How To Write a Literature Review in 3 Steps
The primary aims of a literature review for a scholarly paper are to provide an accurate description and evaluation of published scholarship relevant to the paper, and to demonstrate the importance and value of the new research presented in the paper. The publications chosen for review must be closely connected to the main research problem or question, regardless of whether they support or contradict the results of the research or the argument(s) presented in the paper. A literature review is a necessary aspect of most scholarly papers intended for publication or grading.
The literature review for a scholarly paper is usually brief. For a short paper of a few thousand words, for example, the literature review might be no more than a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages long. In-depth or extended studies will often demand a longer literature review to cover the pertinent scholarship, and the same may be the case with topics that rely heavily on previous publications even when the scholarly paper as a whole is not particularly long. Every literature review is therefore unique and will require critical thinking and original writing on the part of its author. As much as individual literature reviews may differ, however, there are three primary steps for writing any scholarly literature review: 1) conducting thorough research, 2) engaging in critical reading and 3) producing scholarly writing. These steps are described in detail below.
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A Three-Step Guide to Writing a Successful Literature Review for a Scholarly Paper
Step 1: The Thorough Research
Conducting thorough research is a necessity for writing any serious scholarly paper and it is always the first step when preparing a literature review. The researcher’s goal should be to find previously published scholarship that is related in important or meaningful ways to his or her current topic, so a keyword search through reference lists, library catalogues, scholarly databases and other bibliographical resources is in order. This search usually begins when the research project itself does, so it is likely that the researcher will already be familiar with many of the key publications long before sitting down to write the literature review. It is always a good idea, however, to ensure that no significant studies have been missed, particularly new publications that are closely related to the current work but may not have been available when the research began. Focussing on peer-reviewed research written by experts in the field and published by reputable journals and presses is a sound strategy for discovering and selecting useful sources for a literature review.
Research for a literature review should also include learning about the requirements for the review. For general expectations in a discipline or area of expertise, most research articles, books and reports in the field will include literature reviews that demonstrate what a review should contain, how it should be organised and presented, and even the appropriate voice and style in which it should be written. For the specific requirements of particular publishers and instructors, the author guidelines provided by scholarly journals and presses often include guidance for writing literature reviews, so be sure to scan the instructions for authors as well as recent volumes and monographs for all the helpful information available. University instructors frequently have style sheets or assignment notes to let students know exactly what is expected of a literature review in a scholarly paper.
Step 2: The Critical Reading
With the publications for the review selected and the guidelines in mind, critical reading – the second step in the process – can begin. Critical reading is so essential for producing an excellent literature review that it might be considered the most important step, and certainly it tends to be the most time consuming. Each source should first be read in whatever order seems productive to evaluate content, aims and methods, the nature and analysis of findings, and any other aspects of the study related to its quality, usefulness or importance in the larger body of knowledge. It is essential while reading to keep one eye firmly focussed on the new research and to record critical thoughts about how each publication affects that work, by supporting it perhaps, or by contradicting it, or by leaving an unexplained gap for the new research to fill. Take care to separate critical thoughts from any content-oriented notes to avoid confusion and do not neglect to record with the utmost accuracy the bibliographical information for each source. This will promote perfect citations and references and also make final proofreading, checking and correcting (in Step 3 below) a good deal easier.
Careful notes of all three kinds – bibliographical, content and critical – will serve as the perfect tool for the next level of reflective reading. This involves comparing and synthesising research sources, categorising them in relation to larger research patterns as well as the new work, and ultimately evaluating the body of relevant scholarship as a whole. It may prove useful to create specific groups or categories for organising and understanding publications based on significant themes or theories, similarities and differences in methodology or analysis, or arguments and conclusions that agree or disagree with those in the new paper. Such categories will help with organising the literature review, and in a long review they might even become subsections. They should also help the author maintain a focus on discovering both the need and the justification for the current research and serve to highlight the ways in which the valuable new study will clarify confusion, answer key questions or provide new directions for investigation and practice.
Step 3: The Scholarly Writing Necessary To Any Successful Literature Review
As sources are compared and synthesised in preparation for writing a literature review, the appropriate logic and structure for that review will usually emerge, sometimes gradually and occasionally with striking immediacy. Knowing where the review will end is essential for effective writing, and ideally that ending will contain a strong statement about the inconsistency, confusion or lacuna in the existing scholarship that shows why the new research is needed. The literature review should be organised with the primary aim of developing a logical argument that concludes with that perfect ending. A chronological arrangement determined by the publication dates of the sources reviewed is often appropriate to show a direct line of development or progress, but a different and more complex order based on the nature of the new research may prove a better choice for a brief review that cannot hope to cover all the published scholarship in a field.
Remember while writing that a literature review for a scholarly paper is usually a particularly formal part of an already formal document. Great care must be taken to report and discuss the research and ideas of other authors with the utmost accuracy and professional respect, and any misrepresentation of the work of fellow researchers must be strictly avoided. Citations and references are required and must be thorough and precise; they must also conform to the documentation style of the relevant guidelines or instructions. A literature review should demonstrate its author’s sophisticated understanding of the sources discussed as well as the key issues associated with his or her research. It should also be written in formal language, using complete sentences and avoiding errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling and typing. Finally, revisions to refine content, editing to perfect language and proofreading to check and correct even the smallest mistakes are always necessary before a literature review is ready to submit for publication or grading.
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