How to Write a Literature Review for a Research Paper

Knowing how to write literature review for a research paper is critical for every college student. Writing an undergraduate thesis is often a prerequisite for graduation because it summarizes everything you have learned during the last four years. The literature review, however, is one of the most challenging elements of the research paper to write.

Literature to Be Reviewed for a Research PaperOne major problem is it gets easily confused with an annotated bibliography. While both provide summaries of literature, the former simply deals with individual texts while the latter aims to synthesize the entire body of relevant and updated literature. Another challenge is that writing a review of literature in research takes a lot of work. Granted, you have to read at least five to 10 bodies of work related to your thesis topic. You also have to flesh out your findings for you to be able to summarize them into a review.

The following guide is intended to help you learn how to write a literature review for a research paper.

1. Identify the literature.

Everything that is written about your topic can be used as literature. This covers books, theses, dissertations, journal articles, newspaper articles, historical accounts, government records, etc. The important thing is to look for literature that is relevant to your subject of research. Online databases make it easy to search for literature to be mentioned in your study. Begin your search with a general descriptor, altering your search to include results where the descriptor appears only in the title, abstract, review of literature or in all elements of the text. This allows you to find out if your subject is too broad or too narrow and make the necessary adjustments. Take note, however, that findings must be up-to-date. The rule of thumb is to use text published within the last five years. You may also include classic studies but you have to emphasize that these are landmark studies and point out how it influenced the direction of research in the area.

2. Analyze the literature.

Find a way to take organized notes because you will need them when you plan to write the review. You can do it the old-fashioned pen-and-paper way or use a note-taking software such as RefWorks, Inspiration or Excel, whatever works for you. There are several points for analysis to take note of. It is useful to group the texts according to categories first, such as type of literature, objective of the study, research design or conclusion. Define the key terms and note any differences within the texts. Also, highlight any statistics and quotations you might wish to refer to when writing the review.

Be on the lookout for major trends and patterns. These are not usually specified in the texts themselves, but they become apparent towards the end. Note the commonalities and gaps among the texts, but be wary of treating each text of equal importance. You should be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each text and determine how each conclusion is relevant to your research.

3. Synthesize the literature.

How you write a literature review for a research paper depends largely on the purpose of your study. Create an outline of the review, providing separate headings for separate categories. Within each heading, identify the similarities and differences among the texts and note any gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in. If possible, explain the literatures within the context of a unifying theoretical or contextual framework and discuss the theory is advanced by the individual texts. Always provide summaries for each heading and come up with an overall conclusion for the entire review.

4. Write the review.

There are three parts of the literature review: introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction aims to define the subject of study and point out the general findings that have arisen in previous bodies of work. It also points out how you identified, analyzed and compared texts included in the review. The body is the meat and bones of the review, where you group the texts into categories and analyze them according to various factors. Each category must be clearly delineated from the other by providing clear and straightforward thesis statements.  By the time you reach the conclusion, you should already be able to summarize the significant findings that arose from the body of literature you have studied. Also, point out the major flaws and inconsistencies and identify the “knowledge gaps” that you seek to fill in with your own contributions. The review should be thorough and comprehensive, but always keep the main focus on the subject of your own study.

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