Writing a Literature Review

There are two distinct items that are both called literature reviews:

  • Standalone articles that are often published in the sciences; these articles act as digests detailing scholarship and experiments on a particular scientific topic so researchers can stay abreast of the field. In their best form, they offer evaluations of the merits and shortcomings of the existing literature in terms of their methods, findings, and remaining gaps in the scholarship that will require further investigation.
  • Smaller sections that appear near the beginning of seminar papers, dissertation chapters, and peer-reviewed articles, and that recount previous scholarship relevant to the topic under discussion. In their best form, these literature reviews identify a specific gap or insufficiency in the existing scholarship that the present essay or article is going to fill.

This guide focuses on the latter: sections that appear in larger texts and that explore previous scholarly literature in order to ground the author’s original contribution.

Smaller literature reviews can be difficult to write because they force the author to summarize other research conducted in the field, while still trying move toward the author’s original point. It can be very tricky to balance other scholars’ research and the original contribution you wish to make.

However, there is some advice that can make it easier to write literature reviews in your next seminar paper, conference paper, dissertation chapter, or peer reviewed journal article.

Of course, each discipline has its own unique generic conventions. Literature reviews will be slightly different in different disciplines. Some disciplines may rely more on direct quotations while others rely more on paraphrasing.

Therefore, the most important thing you can do to help write a great literature review is to read literature reviews in published articles in your field, study their patterns, and speak to your advisor and friends in your discipline.

Still the following ideas can help you as you write literature reviews:

Literature reviews typically appear near the beginning of the paper. Usually they appear after your introduction. While your introduction sets up the research problem that you explore in the paper, the literature review provides a brief snapshot of what other experts have said about the same topic.

The most important thing to remember when writing literature reviews is that they exist to set up your own original argument. When summarizing previous scholarship in the literature review, your job is provide enough context for readers to understand how your argument is new, original, and solves a problem that hasn’t yet been solved.

A common mistake writers make is to summarize all the information on the topic. This is not helpful because it deadens your momentum. If you are writing under a word limit and summarize too much, you lose precious space in which you could have presented your own exciting ideas.

(Note: in standalone literature reviews, the review may be more comprehensive as the purpose is to educate readers about the field in general. But the purpose of a seminar paper, conference paper, chapter, or peer reviewed article is first and foremost to share your original knowledge, not showcase the scholarship that came before you.)

So, you want to highlight the scholarship that you directly engage when forming of your own argument. Keep in mind that you engage previous scholarship both when you agree and disagree with certain existing ideas, concepts, and argument. When you signal your agreement with certain pre-existing work, you imply that you see these elements as constituting valuable knowledge that you ultimately incorporate in your own conclusions. When you disagree with certain existing scholarship, you are essentially identifying what you claim to be flaws or insufficiencies in that work that leaves the knowledge-value of their findings in question. Disagreeing with elements of existing scholarship is one way to identify a gap in knowledge that needs to be filled.

Perhaps even more important than providing recent background targeted to your topic is writing the literature review with a gap statement in mind. While summarizing and synthesizing what has already been said about your topic, see if you can subtly shade your writing so that it also points towards what has NOT been said or is LACKING in the conversation. If you can carefully point your reader to notice a gap in the types of experiments carried out, questions asked, or data collected, then you can help your reader anticipate your original argument that remedies the gap.

The best way to transition from the background context of the literature review to your original argument is with a difference signifying conjunction, such as “however,” “but,” “despite,” or “although.”

By using these difference signifying words, you can set the stage for explaining how the work summarized in the literature review failed so far to answer an important question. Identifying a gap will give your paper forward momentum. It will also implicitly argue for the relevance of your topic. Journal editors will see the gap and understand your project’s stakes.

Once you understand how to write literature reviews, you’ll begin noticing them in peer reviewed papers you read. In fact, understanding the form will help you read papers more easily as you’ll immediately identify the difference signifying conjunction that transitions from the literature review into the authors original argument. (In a pinch, you can even search an article for the words “but” or “however” to quickly identify the author’s main contribution.)

While all this material can be difficult at first, just remember to:

  • Summarize literature only directly tied to your research problem
  • Subtly present the literature to help your reader anticipate what is missing from the conventional wisdom on your topic
  • Use a difference signifying word such as “however” to help you establish a gap statement and transition to your original knowledge that builds on previous scholarship.

And remember, you can make an appointment with the writing center for one-on-one help with your literature reviews!

Further reading:

Purdue OWL has an excellent page on literature reviews here.

When preparing to transition to your original ideas, consider using some of the templates developed by Mark Gaipa here.


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