For term papers and research papers, you'll need to write a literature review. If you've never had to do that before, it can seem really difficult. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be complicated or hard to do. You can learn to produce great literature reviews that offer a lot of value to the reader of the paper and provide all the information needed. Whether your literature review is just a couple of pages or you need something that's much longer, the basic method for handling that review is the same. In some cases you'll need to write a specific literature review chapter, which could be 50 pages or more. In other cases, you'll only need to write a few pages as a part of your overall paper. No matter which you're asked to do, you can follow the steps offered here to create a great literature review.
1. Decide on a Topic Area to Discuss
The first thing you'll need to do before you can create your literature review is make sure you know what topic you're going to be working with. Don't worry about narrowing it down just yet. Instead, focus on the larger picture of what you want to address. There is a topic that matters to you – or that has been assigned to you – and you want to see what all you can find out about that topic. As you do that, you'll get a better idea of the specifics of it. Once you understand those specifics, you'll be more likely to see which specific issues within that topic area are right for your paper. Looking at a broad area at first is a great way to explore the topic, though, and determine the subtle sections within it that might be of value for your paper. Take your time, read through the material, and focus in on what will be right for the literature review you're going to create. You want to make sure the literature review covers everything important for your paper, and that it doesn't waste time talking about unrelated issues, even if they are part of the same, broad topic area.
2. Narrow Down That Area to Specific Issues Surrounding Your Study
Once you've found the right area to discuss and you've read through the relevant material, it's time to narrow things down. Even if you're writing a large literature review section that's going to require many pages, you still don't want to ramble or address issues that aren't related to your specific study or paper. Many people struggle with literature reviews because they focus on a broad topic and then have trouble covering it the right way. When you want to cover a topic, it's better to find a narrow focus and discuss that thoroughly, instead of finding a broad focus and glossing over a lot of the details. Literature reviews should be very specific to the papers in which they are found, and they should thoroughly address the information that has been located by other researchers in the past. If the review is not conducted that way, there will be a lot of detail left out and a lot of good information overlooked. It can even make the study confusing. Narrow your focus as much as possible, and then go into detail about past studies that are related to that focus.
3. Find the Right Kinds of Sources
The kinds of sources you use are also vital to your success when it comes to creating a good literature review. Most instructors will give you guidance on what kinds of sources are acceptable to include in your literature review. Whether or not you get that guidance, make sure you evaluate the quality of each source before you decide to use it. In general, you want peer-reviewed sources that are found in journals. You don't want to use Wikipedia, personal blogs, or anything like that. If anyone could have written it and it hasn't been reviewed by others in the field or published in an industry journal or textbook, it's best avoided as part of your literature review. There are some exceptions, but it's better to stick to what you know will be acceptable to your instructor and what you can back up as being scientific or peer-reviewed in nature. That will help you get a better grade and write a good literature review that will become an important part of your paper.
4. Determine the Number of Sources You Need
It's possible that your instructor will tell you the minimum number of sources you have to use, but he or she may also leave it up to you. If you don't have a set amount of sources you must use, be careful you don't use that as an excuse to just use a couple sources. A literature review should cover all the pertinent literature on the topic, which means you want to be clear on what you're reviewing and spend time finding the sources that address the issue you're going to cover. While it's not necessary to scour the planet to find every obscure reference in existence and put it into your literature review, you should be thorough in what you include. All major, relevant studies in the present and recent past should be included. Some instructors only want sources from a certain time period, such as not more than five or 10 years old. Barring these kinds of requirements, you can use both recent studies and those that go back a number of years. This can be particularly important if the subject you're discussing has undergone significant changes over time.
5. Write Your Outline
For a large, multi-page literature review with a number of studies on related topics, you may want to create an outline. This will help guide you as you write your review, and will also help you group your sources into categories so you can write about them efficiently. If you avoid this step, you'll spend a lot of time going back and including sources that you missed, or you'll end up with a literature review that repeats itself or doesn't flow very well from one area of discussion to another. For very short literature reviews that are only a couple of pages, however, you can probably skip this step.
6. Create Your First Draft
Once you've found all the right sources for the topic you've narrowed down, it's time to write a first draft. Focus on one study or group of studies at a time, and follow your outline. Work through the list of sources and the outline methodically, so you don't miss something important. You want to make sure you address each study and how it relates to the other studies in the group. Your outline will be very valuable to you during this step, and if you've done it correctly you'll finish your first draft with the knowledge that you've addressed every study you intended to talk about. If you did miss something, go back and add it to the group of studies related to it. Then take a short break. Your first draft is a big accomplishment, especially if the literature review is very long and part of a much larger study or paper such as a dissertation or similar work.
7. Revise and Edit
While your first draft includes all the studies you wanted to talk about, your literature review isn't done yet. You still need to revise it and make any edits necessary. Don't rely solely on your computer's spelling and grammar checker for this step. You'll need to read back through your literature review carefully. Make sure the proper studies are cited, and that you didn't plagiarize by not citing information that came from any of your sources. Check to ensure you have the right number of sources listed, and that all of the sources in your literature review section are included in the bibliography at the end of your paper. Reading your review aloud can also help you catch mistakes you might not notice when you read it silently, like awkward phrasing or an unclear statement.
8. Incorporate the Literature Review Into Your Paper
After all the editing and revising has been completed, it's time to put your literature review into your paper. When you do that, make sure to read through the entire paper and make sure everything flows properly. You want the review to tie everything together properly. If it seems too choppy where it meets the other information, you may want to write a couple of transition sentences or paragraphs, so your paper is easy to follow and moves forward properly. The better the flow of your literature review and your overall paper, the easier it will be to read and understand. That can lead to a much better grade, overall.