Eight steps to write a literature review

A literature review discusses the published information on a particular topic, and is usually focused in a specific field or subject area, and may also be limited to a certain time period. In plain english, a literature review is a summary and explanation of the complete state of knowledge on a topic as determined by academic books and journal articles.

Literature reviews may be written as part of an assignment in a course where you are learning more about a subject to build your knowledge base. Literature reviews may also be written as part of an introduction to help you focus a larger work of research, or frame your argument. In this, the evidence you find in the literature review will help you determine your thesis, argument, or research questions in the larger body of work.

A literature review is not an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography is a document in which you briefly summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. The literature review does contain a summary of your research, but it goes beyond the typical annotated bibliography by focusing on a specific topic of interest and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work.

How to research & write a literature review

There are numerous guides and tools you can use to conduct a literature review and write up the results. I believe the tools and ultimate product may always change, but the process involved should never change. The process includes an iterative searching and sifting of the materials while reflecting and writing along the way. I prefer focusing on the following simple process.

Define a topic and audience. As you begin, you should identify a topic and area of focus that it of interest to you and others in your field. This should be something that relates to your area of work, or that has recently caught your interest. It should also be well-defined. That is to say that you don’t want it to be too broad and include 1000s of publications. You also don’t want it to be too narrow and not identifying anything in the process.

Iteratively search and re-search the literature. After clearly defining the topic and audience, you’ll need to start actively locating materials. Keep track of your search terms and where you locate them. Download everything. Develop a criteria to indicate what is in and out of scope for your search. Keep a list, or some other system to detail what you’ve found, and possibly use a reference management system (e.g., Zotero, Mendeley, Papers) to keep track of everything. Consider searching for other published literature reviews in your area that may assist in your work. In needed, modify your topic and audience to include related questions or areas that you uncover as you search.

Take notes as you read. Read through your materials and mark up, or annotate resources as you read them. You can annotate in most PDF editors and reference management tools. You might also try using a tool like Hypothesis. As you read and annotate, keep not only these notes, but also keep a separate document in which you list an overview of what you’re learning as you read. You can keep this overview in a Google Doc, or perhaps use a mind mapping tool like Coggle or CMAP. Once again, as you read and annotate, be sure that you can easily connect what you learn back to where you learned it.

Consider the type of review you’re writing. As you research, compile materials, and read…you’ll want to be sure you know where this information is all headed. Is this a full literature review that comprehensively surveys the field. Is this a longer piece that will serve as a publication or thesis/dissertation? Is this going to be a smaller element of a larger publication? There is a big difference between researching and writing 500 words about a topic for a larger publication, and writing 6000 words that stands alone as one work product. Please note that the ultimate output (word length & purpose) may change, but the research and identified themes should not.

Keep your review focused, but also broad. As you compile your notes and write your review, you’ll want to revisit your topic and audience to make sure you’re focused on your goal. A literature review that tries to cover too many areas quickly loses purpose and utility. You should also consider whether the number of sources is appropriate to length of paper. Remember that most literature reviews are written to provide argument or insight for a purpose. Be sure you don’t include superfluous materials that detract from your argument and purpose. You should also remember that you’ll want to remain broad as you’ll attract interest from others in your field, or related fields. Just as you may have identified literature reviews in related fields to learn more about your topic, others may also be using your work to inform their research as well.

Think critically and be consistent. As you conduct your review and write the final product, you’ll have to answer the “so what?” question. What are the important elements of this topic and area? What is important historically, and what are the important questions in the future? What are common themes that keep arising in your research? What elements are not present, and may identify possible holes in the research? As you read, review, and write, you should think critically about what you’re encountering and be consistent in these evaluations. This may require that you expand/contract your topic and focus. This may also require journaling or blogging in the process to make your thinking transparent.

Develop a logical structure to your argument. As you write and organize the final literature review, be sure to think about the best way to tell the story of what you’ve learned. What are the two to three more important lessons learned from your work. How do all of these themes and individual publications weave together to present the story about the lessons you’ve learned from your research. Are these two to three overarching themes interrelated? Lead your audience through on a set of concepts and questions. Compare items and themes to each other. Assess strengths and weaknesses instead of just listing facts. As you present your findings in your review, you’re also presenting an argument. What is the best order, or structure to present these elements? Finally, have you included studies contrary to your perspective?

Use critical feedback as your guide. Most times, a literature review is sent out as a publication, or part of a larger manuscript. This means that your work will be reviewed for clarity, reliability, and validity as well as the impact or connection to the field. Do you know what others in the field know about this research? Will readers find this literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful? Before sending your manuscript or materials out for review in a publication, you may consider posting your work online at your blog, or sharing a Google Doc (or other online text) with peers to review. You should also use the feedback from the peer review process to guide revisions to this review. You should also use this feedback as a way to guide your future literature reviews as well. Finally, if appropriate, find an open place online to share your research and findings to assist other individuals as they follow in your footsteps.

Reflection & transparency in the process

As you conduct this work, reflection and transparency are two key elements that make for a more comprehensive final product. This work, and the inclusion of those two elements, are made much easier if you use online tools in the process. This allows you to quickly compile resources, reach out to others for support, and document your learning online…over time. Finally, you’re doing your part to help share the wealth of resources available online.

Hopefully this resource is of value to you. I’ll have upcoming posts describing annotated bibliographies, and all of the digital tools you can use in the process. To stay up to date, subscribe to my weekly newsletter to build your expertise in education, literacy, and technology.


Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.