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How to Write a Literature Review: Writing the Review

Writing the Review

Why Are You Writing This?

There are two primary points to remember as you are writing your literature review:

  • Keep in mind your purpose(s) for the literature review, and make sure your review specifically addresses your purpose(s). A literature review is part of a larger project. Even a stand-alone review refers to how the topic reviewed fits into the wider subject or discipline and points toward avenues for future research. Depending on the type of review, your goals may be different.
    • Stand-alone review: provide an overview and analysis of the current state of research on a topic or question
    • Research proposal: explicate the current issues and questions concerning a topic to demonstrate how your proposed research will contribute to the field
    • Research report: provide the context to which your work is a contribution.
  • Write as you read, and revise as you read more. Rather than wait until you have read everything you are planning to review, start writing as soon as you start reading. You will need to reorganize and revise it all later, but writing a summary of an article when you read it helps you to think more carefully about the article. Having drafts and annotations to work with will also make writing the full review easier since you will not have to rely completely on your memory or have to keep thumbing back through all the articles. Your draft does not need to be in finished, or even presentable, form. The first draft is for you, so you can tell yourself what you are thinking. Later you can rewrite it for others to tell them what you think.


General Steps for Writing a Literature Review

Here is a general outline of steps to write a thematically organized literature review. Remember, though, that there are many ways to approach a literature review, depending on its purpose.

  1. Stage one: annotated bibliography. As you read articles, books, etc, on your topic, write a brief critical synopsis of each. After going through your reading list, you will have an abstract or annotation of each source you read. Later annotations are likely to include more references to other works since you will have your previous readings to compare, but at this point the important goal is to get accurate critical summaries of each individual work.
  2. Stage two: thematic organization. Find common themes in the works you read, and organize the works into categories. Typically, each work you include in your review can fit into one category or sub-theme of your main theme, but sometimes a work can fit in more than one. (If each work you read can fit into all the categories you list, you probably need to rethink your organization.) Write some brief paragraphs outlining your categories, how in general the works in each category relate to each other, and how the categories relate to each other and to your overall theme.
  3. Stage three: more reading. Based on the knowledge you have gained in your reading, you should have a better understanding of the topic and of the literature related to it. Perhaps you have discovered specific researchers who are important to the field, or research methodologies you were not aware of. Look for more literature by those authors, on those methodologies, etc. Also, you may be able to set aside some less relevant areas or articles which you pursued initially. Integrate the new readings into your literature review draft. Reorganize themes and read more as appropriate.
  4. Stage four: write individual sections. For each thematic section,  use your draft annotations (it is a good idea to reread the articles and revise annotations, especially the ones you read initially) to write a section which discusses the articles relevant to that theme. Focus your writing on the theme of that section, showing how the articles relate to each other and to the theme, rather than focusing your writing on each individual article. Use the articles as evidence to support your critique of the theme rather than using the theme as an angle to discuss each article individually.
  5. Stage five: integrate sections. Now that you have the thematic sections, tie them together with an introduction, conclusion, and some additions and revisions in the sections to show how they relate to each other and to your overall theme.


Specific Points to Include

More specifically, here are some points to address when writing about specific works you are reviewing. In dealing with a paper or an argument or theory, you need to assess it (clearly understand and state the claim) and analyze it (evaluate its reliability, usefulness, validity). Look for the following points as you assess and analyze papers, arguments, etc. You do not need to state them all explicitly, but keep them in mind as you write your review:

  • Be specific and be succinct. Briefly state specific findings listed in an article, specific methodologies used in a study, or other important points. Literature reviews are not the place for long quotes or in-depth analysis of each point.
  • Be selective. You are trying to boil down a lot of information into a small space. Mention just the most important points (i.e. those most relevant to the review's focus) in each work you review.
  • Is it a current article? How old is it? Have its claims, evidence, or arguments been superceded by more recent work? If it is not current, is it important for historical background?
  • What specific claims are made? Are they stated clearly?
  • What support is given for those claims?
    • What evidence, and what type (experimental, statistical, anecdotal, etc) is offered? Is the evidence relevant? sufficient?
    • What arguments are given? What assumptions are made, and are they warranted?
  • What is the source of the evidence or other information? The author's own experiments, surveys, etc? Historical records? Government documents? How reliable are the sources?
  • Does the author take into account contrary or conflicting evidence and arguments? How does the author address disagreements with other researchers?
  • What specific conclusions are drawn? Are they warranted by the evidence?
  • How does this article, argument, theory, etc, relate to other work?

These, however, are just the points that should be addressed when writing about a specific work. It is not an outline of how to organize your writing. Your overall theme and categories within that theme should organize your writing, and the above points should be integrated into that organization. That is, rather than write something like:

     Smith (2009) claims that blah, and provides evidence x to support it, and says it is probably because of blip. But Smith seems to have neglected factor b.
     Jones (2011) showed that blah by doing y, which, Jones claims, means it is likely because of blot. But that methodology does not exclude other possibilities.
     Johnson (2012) hypothesizes blah might be because of some other cause.

list the themes and then say how each article relates to that theme. For example:

     Researchers agree that blah (Smith 2009, Jones 2011, Johnson 2012), but they do not agree on why. Smith claims it is probably due to blip, but Jones, by doing y, tries to show it is likely because of blot. Jones' methodology, however, does not exclude other possibilities. Johnson hypothesizes ...