Writing Literature Reviews
compiled by Writing Center Staff
This page will walk you through the most important steps involved in writing a literature survey, a common assignment in graduate courses across the disciplines.
Please note that a literature review is not the same thing as a book review. See our handout on Writing Book Reviews for more information.
Surveying the literature is necessary because scholarship is cumulative -- no matter what you write, you are standing on someone else's shoulders. Scholars must say something new while connecting what they say to what has already been said.
Read on for more hints on how to approach a literature review, or follow the link to read a sample literature review written for Professor Jean Schroedel's Politics and Policy 300 course.
A review article or review of the literature article considers the state and progress of current literature on a given topic or problem by organizing, integrating, and evaluating previously published books and articles. In short, a review article is a critical evaluation of material that has already been published.
The APA Publication Manual (1994) explains that a review article:
defines and clarifies the topic or problem;
summarizes previous investigations in order to inform the reader of the current state of research;
identifies relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature; and suggests the next step or steps in addressing the topic or solving the problem. (p. 5)
When organizing a review article, remember that your goal is to inform the reader about the main trends and patterns in the literature under survey. Susan Hubbach (1992) suggests several strategies for determining the important trends and patterns:
What theory or theories are referred to most often? Is there a debate over theories? Has there been a shift in the popularity of theories?
Can you categorize the literature by the basic assumptions or methods used?
Can you see any patterns in the results reported or conclusion drawn by authors of the literature?
What author's names pop up most frequently? Are they associated with a certain theory or type of research?
A literature review:
places your study in the context of other work that has already been done in the field.
informs your reader about the theories your study is based on.
establishes the need for your investigation, typically by identifying how it fills a gap in the knowledge accumulated about the subject area.
defines terminology and concepts drawn upon in your study.
explains the basis for your chosen research strategy.
can be included in the introduction, a specific literature review section, or woven throughout an article.
Tips for the Writing Process
When writing a literature review:
Be selective, limiting the review to sources relevant to the topic. Concentrate on methodologically sound studies.
Do not present an annotated list of the sources. Instead, organize the material for your reader, relating the citations to each other and showing trends in the literature. Look for patterns in methods, subjects tested, results, conclusions and assumptions researchers have made about the topic.
Emphasize the main arguments or findings made in each source. Quote your sources sparingly, if at all.
Look for gaps in the research. Think about aspects of the subject area that have not been explored, limitations that exist in the formulation of questions for research, inadequate data collection methods and inappropriate interpretations of results.
Show the reader how the literature reviewed relates to your study.
Look for examples of excellent literature reviews in your field. They provide models for organizing your own literature review. Ask your professor for citations.
To get started, try writing a map or outline of the literature review. You can organize the review around trends in the research or subtopics related to your area of study. Susan Hubbach (1992) gives an example of a map for a brief literature review:
I need to tell my reader that my general area of investigation is learning styles. Then I need to say that there are 3 basic views of learning styles: view Y, view X, and view Z. I'll briefly describe X and Y and tell the reader that I'm not following these views. I'll then explain Z's theory in more detail, because, as I'll tell the reader, this is the theory I'm using. Briefly I'll show the reader what kinds of testing procedures have been used to test Z's theory, stressing Smith and Wesson's work. I'll point out that these studies haven't considered age as a variable. I will say that I think age is an important variable, and I will prove it by pointing to the work on age and learning in general done by Wilson, Johnson, and Smedley. Then I will say that age should also be considered when talking about learning styles, which will lead me right into my hypothesis. (p. 127)
For both review articles and literature reviews as part of empirical papers, a response journal can help you manage the tasks of reading, reviewing, synthesizing, and organizing the literature. Keep a written record of what's happening in your head by jotting down:
responses to books/articles as you read them.
how readings connect to each other.
reflections on how readings exemplify trends and patterns in the literature or change your hypotheses.
American Psychological Association. (1994). Publication manual of the american psychological association (4th ed.). Washington: APA.
Becker, H.S. (1986). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Chapter 8 discusses good uses of literature and examines how literature both helps us to develop and limits our thinking.
Hubbach, S. (1992). Writing research papers across the curriculum (3rd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. Contains a section on writing a primary research report that includes guidelines on literature reviews.
Locke, L.F., Waneen, W.Y. & Silverman, S.J. (1987). Proposals that work: A guide for planning dissertations and grant proposals (2nd ed.). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. Discusses literature reviews in the context of proposals, but the suggestions given apply to literature reviews written as part of articles or dissertations.
Pyrczak, F. and R. Bruce (1992). Writing empirical research reports: A basic guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences. Los Angeles: Pyrczak Publishing. Includes a chapter on writing introductions and literature reviews that is somewhat obsessive in its listing of principles to follow. Nevertheless, the advice is straightforward and helpful, although the examples chosen from published texts tend to be poorly written.
Review article information exerpted from page 5 of The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.), copyright 1994. Used by permission of the American Psychological Association.
Organizational format and outline information excerpted from pages 125-127 of Writing Research Paper Across the Curriculum, Third Edition by Susan M. Hubbuch, copyright 1992 by Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, reprinted by permission of the publisher. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.