How to Write a Literature Review

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A literature review not only presents the sources used in your research, but it also frames and contextualizes your work.

It is the space in which you identify theories and frameworks relevant to your research, describe gaps in previous research, explain previous research methods, and explain where your research fits into the research context you have described.

Writing a literature review provides two main benefits:

  • First, it develops your expertise.
  • Second, it helps you analyze your sources in a critical way.

How to Write a Good Literature Review

To begin, it is important to know how to write a literature review. The process includes the following six steps:

  1. Choose a research question
  2. Perform the research
  3. Analyze and evaluate the data
  4. Outline and organize the review
  5. Write the review
  6. Edit the review

We will discuss each of these steps in detail. We will also offer literature review examples.

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1. Choose a Research Question

The first step is to choose a research question. This involves deciding which topic you would like to research and articulating a question you would like to answer.

For instance, let's say you are interested in the Amazonian rainforest. This topic has various subtopics, such as conservation, the rainforest's representation in literature, and indigenous people's rights. You cannot include all this in your paper because it would be too broad. 

The topic must be narrowed down, and formulating a good research question will help. For instance, you might ask, "How do indigenous people contribute to the conservation of the Amazonian rainforest?"

Tip: To prepare for your next step, research and create a list of relevant keywords. In the literature review example mentioned above, some keywords might be "indigenous," "Brazil," "biodiversity," "Amazon," "rainforest," and "conservation."

2. Perform the Research

Take your time and look for evidence that will add authenticity and depth to your arguments. You are searching not only for the most recent works but also for more obscure or unique voices that will make your project stand out.

A literature review should include a significant sample of both primary and secondary sources. In most cases, secondary sources will be abundant, while primary sources may be harder to find. Patience is a virtue when you are researching a literature review.

The research phase of writing a literature review can last from a few hours to a few months. The Internet is a great place to look for sources, but online literature represents just a small percentage of what is available.

Libraries

Do not shy away from public or university libraries, which are excellent repositories for books and journals. Some university libraries also have subject-specific librarians, and consulting with them can make your research process easier because you can start with a subject matter expert.

You can also count on librarians to provide research advice and direct you toward useful resources, including general databases such as Google Scholar and EBSCO, as well as field-specific databases. The latter will often yield a wealth of options, even for very specific topics. It is best to use a variety of databases to ensure you have uncovered the best sources for your study.

Boolean Operators

As you search the databases, use your list of keywords and Boolean operators to help you find the most relevant results. Use AND to search for more than one keyword, OR to include one or more synonyms, and NOT to exclude results with certain terms. 

For example, to continue with the literature review example above, you might search for "Brazil AND native OR indigenous" to include works about Brazil that include information about either "native" or "indigenous" people. If you are not interested, for instance, in works on climate change, then you might search for "Amazonian rainforest NOT climate change."

3. Analyze and Evaluate the Data

As you read the sources you found, look for the main themes and patterns that emerge from the previous work, as well as any gaps in knowledge.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which authors agree, and which disagree?
  • What evidence do they use to support their arguments?
  • Which topics seem to come up repeatedly?
  • Are there any debates or conflicting results?

For empirical sources, write down which were replicated in other studies and compare their findings. In addition, write down the most important information or findings from each source. This will help you summarize later. Finally, which questions are left unanswered?

Tip: A literature review should be analytical rather than descriptive. This means that you should not only describe the content of each source but also critically dissect it in a way that is meaningful in the context of your research question. When writing a literature review, use persuasive language to convince your reader that your analysis is worthwhile.

Every scholar is different, meaning that each source that you read will have a unique viewpoint on your research topic. When writing your literature review, it is important to reflect on the discourse between these various viewpoints.

4. Outline and Organize the Review

The next step in writing your literature review is to create an outline so that you know how to organize the literature review once you start writing.

Keep in mind that its structure is similar to that of an essay. It will begin with an introduction that states your research question and explains your methods. This will be followed by body paragraphs that explain previous research in more detail. It will then end with a brief conclusion.

When you are deciding how to organize a literature review, there are several options. It may be historical or chronological, beginning with the oldest sources and working toward the most recent. If you choose this approach, be sure to make connections between the sources and show how they tell a larger story. 

Another option is to cluster sources according to concept or theme, focusing on the works' shared propositions or theories. Finally, if you are doing a meta-analysis, then a methodological approach, which groups sources by research methods, might be best.

Quantitative or Qualitative?

Literature reviews can be quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative review begins by documenting the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study; it offers support for the theory or explanation used in the study. It then foreshadows the research questions and describes the results of other studies. 

Two common types of quantitative literature reviews are narrative reviews and meta-analyses. A qualitative literature review, conversely, documents the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study, but it does not foreshadow research questions. Instead, it is used to compare and contrast other studies.

5. Write the Review

Now that you know how to write a literature review, it is finally time to do it. Use the third person to discuss other scholars' work. You might write, for example, "Their findings showed that…" or "In their empirical analysis, the author provides evidence that…" In some cases, however, first person may be appropriate, particularly when discussing your own previous research.

When writing a literature review, you will want to include ideas and direct quotations from the scholars that you have read. Cite any quotation or idea that is not your own using the proper style guide for your discipline. 

Style guides are central to academic writing, as they establish important technical standards. They dictate even the finest details, such as the use of punctuation and parentheses in your citations and bibliography. Whether your discipline uses APA style or another style guide, it is essential that you follow its specifications exactly, especially if your literature review will be graded.

Tip: As you write about your sources, go beyond basic descriptions. Employ the rules for effective academic writing. In addition, be sure to review your sources with a critical eye.

6. Edit the Review

When you have finished writing, take time away and then come back to review the style, grammar, and consistency of your literature review. Be sure to revise any redundancy.

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Literature Review Outline Examples

All literature reviews must contain an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. In longer reviews, the body may have several subsections to help organize it. Be sure to write in well-organized paragraphs that use transition words and topic sentences to structure your ideas.

This section will explain how to write a literature review and examples.

Example 1

Introduction

It is well known that all languages change. What is less understood, however, is the nature of that change. More specifically, is language change abrupt or gradual?

In the introductory paragraph, introduce the research question.

Body

At the syntactic level, generativists, such as Lightfoot (1979), argue that change must be abrupt, resulting from a moment of reanalysis. On the other hand, linguists using usage-based models of language argue that syntactic change must be gradual because it occurs over many centuries (Bybee et al., 1994). In a more recent paper, De Smet (2016) combined the two perspectives, allowing for changes that included both abrupt and gradual mechanisms.

Here, give a few perspectives on the research question, highlighting differences between sources.

Conclusion

Whether linguistic change is viewed as gradual or abrupt seems to depend on the theoretical framework used to characterize language. More specifically, the answer depends on which cognitive mechanisms are thought to be driving such change.

Summarize the differences in scholars’ perspectives and explain how they differ.

Example 2

Introduction

The idea of a hybrid language is interesting. If just about any kind of change can happen with enough language contact, as Thomason and Kaufman (1992) propose, then is Spanglish simply an extreme example? To answer this question, several scholars have delved into such mixed ways of speaking to better define and describe them.

Develop the topic and pose a theoretical question. A proposal from the literature is cited as a starting point for this question.

Body

One such scholar is Poplack (1980). She defined code switching, a major component of so-called Spanglish, as the juxtaposition—not mixing—of grammars. This implies that much "mixed language" is not actually mixed at all. This would mean, in turn, that no change has taken place.

A scholar who may have an answer to this question is cited, and the answer she gives is explained.

Conclusion

There are few examples of truly hybrid languages. This shows that the likelihood of language contact leading to extreme forms of language change is very low.

A more general answer to the original question is offered, hearkening back to the proposal made by Thomason and Kaufman (1992). This reflects the dialogue between these works.

Conclusion

The literature review is a key component of any research paper. Here, we have discussed how to write a good literature review, including how to organize a literature review, and given literature review outline examples. This guide will help you succeed in writing a well-organized and clearly articulated literature review for your next research paper.

Proofreading your work ensures that it is polished before you turn it in. It can help to have an extra set of eyes to look over your literature review before you turn in your final draft.

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