What the heck is a literature review? This is the thought that went through my head the first time I sat down to write one. I was confused about how it differed from annotated bibliography, and I didn’t know what features separated a well-written one from one that was poorly developed. Over time, I gained a better understanding of what lit reviews were and I developed a set of skills that helped me to write them more efficiently. In this blog post, I will discuss some ways that you can write a literature review in an organized and efficient manner.
What is a literature review?
As I conceive it, a literature review incorporates a critical analysis of the relationship among several different sources including empirical research articles, meta-analyses, reviews, book chapters, and perhaps even dissertations. The key idea here is the relationship. Although the goal of the lit review is to describe, summarize, and evaluate the previous research in a given area, it wouldn’t be enough if you just stopped there. In fact, an annotated bibliography also describes, summarizes, and evaluates previous research, but it is the literature review which expands upon how each of those studies relate to each other. Lit reviews are usually focused on a specific topic of interest, often times leading to a research question. For the sake of this blog post, I will focus on how to write literature reviews that serve as the introduction for an empirical research paper rather than how to write a lit review to be a paper in and of itself. However, many of the ideas that I share in this post can most certainly be applied to both types of reviews. I am a firm believer in pre-writing (steps you take before you start writing to make the process easier), and I want to outline four steps that I’ve found helpful when pre-writing a lit review.
What is the issue you want to examine? In other words, what is your research question? It is important to keep your research question fluid, because writing a literature review is often an iterative process. It may be difficult to develop a research question without first reviewing what other researchers have done in your area, and your question may be further developed upon discovering new and exciting research in your field. Chances are nobody has asked the exact research question you plan on investigating (and this is a good thing when trying to create a research space for yourself), so it may be difficult to find many studies that are directly related to your exact topic of interest. Thus, I suggest breaking down your research question as much as possible to examine all of its component parts. This will help you when you start the search for research articles.
This is the bread and butter to any literature review. A study can only be incorporated into your review if it is first searched for and found within a database. I recommend familiarizing yourself with online databases such as PSYCinfo, PubMed, Google Scholar, and any other databases relevant to your research area. Many of these databases have built-in tools that are useful during the literature search process. For example, the “folder” tool can help save studies for you in the cloud so you can access them easily from any computer and the “thesaurus” tool can help you identify other research articles that share certain “key words”. Some will recommend starting your search broadly and narrowing in slowly and others may recommend starting very focused and broadening out gradually. I think that both are useful when developing a good lit review. Starting your search broadly will help you find valuable meta-analyses and review articles which may contain a slew of research articles related to your topic of interest. On the other hand, broad searches may yield vast amounts of studies that may or may not be related to your research question, and it may be difficult to parse which ones are the most valuable. Narrow searchers may help you to identify which studies are the closest to yours in terms of research topic and/or methodology.
When reading through all of the articles that you have found and/or selected from your literature search, it is important to evaluate them on a number of criteria. Is the research objective? Does it make a valuable contribution to the knowledge in your field? What are its strengths and its limitations? Keep in mind that your literature review is often conceptualized as the foundation to your own empirical work. When selecting which studies to include in your lit review, you are essentially building your work upon the studies you select. Thus, it’s important to identify whether or not you evaluate the studies as good science. You may also realize systematic gaps in the literature which may be helpful when further crafting your research question.
Once you have selected the articles that you will include in your literature review, it’s important to develop a system of organization. Often times, I will make a table to keep track of all the studies I’ve selected. In such a table, each study is represented by a separate row, and each column represents a different aspect of the study (e.g., author, year, journal, sample, methodology, key results, why I selected it to be in the lit review). This table serves as an organized way for me to easily compare all the studies I’ve selected, and it serves as a central location for all my notes. I will often group articles together by topic to keep similar studies together. This is helpful since you will most likely be grouping similar areas of research together when it comes time to write the lit review.
Make sure you create an outline that you can use as the “skeleton” for the lit review. A logical literature review will flow with good clarity if you have a coherent structure of arguments for all of your sources to fit into. This structure will both be informed and supported by all the papers you select to be in the lit review. The arguments should gradually become narrower throughout the progression of the lit review, eventually arriving at your research question. A good structure of arguments will also help with creating smooth transitions from one section to another. If there is a logical progression from one sub-area of research to the next, then the transition will be smoother. Provide the reader with context of each article, and emphasize how each study fits within the scope of your own research.
Keep in mind that these steps are all iterative, and you will most likely go through many (or all) of these steps in a cyclical manner. Even after writing a first, second, or maybe even tenth draft of your lit review, you may need to go back to any one of these pre-writing steps to progress your paper. Also, many eyes on the paper are usually a good thing! Reach out to your mentors, peers, and writing center services available to gain many others’ thoughts and opinions on your writing. Lastly, writing is a process that varies by individual—no one method will work for everyone. These steps have worked well for me, but I encourage you to try many different methods and find what works best for you.
Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.