How To Write An Academic Literature Review

How To Write An Academic Literature Review

One of the most intimidating tasks that new college students may face is their first literature review. Although the full literature review process has been traditionally reserved for graduate students (Masters/PhD.), it is becoming more common for college instructors and professors to incorporate the literature review into the undergraduate curriculum.

The first time I encountered the dreaded “lit. review” I was in the first semester of my Master’s degree program at the University of Nebraska. I, like many of you, had written plenty of short research papers during my undergraduate career, but had never even heard of a literature review. When I approached the professor she pointed me in the direction of a few resources and set me loose. This article is a culmination of that research.

I heard that many PhDs hire writing services to custom write their papers, but if you’re not one of them this article is for you. Hopefully in writing this article I can help save you a little time and a lot of stress by providing you with a quick overview of the literature review process, one of the common mistakes that novice researchers make on their first literature review, and a quick list of tips for surviving your first literature review.

The basics

While literature reviews and traditional “research” papers are different on many levels, the fundamentals of each are the same. Think back to the very first research paper you ever wrote. Chances are pretty good that one of the first things you learned about composition and research is that every paper needs to have three things:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body
  3. Conclusion

Your literature review shares these same fundamental characteristics. Just as in your first research paper your literature review will need to have a solid introduction. This introduction serves the same purpose, to pull your reader into your literature review and hold their attention. Generally it is in this section of the literature review that you establish why your topic is relevant. Your lit. review will also have a body. The body is composed of the “meat” of your literature review. In the body you begin to weave your sources in. It is here that you establish what has been done in your field of study. This brings us to our first common mistake that most first timers make, organization.

Check your organizational pattern

One of the most common mistakes that novice researcher’s make with their first literature review is not understanding the proper way to organize the literature review. This is not your fault! Traditionally, in composition, we have been taught to group our sources by topic or in alphabetical order. When it comes time to write the literature review often students will simply list their sources in order and briefly describe what each source is about. By doing this you are actually creating an annotated bibliography!

Literature reviews lie in the synthesis, not in the summary!

What this means is that rather than simply summarizing what each researcher has said or done, you must weave their research in with the existing research of others. Your goal in doing this is to provide the whole picture for what has been done over your particular topic. There are many organizational patterns that you can use to accomplish this. Here is a quick list of the 8 most common organizational patterns used in literature reviews:

  • Chronological
  • Cause and Effect
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Problem-Cause-Solution
  • Topical
  • General to Specific
  • Psychological

But which pattern do you use? Choosing the right pattern for you will depend on the types of sources you include, and the type of research study that you are planning on conducting.

Rationale Section

After you have completed your synthesis of the previous research you need to move on to the next main section of your literature review, the rationale. The rationale section functions much in the same way as the conclusion of a traditional research paper. In the rationale you provide your reader with the “so what” of your study. Establishing previous research is great, but your reader still needs to know why you pulled together all of this research. In the rationale section of your literature review you will accomplish the “so what” by providing your reader with your hypotheses or research questions. A hypothesis is an “if” “then” statement that serves to show what relationship you believe exists between your variables. A research question, on the other hand, is a specific question the researcher asks about the topic. Deciding which to use will again be dependent on the type of research study that you are conducting.

Quick Tips

Here is a quick list of tips that can help you survive your first literature review:

  • Use Direct Quotes Sparingly
  • Synthesize, Not Summarize!
  • Be Careful When Paraphrasing
  • Revise Revise Revise!