How To Write a Literature Review: Five Essential Steps for Success

How To Write a Literature Review: Five Essential Steps for Success
Years of acquired knowledge and experience often lie behind the best literature reviews. Whether an author has been writing and publishing research papers for decades, however, or is just beginning to write about his or her work, the same basic processes remain essential when determining how to write a literature review for a scientific or academic paper. These processes can be considered as five key steps or stages for how to write a literature review that will prove a successful part of a research paper submitted for publication or university credit.

Step 1: Research of Two Kinds
The research necessary for a literature review is of two kinds: learning about the published scholarship relevant to the research topic, and discovering exactly what is required for the literature review. The guidelines provided by an instructor or an academic or scientific publisher should therefore be consulted with care, and the literature reviews found in published research papers can be read as models of how to write a literature review well. Once the requirements for the literature review are established, research into the topic under investigation can proceed via keyword searches in the databases commonly used in the discipline. Library catalogues can be extremely helpful as well, and the lists of references in published studies often lead to further sources. It is imperative for an author to include not just publications that support his or her perspective, but also studies that run contrary to it. The research topic of a paper is often refined during this initial search, so the scope of the review may be widened or more likely narrowed as sources are discovered and precisely how to write a literature review about them is considered.
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Step 2: Reading and Evaluating Sources
Each publication identified as relevant in the initial search for sources should be read carefully and thoroughly while deciding how to write a literature review. In particular, each source should be read critically with the focus usually lying on major aspects of the research, such as the methods and materials used, the results obtained, and the conclusions and implications communicated by the investigator(s). Particular attention should be paid to elements that are especially pertinent to the topic of the current research paper, so if an innovative method is central to the new research, methodological concerns in the studies consulted and any changes or developments in research methods over the years will be important. Accurate notes of three kinds should be recorded while reading and evaluating sources and determining how to write a literature review: 1) the bibliographical information for each source; 2) content important to the current research; and 3) the researcher’s critical thoughts, which should be clearly distinguished from source content.

Step 3: Comparison and Synthesis
Comparison and synthesis of the publications considered are vital to determining how to write a literature review that effectively supports the original research reported in a paper. As sources are compared and the body of relevant scholarship is viewed as a whole, the author should consider the methods and findings, ideas and theories, contrary and confirmative arguments of other researchers in direct relation to the findings and implications of the current research. The establishment of themes and categories can facilitate organisation of both an author’s thoughts and a literature review’s structure, thereby enhancing reader comprehension. Major patterns and trends in the body of scholarship should be a special concern, and careful attention to contradictions, inconsistencies, abrupt shifts, dead ends or seemingly inexplicable gaps in the literature can enhance effective explanations of how the current research clarifies confusing matters, resolves ongoing problems, fills significant gaps or provides new directions for investigation. A working outline of how to write a literature review can effectively be constructed during this stage of reflection and analysis.

Step 4: Writing the Literature Review
Careful preparation via the steps above will certainly help, but precisely how to write a literature review is generally determined through the actual process of writing. The primary purpose of a literature review within a research paper is to demonstrate how the current state of scholarship in the area necessitates the research presented in the paper, and that purpose usually provides the core argument for the literature review and guides the presentation of sources. Maintaining a clear line of thought based on the current research can prevent unnecessary digressions into the detailed contents and arguments of sources. Relationships, themes, developments and anomalies in the scholarship tend to be most effectively introduced via precise transitional words and phrases, and the entire literature review will be most successful if working to achieve a formal scholarly style that uses correct grammar, spelling and punctuation constitutes an important part of how to write a literature review. Citations and references in the exact style and format indicated by publisher or instructor guidelines must be provided for all the sources discussed in a literature review.

Step 5: Revising and Editing
Using an unedited version of a review of scholarship in a research paper is never a sound strategy for how to write a literature review. The first draft of a literature review should be read critically and both revised and edited as an important part of the entire research paper. Ideally, an author will dedicate considerable time to this refinement process, and mentors, colleagues and professional proofreaders might offer valuable insight on content, language and formatting. Clarifying and streamlining the argument of the literature review to ensure that it successfully provides the support and rationale needed for the research presented in the paper are essential, but so too is attention to many seemingly small details. Correcting typing and content errors, improving grammar, spelling and punctuation, clarifying formatting and transitions, ensuring consistency in terminology and abbreviations, and checking citations and the summaries, paraphrases and quotations they herald are all necessary aspects of how to write a literature review for an academic or scientific paper.

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