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Writing a Literature Review

How to

What is a literature review?

Flip the words around and you have the beginning of your answer: a review of the literature.

“The literature” means scholarly sources (mostly academic journal articles and books) conducted on a specific topic.

“Review” means that you’ve read that work carefully in order to create a piece of writing that organizes, summarizes, analyzes, and makes connections between sources, as well as identifying areas of research still needed.

Why write a literature review?

A lit review can serve several purposes:

  • Orient the reader to a topic of study in order to validate the need for a new study.
  • Reveal patterns or problems in previous research, which is its own kind of “finding” or result.

In primary research that includes the results of an experiment or fieldwork, it precedes the results and sets up a later discussion of the results in the context of previous findings.

What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography?

There is not just one way to write a literature review or an annotated bibliography, so differences vary. However, one of the main differences is that an annotated bibliography is typically organized source by source—each one has its own paragraph of explanation, analysis, etc.

In a literature review, the writing is organized thematically, often with multiple sources addressed in each paragraph, and there is an overarching narrative driving the review.

Although there are “bibliographic essays” that are essentially narratively-driven annotated bibliographiesin general annotated bibliographies are a drafting step toward a more formal piece of writing, while a literature review is more likely to be that more formal piece itself.

Ok, what about the difference between a literature review and a research paper?

Here’s a secret: there’s no such thing as “A Research Paper.” There are papers that use research in many different ways, and a literature review is one of those ways. Typically, though, if your assignment is specifically to write a “literature review,” it may mean you are being asked to focus less on creating your own argument, driven by a thesis with research as supporting evidence, and more on finding something to say based on the patterns and questions of the research you’ve read.

How should I organize a literature review?

Typically, literature reviews are organized thematically, not chronologically or source by source. This means that you will need to identify several sub-topics and figure out how to group sources to tell a story in themes. Some sources may show up in multiple sections, and some sources will only appear once. For practical suggestions on how to organize, see organizing a literature review (as of 3/23/20: in progress!).

How comprehensive should my review be?

This really depends on the assignment or type of literature review that you’re doing. Some reviews are quite extensive and aim to be “exhaustive,” looking at every article on a particular topic. Chances are, yours is not that. For guidance you may want to ask your professor this question, or more specific questions like, “should I consider articles published more than 20 years ago? What about 10?” etc.

You may also want to consider if it makes sense to narrow your focus to a particular region, demographic, or even type of study or article, such as focusing on specific methods used.

Finally, the scope of your review may also be influenced by the state of prior research. If you are exploring a relatively under-researched or interdisciplinary topic, you may draw from a broader and more diverse set of articles. If you are looking at something that has a well-established scholarly history, your focus will likely be much narrower.

How do I know if I’m “done” researching/haven’t missed anything?

The truth is, research is never “done.” But it’s true you have to come to a stopping point so you can write and finish your review! Here are a few tips for making this assessment:

  • You see the same authors being cited over and over again in your sources and you have those sources, too. That can be a sign that you’ve hit on a particular scholarly conversation and identified most of the major voices in it.
  • Ask a librarian to help you! While librarians are great at finding sources, we can also help you determine if there are no more sources available to find. 
  • Outline your review and make sure that each section of your review is supported by adequate research. If you have sections that are much lighter than others, you may want to give those a second look.
  • Make sure you’ve given yourself achievable parameters. If you feel like there are just thousands more articles on your exact topic, you may need to narrow yours down, or at least explain why you have selected certain articles instead of other, similar ones.
  • Finally, don’t forget to evaluate as you write. It’s likely that the writing process itself will help you determine whether you have the sources you need to achieve your goals.

A literature review can be challenging, and requires a lot of careful thinking as well as the steps of finding articles and writing. But with time, patience, and help, you can do it, and you'll be proud of the results once you're done.

Adapted from Trinity Library