. It should be noted that a literature review does not have to be part of a larger research paper. Sometimes, a literature review can be a standalone article that offers a critical analysis and overview of the existing research on a particular subject.

What are the Parts of a Literature Review?

A literature review is generally structured like a mini essay. Depending on what you are writing, it will vary in length. If you are writing a five- or ten-page paper, perhaps your literature review will only be one or two pages long. If you are writing a dissertation or scholarly book, your literature review will be at least its own chapter. No matter how long it is, a literature review typically begin with an introduction to the topic, followed by a body and a conclusion.

The introduction section introduces the scope of your research topic. In other words, it tells the reader the specific angle you plan to investigate out of a broader research area. For example, if your general topic is colonialism in the 19th century, perhaps your specific research focuses on bureaucracy in British Burma. The body of your literature review will then summarize the following:

Themes. Are there certain themes that recur throughout the research? Do the same questions and ideas get debated and discussed?

Trends and patterns. Have there been certain approaches or theories that were favored? Do those still hold up today?

Conflicts and debates. Do scholars disagree on any major issues? What do the leading schools of thought have to say about these major conflicts?

Gaps. Where does the previous literature fall short? What important issues haven’t been addressed, or haven’t been addressed adequately? What gap does your research paper fill specifically?

Throughout the body of your review, you should discuss major publications and well-known authors. Finally, you will conclude your literature review by explaining to your reader where your research fits into the existing literature. What gap does it fill, and what previous work does it build upon? Your reader should be able to pick up your literature review knowing nothing about your topic, and after reading it, have a good idea of the major scholarly debates and issues surrounding the subject and know where your work fits in.

Writing a Literature Review Step-by-Step

If the parts of a literature review seem a little overwhelming to you now, don’t worry. Here is a step-by-step guide to get you started on writing your great literature review.

  1. Choose a topic. Your topic should be narrow enough that you can cover it within the scope of your article or assignment, and you should aim to answer a specific question or questions.
  2. Do your research. Before you write a literature review, you need to review the literature! Google Scholar, JSTOR, and the Directory of Open Access Journals are all great places to start looking. You can also go one step further and try an AI research assistant like Raxter, which can summarize relevant articles to make your reading faster, sort and filter your sources, maintain notes, and much more.
  3. Use a reference manager. Once you’ve gathered relevant articles, you’ll need to be able to organize your sources and notes. Mendeley desktop manager or Endnote are both great tools that can help make sure you never lose an important source.
  4. Write a literature review outline. You can organize your outline chronologically (from oldest to most recent), by theme, by research method, or another way.
  5. Start writing your literature review! Once you’ve finished your first draft, ask yourself these top ten questions for a complete literature review to make sure you haven’t left anything out.

Final Tips for Making Your Literature Review Great

If you’re having trouble getting started with writing your own literature review, finding relevant sources, or organizing your references, one good place to start can be reading someone else’s literature review. Check out the sources that they cited and begin your research journey from there. Another way to make writing your literature review a pleasurable task is to take advantage of the tools available to you. In addition to the reference managers noted above, using an AI writing tool like Trinka to perform spelling and grammar checks can improve your writing quality without much effort on your part. Trinka is specifically designed for academic writing and can make sure you’re following the requirements of your citation style. Finally, have a friend, classmate, or colleague read over your literature review to see if they have any questions or suggestions for you. Often, the eyes of another person can help you see your own work more clearly.

Now that you know how, go out there and write a great literature review!

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