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How to Write a Literature Review: Organize & Compose

How to Write a Literature Review

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The 4 Stages of a Literature Review

Development of a literature review can be approached in these 4 stages:

1. Problem Formulation
  • Clarify your assignment and narrow your topic. Define the topic and field you are examining and what the issues are.
2. Literature Search
  • Conduct research for relevant sources of information -- gather your "literature."
3. Evaluation
  • Determine which literature sources make a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.

4. Analysis and Interpretation
  • Discuss the findings and conclusions of the significant literature.

Source: UCSC University Library

Composing Your Literature Review

An Outline of a Typical Literature Review

1. Introduction
  • A concise definition of a topic under consideration, as well as the scope of the related literature being investigated. 
  • Another purpose of the introduction is to state the general findings of the review (what do most of the sources conclude), and comment on the availability of sources in the subject area.
2. Main Body
  • Determine how you will organize the evaluation of the sources. Chronological and thematic approaches are each useful examples.
  • Each work should be critically summarized and evaluated for its premise, methodology, and conclusion. It is as important to address inconsistencies, omissions, and errors, as it is to identify accuracy, depth, and relevance.
  • Use logical connections and transitions to connect sources.
3. Conclusion
  • The conclusion summarizes the key findings of the review in general terms. Notable commonalities between works, whether favorable or not, may be included here.
4. References
  • As well as accurate in-text citations, a literature review must contain complete and correct citations for every source

Source: Thompson Rivers University Writing Centre

As you conduct research and gather a variety of relevant literature you will want to organize your sources according to the goals of your review. There are many ways to organize your sources, e.g. thematically, chronologically, etc.

You might start by identifying the perspectives, schools of thought, sets of variables, etc. that influence the question you're trying to answer. You can also organize into categories that will help you choose the main arguments in support of and in opposition to your thesis.

The following guidelines are modified from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ...

Time to Start Writing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well.

Here is a sample passage from a literature review about sexism and language to use as an example for the recommendations below:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect.
Use Evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be Selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use Quotes Sparingly

The passage above does not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that the passage does quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and Synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors of the passage above recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep Your Own Voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that the passage weaves references to other sources into their own text, but it still maintains the authors' voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their ideas and their words. The sources support what the authors are saying.

Use Caution When Paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the passage above, the authors either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. 

Revise, Revise, Revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. Check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible.

  • Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience
  • Get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang 

Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline.

Passage Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language 19:2

Taking Notes

Some Tips on Recording the Information Found, on Taking Notes etc.:

  • It is sometimes sufficient to browse the text quickly. The introduction or conclusion often give a gist of the thesis and main points. Still, often a researcher must read much or all of a work, especially if it is of an authoritative or technical nature.
  • Begin with most recent studies and work backwards. A recent article’s list of references or bibliography might provide you with valuable works to consult.
  • If the report/article has an abstract, read it first.
  • Don’t trust your memory. Record all research. You'll never remember who said what if you neglect to take adequate notes!
  • Write down the complete citation for each work. Don't forget the page nos. for later use in the notes and bibliography. For Internet citations, note the URL.
  • Avoid "grandfather" citations. Return to original source.
  • Write all direct quotations precisely, word-for-word. Use quotation marks. Failure to put a direct text in quotes (or to credit the author) sets the stage for plagiarism.
  • Avoid copying too many direct quotations. Most of the review should be primarily in your own words with appropriate documentation of others’ ideas.
  • Do not stress just a single source or two. It is usually important in a literature review to provide evidence you consulted and used a wide range of resources.
  • For a contentious topic, present the opposing positions. Be objective. Do not overemphasize one side.