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5 Tips for Writing a Literature Review

When composing your literature review, it’s important to refine your chosen topic, analyze your research, and thoughtfully structure your information. Keep reading to learn five tips for writing a literature review.

By
Varsity Tutors, as read by Mignon Fogarty,

A literature review is an important part of academic writing. Whether you’re writing one that will stand on its own or as preparation for a thesis or other major project, it’s a key process for gaining a deeper understanding of an area of research. However, with the amount of reading and analysis involved, writing a literature review can be a daunting task. When composing your literature review, it’s important to refine your chosen topic, analyze your research, and thoughtfully structure your information. Keep reading to learn five tips for writing a literature review.

1. Choose and refine your topic

It’s important to have a clear idea of not only your general area of focus, but also what your research question will be so you can search for specific terms when collecting sources. It should be obvious fairly quickly if your initial focus is too broad—your searches will show results that are too varied in scope. If this happens, look for more narrowly focused parts of your area of study that have not been addressed in previous research.

2. Begin collecting sources early in the process

With a little luck, you’ll be able to find the full text of many of your sources online. However, there will likely be a few items you really want to review, but can’t access as quickly. The faster you can identify the sources you need to request through holds or interlibrary loans, the more likely you’ll be able to access and review them with enough time to include them in your literature review.

Knowing where to look for sources in your area of interest is important too. Check your school’s library to see what databases are available that include your area of study. You may also talk to your professor for advice on finding the best resources. Once you find a couple of sources from the literature that fit what you need, finding others becomes easier. You can use the references cited in those studies to find related sources to add to your list.

3. Analyze your research findings

The term “literature review” describes both the paper you’re writing and the process of creating it. The purpose is to review the existing research that relates to your topic, and to then synthesize what others have written on it. Note that your goal is more than just recapping what others have said; you’re also looking at how it all fits together and relates to the specific research question you want to address. This will help you identify differences, gaps in the research, and unanswered questions. Take good notes on each source that will help you group them together later by common themes or contradictions.

4. Keep track of your searches and results

When composing a literature review, staying organized can help expedite your research and writing processes. Make notes about what terms you’ve successfully used to search specific databases. Also be sure to note specific sources you’ve already looked at, even if they ended up irrelevant to your research question. This can prevent you from wasting time by reviewing these sources again.

5. Thoughtfully structure your writing

Once you’re ready to begin the writing portion of your literature review, you must decide on the best way to order your discussion. As with all research papers, you’ll need an introduction that states your core research question and a conclusion that summarizes the state of the research and what further examination is needed. In between—depending on your topic—you may decide to arrange your analysis chronologically, by methodology, or by some other factor. Many schools provide resources with more specifics on how to structure a literature review, so be sure to research any resources yours may offer.

Lora Wegman is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.

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