Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Literature Review

Are you feeling confused about an assignment to write a literature review?

You may be wondering if it’s just a more sophisticated form of a book report, or perhaps just a summary of all the articles that you’ve read on a topic.

But it’s neither of these things.

A literature review is an overview and a critical analysis of a body of articles on a specific topic. It shows the relationship between the different works and sometimes serves as the framework for a Master’s thesis or research study.

Here are 7 steps to writing a literature review.

1. Clarify expectations. Before you start, check on the expectations for the assignment and talk with your professor if these are unclear. You need to know how many sources are required, and what kind of sources you need (websites, books, articles, or all of these). Make sure that you have a solid understanding of the guidelines of the required format, whether it’s APA, MLA, or something else.

2. Choose a topic. Your writing process will be more successful if you spend time choosing the ideal topic. It may help you later on if you choose a topic that’s related to that of your thesis or final project. Check the number of available sources to make sure that it won’t be too overwhelming. Although you don’t have to write about every source, it will make your work easier if there are fewer of them to examine. Don’t hesitate to pick your professor’s brain about what topics he would recommend.

3. Decide which sources to include. Start with a search for some general terms using Google Scholar and the online database provided by your university library. As you find more sources, narrow your search terms a bit more. Eliminate any sources that seem obsolete. In the humanities (history, art, education, etc.), an older source may be useful to identify changing trends. But in the sciences (medicine, physics, engineering) any source more than two years old is probably out-of-date.

4. Analyze the sources. Begin by skimming the articles, focusing just on their introductions and conclusions for now. Then group them together in categories based on their topics. Next, read each article, jotting down notes about the definitions of key terms, emphases, and relationships among the studies.

5. Decide on a structure. It’s helpful to come up with a visual aid, such as an outline or a concept map, to help you organize your literature review. The three main sections of your review will be your introduction, body, and conclusion. When you know what you’re going to say in your introduction and conclusion, figure out the best way to structure the body. You can organize it chronologically, by publication, or by methodology.

6. Begin writing. Start by describing the problem that these articles propose to resolve. Then go on to explain each article as it relates to other articles in your review. Comment on the type of source. Is it a research study? Was it a landmark that influenced other sources? Remember that every assertion you make in your review must be backed up with evidence. Be sparing with quotes and paraphrasing and preserve your own voice throughout.

7. Revise. Once you’ve finished your first draft, read it over several times. Check that your literature review meets the requirements of the assignment and that it’s written in the correct format. Make sure that you have presented a concise and cohesive argument.

By breaking down the task of writing a literature review into small steps, you will make the process much more manageable. You might even enjoy it.

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