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Writing a Literature Review: 5. Write the Review

Qualities of a Good Literature Review

A good literature review is NOT simply a list describing or summarizing several articles; a literature review is analytical writing which proceeds to a conclusion by reason or argument.  A good literature review shows signs of synthesis and understanding of the topic.  There should be strong evidence of analytical thinking shown through the connections you make between the literature being reviewed.

Create an Outline, then Summarise and Synthesise

Draft an outline for your review.  Read more about developing an outline here at the Purdue OWL site.

Summarise and Synthesise

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the topic.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration, noting contradictory studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way forward for further research.

Choose How to Organize Your Paper

Consider a few different ways of prioritising or grouping the readings you will use.

1.  Chronologically – Organising your sources by the date of publication can show how scholarly perspective on a topic has changed over time.

2.  Thematically – Organising by theme puts all of the sources with a similar focus together, making it very easy to see where differences in perspective emerge.

3.  Methodologically – Organising by method also puts similar sources together and illustrates what effect method has on final product.  

At a loss for words?

Elements to Include

There are many ways to organise your references, but most reviews contain certain basic elements.

Objectives - Clearly describe the purpose of the paper.

Background/Introduction – Give an overview of your research topic and what prompted it.

Methods - Describe step by step how your performed your evaluation.

Discussion/Body - The body contains the evaluation or synthesis of the materials.  Discuss and compare common themes and gaps in the literature. You may also want to include a section on "questions for further research" and discuss what issues the review has sparked about the topic/field or offer suggestions for future studies.

Conclusion – A summary of your analysis and evaluation of the reviewed works and how it is related to its parent discipline, scientific endeavour, or profession.

References - A list of the papers you discussed.  To learn more about referencing, visit the "APA Referencing" tab.

Writing Tips

As you write, stick to your outline and keep these tips in mind:

  • Consider your audience.  Are you engaging with specialists in one discipline? Or generalists in more than one discipline?
  • Strive for plain English, avoiding jargon as much as possible.
  • Short paragraphs are easier to read than long ones.
  • Subheadings can help show the structure of your review.
  • Do more than just summarise the readings.  A literature review is not an annotated bibliography.
  • Resist the temptation to refer to all the readings you've evaluated.  Focus on readings you've identified as essential or representative.
  • State how the literature intersects with your project, or how your project complements the existing literature.
  • Be objective.