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Conducting a Literature Review

This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done.

Intro Paragraph & Thesis

Introductory paragraphs can be the most challenging part of writing a paper. Instead of laying out the evidence (or in the case of a literature review, analyzing your resources), you must first provide background information and context for the topic, discuss the body of literature in general as well as the scope of your review, and give a brief outline of how you will organize the review.

It is generally a good idea to open an introduction with a hook, or an interesting first sentence. This could be a statistic or fact about the topic that you find relevant, a rhetorical question that will be answered in the rest of the introduction, or even an appropriate anecdote. The point of a strong hook is to catch the reader's attention; for a literature review, it can help get the reader invested in the research around your topic, as well as your analysis of it.

Some authors prefer to write their introductory paragraph after completing the body of the essay, finding it easier to summarize what will be shared with the reader after it has already been written. There is no right or wrong order for crafting your paper, so if this method appeals to you then you should make use of it. However, with appropriately detailed planning it can be simple to write out an introduction prior to the body. Using an outline (using the methods provided by Walden University, for example) can make writing the introduction and the entire essay much simpler.

Your literature review's introduction should contain four major elements:

  1. Establishing the topic, including providing background information and any necessary definitions to make sure your reader has all the context necessary to understand the rest of the literature review
  2. The trends or themes of the research that you noticed while compiling your sources, including any that you will use to organize your literature
  3. The purpose, criteria, and scope of the literature review: how will the literature be organized? What is your reason for examining this topic? What will you be analyzing about the sources (comparing/contrasting research methodology, conclusions, etc.)? Is there any literature you decided not to include -- if so, what disqualified it from the review?
  4. Introduce your thesis statement by drawing on the previous 3 components of the introduction to state what you discovered about the literature on this topic. Specifically, the thesis should answer where the current literature's strengths and weaknesses lie, and where additional research may be needed

The purpose of the introduction is to make sure that your reader has all the information they need to understand and appreciate your literature review, and to provide them a general blueprint of the analysis and arguments you will be making.

Body Paragraphs

With the introduction out of the way -- or perhaps even before you've written the introduction -- it's time to examine the literature you've gathered. We established how to organize the literature in the previous section of this guide, and that organization will serve as the framework for the body paragraphs. For example, if you organized your literature into themes, then each theme would serve as its own paragraph, in which you'd compare and contrast the sources within each theme; if you organized it by methodology or historical era, each of those would be a body paragraph.

As you write your literature analyses, keep the following recommendations in mind, provided by Shona McCombes at Scribbr:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers—add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

Your summary of each source can be as detailed as is appropriate, based on how important the source is to the overall literature or how much analysis you have to perform on it. In general, the more significant a source is to your review, the more time should be devoted to summarizing and analyzing it.

While looking at individual sources, remember to keep connecting them back to the theme of the body paragraph and the overall thesis; explaining their relevance in a particular section of literature helps the reader follow along and better understand your overall arguments.

Other useful tips to keep in mind when writing your body paragraphs, provided by the Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

  • Use evidence to support your claims
  • Be selective, and focus on the most important points for each piece of literature rather than trying to describe everything
  • Use quotes when appropriate, but know that literature reviews do not frequently require direct quotations
  • Paraphrase accurately

Conclusion & Reviewing Your Paper

Concluding Paragraph

A conclusion is used to provide further reinforcement of the arguments presented throughout the paper. In general, this consists of briefly summarizing the body paragraphs and reasserting their connection to your thesis. This is also good practice for a literature review; in addition, your conclusion should again summarize the broad trends of the research on your topic, as well as any opportunities for additional or more thorough research that you've found. 

Below are some helpful recommendations for writing conclusions, compiled from advice explained in more detail in the links below:

  • Explain the importance of research on this topic, and answer the question "so what?"
    • Address the broader implications of the existing research, and why it is important to close the gaps you evaluated during your literature review
  • Include a quotation or fact that effectively illustrates your thesis in a provocative or interesting way
  • Use simple, clear language without jargon
  • Reestablish your thesis and its connection with the literature reviewed

Your goal with the concluding paragraph of your literature review should be to leave the reader with a firm understanding of the existing literature on your topic, where additional research may be necessary, and why it matters.

Revising Your Literature Review

Revision is a process that goes beyond simply correcting spelling and grammar mistakes -- though proofreading is an important part of the writing process as well. The purpose of revising your literature review before submission is to look at it the way your reader will and pick up on any potential leaps of logic, unclear explanations, or shoddy evidence. The revision process should not begin immediately after finishing the paper; whenever possible, wait a few hours or days before looking at your draft, so that you can approach it with fresh eyes. 

When revising, focus on major issues with the paper such as organization, clarity, and thoroughness. Trying to both revise your writing and proofread it for small spelling or grammar issues may distract you from more important areas that could be improved. Ask yourself if your thesis is well-defended by the body paragraphs, and if you still agree with the conclusions you stated in the introduction. If more or better arguments are needed, find places in the body paragraphs to add evidence or make clearer connections to your thesis. Focus on the flow of the review; does each body paragraph move naturally into the next one? Do your paragraphs need to be reordered or restructured?

After major revisions are done, it is time to proofread for spelling, grammar, and general writing errors. Try reading the paper out loud and seeing where your word choice could be strengthened or a run-on sentence could be amended.

It can sometimes be difficult to revise an essay on your own, so consider booking an appointment with the ACPHS Writing Center to go over your writing with a tutor. Friends, classmates, or your professor can also be useful sources of feedback, and if possible try to get as many different readers to look over your writing and provide insight.