How to Write a Literature Review

As every student knows, writing academic essays and research papers is an integral part of the educational program. You create a thesis, support it using valid sources, and formulate systematic ideas to surround it. However, not all students know that they will also have to face another type of paper known as a Literature Review in college.

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Literature Review Definition

As this is a less common academic writing type, students often ask: “What is a literature review?” According to the definition, a literature review is a body of work that explores various publications within a specific subject area, and sometimes within a set timeframe.

This type of writing requires you to read and analyze various sources that relate to the main subject and present each unique comprehension of the publications. Lastly, a literature review should combine a summary with a synthesis of the documents it uses. A summary is a brief overview of the important information in the publication; a synthesis is a re-organization of the information that gives the writing a new and unique meaning.

Typically, a literature review is a part of a larger paper, such as a thesis or dissertation. However, you may also be given it in the form of a stand-alone assignment.

The Purpose

The main purpose of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the ideas that were created by previous authors, without implementing personal opinions or other additional information.

However, a literature review’s objective is not just to list out summaries of sources; rather, it is to notice a central trend or principle seen within all of the publications. Just like a research paper has a thesis that guides it on rails, a literature review has a main organizing principle (MOP). The goal of this type of academic writing is to identify the MOP and show how it exists in all of your supporting documents.

Why is a literature review important? The value of such work is explained by the following goals it pursues:

  • Highlights the significance of the main topic within a specific subject area.
  • Demonstrates and explains the background of research for a particular subject matter.
  • Helps to find out the key themes, principles, concepts, and researchers that exist within a topic.
  • Helps to reveal relationships between existing ideas/studies on a topic.
  • Reveals the major points of controversy and gaps within a topic.
  • Suggests questions to drive further research based on previous studies.

Here are some example topics to give you an idea of what a literature review can be about:

  • Exploring racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
  • Isolationism in “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Frankenstein”, and “1984
  • Understanding Moral Dilemmas in “Crime and Punishment”, “The Scarlet Letter”, and “The Lifeboat”
  • Corruption of Power in “Macbeth”, “All the King’s Men”, and “Animal Farm”
  • Emotional and Physical survival in “Lord of the Flies”, “Hatchet”, and “Congo”

How Long Is a Literature Review?

When facing the need to write a literature review, students tend to wonder “how long should a literature review be?” In some cases, the length of your paper’s body may be determined by your instructor. Be sure to read the guidelines carefully to learn what is expected from you.

If you haven’t been provided with any specific guidelines, it is recommended to keep your literature review around 15-30% of your entire paper. To give you a rough idea, that is about 2-3 pages for a 15-page paper. In case you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, its length should be specified in the instructions provided.

Literature Review Format: APA, MLA, and Chicago

The essay format you use should adhere to will be the citation style preferred by your instructor. Seek clarification from your instructor for several other components as well to establish a desired literature review format:

  1. How many sources should you review and what kind of sources should they be (published materials, journal articles, or websites)?
  2. What format should you use to cite the sources?
  3. How long should the review be?
  4. Should your review consist of a summary, synthesis, or a personal critique?
  5. Should your review include subheadings or background information for your sources?

If you want to format your paper in APA style, then follow these rules:

  • Use 1-inch page margins.
  • Unless provided with other instructions, use double-spacing throughout the whole text.
  • Make sure you choose a readable font. The preferred font for APA papers is Times New Roman set to 12-point size.
  • Include a header at the top of every page (in capital letters). The page header must be a shortened version of your essay title and limited to 50 characters, including spacing and punctuation.
  • Put page numbers in the upper right corner of every page.
  • When shaping your literature review outline in APA, don’t forget to include a title page. This page should include the paper’s name, the author’s name, and the institutional affiliation. Your title must be typed with upper and lowercase letters and be centered in the upper part of the page; use no more than 12 words and avoid using abbreviations and any useless words.

For MLA style text, apply the following guidelines:

  • Use 1-inch page margins.
  • Double your spacing across the entire paper.
  • Set ½ inch indents for each new paragraph.
  • The preferred font for MLA papers is Times New Roman set to 12-point size.
  • Include a header at the top of your paper’s first page, or on the title page (note that MLA style does not require you to have a title page, but you are allowed to decide to include one). A header in this format should include your full name; the name of your instructor; the name of the class, course, or section number; and the due date of the assignment.
  • Include a running head in the top right corner of each page in your paper. Place it one inch from the page’s right margin and half an inch from the top margin. Only include your last name and the page number separated by a space in the running head. Do not put the abbreviation p. before page numbers.

Finally, if you are required to write a literature review in Chicago style, here are the key rules to follow:

  • Set page margins to no less than 1 inch.
  • Use double spacing across the entire text, except when it comes to table titles, figure captions, notes, blockquotes, and entries within the bibliography or References.
  • Do not put spaces between paragraphs.
  • Make sure you choose a clear and easily-readable font. The preferred fonts for Chicago papers are Times New Roman and Courier, set to no less than 10-point size, but preferably to 12-point size.
  • A cover (title) page should include your full name, class information, and the date. Center the cover page and place it one third below the top of the page.
  • Place page numbers in the upper right corner of each page, including the cover page.

Structure of a Literature Review

How to structure a literature review: Like many other types of academic writing, a literature review follows a typical intro-body-conclusion style with 5 paragraphs overall. Now, let’s look at each component of the basic literature review structure in detail:

Introduction

You should direct your reader(s) towards the MOP (main organizing principle). This means that your information must start from a broad perspective and gradually narrow down until it reaches your focal point.

Start by presenting your general concept (Corruption, for example). After the initial presentation, narrow your introduction’s focus towards the MOP by mentioning the criteria you used to select the literature sources you have chosen (Macbeth, All the King’s Men and Animal Farm). Finally, the introduction will end with the presentation of your MOP that should directly link it to all three of the sources of literature.

Body Paragraphs

Generally, each body paragraph will focus on a specific source of literature laid out in the essay’s introduction. As each source has its own frame of reference for the MOP, it is crucial to structure the review in the most logically consistent way possible. This means that the writing should either be structured chronologically, thematically, or methodologically.

Chronologically

Breaking down your sources based on their publication date is a solid way to keep a correct historical timeline. If applied properly, it can present the development of a certain concept over time and provide examples in the form of literature. However, sometimes there are better alternatives we can use to structure the body.

Thematically

Instead of taking the “timeline approach”, another option can be looking at the link between your MOP and your sources. Sometimes, the main idea will just glare from a piece of literature. Other times, the author may have to seek out examples to prove their point. An experienced writer will usually present their sources by order of strength. For example, in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, the entire novel was centralized around racism; in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, racism was one of many themes.

Methodologically

As made obvious by the terminology, this type of structuring focuses on the methods used to present the central concept. For example, in “1984”, George Orwell uses the law-and-order approach and shows the dangers of a dystopia for a social species.

In “Frankenstein”, Mary Shelley exposes the character’s physical traits as repulsive and horrifying, forcing him to suffer in an isolated environment. By showcasing the various methods used to portray the MOP, the writer can compare them based on things like severity, ethicality, and overall impact.

Conclusion

After presenting your findings in the body paragraphs, there are 3 final objectives to complete in the essay’s conclusion. First, the author should summarize the findings they have made or found in other words, and briefly answer the question: “What have you learned?”

After discussing that information, the next step is to present the significance of the information in reference to our current world today. In other words, how can the reader take the information and apply it to today’s society? From that point, we finish off with a breadcrumb trail.

As the author, you want to leave the readers’ trail of thought within the actual essay topic. This provides them with a means of further investigation—meaning that the reader may consider where the discussion will go next.

Writing an Outline for a Literature Review

Students often underestimate the importance of planning the structure of their papers in advance. However, this is not a wise approach. Having a rough APA literature review outline (or other style outlines) will not only help you follow the right format and structure, but will also make the writing process simpler and help ensure that you include all of the important information without missing anything.

How to write a literature review outline: As you already know from the Structure section of this guide, every part of your literature review performs its own important role. Respectively, you should create your outline while keeping the general introduction-body-conclusion structure in mind and ensuring that each section meets its own objectives. However, it is important to remember that a literature review outline is slightly different from outlines of other types of essays because it does not provide new information. It focuses on existing studies relevant to the main topic.

Here is a literature review outline example on the subject of the Ebola virus to help you get it right:

  1. Introduce the general topic. Provide background information on the Ebola virus: genome, pathogenesis, transmission, epidemiology, treatment, etc.
  2. Shape the main research question: What is the potential role of arthropods (mechanical or biological vectors) in the distribution of the Ebola virus?
  3. Methodology: For example, the information was searched through X databases to find relevant research articles about the Ebola virus and arthropods’ role in its spreading. The data was extracted using a standardized form.
  4. Expected outcomes
  5. Overall trends in the literature on this topic: While the natural reservoir of the virus is still not known with certainty, many researchers believe that arthropods (and fruit bats, in particular) pay a significant role in the distribution of the virus.
  1. Subject 1: A brief overview of the particular piece of literature in general terms; an analysis of the key aspects of the study; a review of the research questions, methods, procedures, and outcomes; and an overview of the strong and weak points, gaps, and contradictions.
  2. Subject 2: A brief overview of the particular piece of literature in general terms; an analysis of the key aspects of the study; a review of the research questions, methods, procedures, and outcomes; and an overview of the strong and weak points, gaps, and contradictions.
  3. Subject 3:  A brief overview of the particular piece of literature in general terms; an analysis of the key aspects of the study; a review of the research questions, methods, procedures, and outcomes; and an overview of the strong and weak points, gaps, and contradictions.
  1. Indicate the relationships between the pieces of literature discussed. Emphasize key themes, common patterns, and trends. Talk about the pros and cons of the different approaches taken by the authors/researchers.
  2. State which studies seem to be the most influential.
  3. Emphasize the major contradictions and points of disagreement. Define the gaps still to be covered (if any).
  4. If applicable: define how your own study will contribute to further disclosure of the topic.

Hopefully, this sample outline will help you to structure your own paper. However, if you feel like you need some more advice on how to organize your review, don’t hesitate to search for more literature review outline examples in APA or other styles on the Web, or simply ask our writers for help.

How to Write a Good Literature Review

Whether you are writing a literature review within the framework of a large research project (e.g. thesis, dissertation, or other) or as a stand-alone assignment, the approach you should take to writing generally remains the same.

Now, as you know about the general rules and have a basic literature review outline template, let’s define the steps to take to handle this task right:

Step 1: Identifying the Topic

This is probably the only matter you may approach differently depending on whether your literature review comes within a research paper or a separate assignment altogether. If you are creating a literature review as a part of another work, you need to search for literature related to your main research questions and problem. Respectively, if you are writing it as a stand-alone task, you will have to pick a relevant topic and central question upon which you will be collecting the literature. Earlier in this guide we suggested some engaging topics to guide your search.

Step 2: Conducting Research

When you have a clearly defined topic, it is time to start collecting literature for your review. We recommend starting by compiling a list of relevant keywords related to your central question—to make the entire research process much simpler and help you find relevant publications faster.

When you have a list of keywords, use them to search for valid and relevant sources. At this point, be sure to use only trusted sources, such as ones from university libraries, online scientific databases, etc.

Once you have found some sources, be sure to define whether or not they are actually relevant to your topic and research question. To save you time, you can read abstracts to get general ideas of what the papers are about, instead of the whole thing.

Pro Tip: When you finally find a few valid publications, take a look at their bibliographies to discover other relevant sources as well.

Step 3: Assess and Prioritize Sources

Throughout your research, you will likely find plenty of relevant literature to include in your literature review. At this point, many students make the mistake of trying to fit all of their collected sources into their reviews. We suggest looking at what you’ve collected once more, evaluate the available sources, and select the most relevant ones. You most likely won’t be able to read everything you find on a given topic and then be able to synthesize all of the sources into a single literature review. That’s why prioritizing them is important.

To evaluate which sources are worth including in your review, keep in mind the following criteria:

  • Credibility;
  • Influence;
  • Novelty;
  • Innovation;
  • Key insights;
  • Relevancy.

Furthermore, as you read the sources, don’t forget to take notes on everything you can incorporate into the review later. And be sure to get your citations in place early on. If you cite the selected sources at the initial stage, you will find it easier to create your annotated bibliography later on.

Step 4: Identify Relationships, Key Ideas, and Gaps

Before you can move on to outlining and writing your literature review, the final step is determining the relationships between the studies that already exist. Identifying the relationships will help you organize the existing knowledge, build a solid literature outline, and (if necessary) indicate your own research contribution to a specific field.

Some of the key points to keep an eye out for are:

  • Main themes;
  • Contradictions and debates;
  • Influential studies or theories;
  • Trends and patterns;
  • Gaps.

Here are a few examples: Common trends may include a focus on specific groups of people across different studies. There may be increased interest among most researchers in certain aspects of the topic in terms of key themes. Contradictions may include some disagreement concerning the theories and outcomes of a study. And finally, gaps most often refer to a lack of research on certain aspects of a topic.

Step 5: Make an Outline

Although students tend to neglect this stage, outlining is one of the most important steps in writing every academic paper. This is the easiest way to organize the body of your text and ensure that you haven’t missed anything important. Besides, having a rough idea about what you are going to write about in the paper will help you get it right faster and easier.

Earlier in this guide, we already discussed the basic structure of a literature review and gave you an example of a good outline. At this stage of the workflow, you can use all of the knowledge you’ve gained from us to build your own outline.

Step 6: Move on to Writing

Having found and created all of your sources, notes, citations, and a detailed outline, you can finally get to the writing part of the process. At this stage, all you need to do is follow the plan you’ve created and keep in mind the overall structure and format defined in your professor’s instructions.

Step 7: Adding the Final Touches

Most students make a common mistake and skip the final stage of the process, which includes proofreading and editing. We recommend taking enough time for these steps to ensure that your work will be worth the highest score. Do not underestimate the importance of proofreading and editing, and allocate enough time for these steps.

Pro Tip: Before moving on to proofreading and editing, be sure to set your literature review aside for a day or two. This will give you a chance to take your mind off of it and then be able to get back to proofreading with a fresh perspective. This tip will ensure that you won’t miss out on any gaps or errors that might be present in your text.

These steps will help you create a top-notch literature review with ease! Want to get more advice on how to handle this body of work? Here are the top 3 tips you need to keep in mind when writing a literature review:

  1. Good Sources
    When working on a literature review, the most important thing any writer should keep in mind is to find the best possible sources for their MOP. This means that while doing initial research, you should select and filter through about 5-10 different options. The stronger a piece of literature showcases the central point, the better the quality of the entire review will be.
  2. Synthesize The Literature
    Make sure to structure the review in the most effective way possible, whether it be chronologically, thematically, or methodologically. Understand what it is you would like to say exactly, and structure the source comparison accordingly.
  3. Avoid Generalizations
    Remember that each piece of literature will approach the MOP from a different angle. As the author, make sure to present the contrasts in approaches clearly and don’t include general statements that offer no value.

Literature Review Examples

You can find two well-written literature reviews by the EssayPro writing team below. They will help you understand what the final product of a literature review should ideally look like.

The first literature review compares monolingual and bilingual language acquisition skills and uses various sources to prove its point:

The second literature review compares the impact of fear and pain on a protagonist’s overall development in various settings:

Both reviews will help you sharpen your skills and provide good guidelines for writing high-quality papers.

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