Writing Literature Reviews
Average Reading Time: 26 Minutes
writing an introduction, body paragraphs, a discussion/conclusion, abstract, and other elements
drafting and getting feedback
revising your literature review
Note: Because this chapter involves the steps for writing your Literature Review, the discussion questions in each section will be more involved than in other chapters, so give yourself extra time. But never fear! They will all lead to writing a better paper.
12.1 Draft and Synthesize
First, I want you to watch this 10-minute video because it both reviews what we talked about in the last chapter and provides great ways to get started on the actual writing of your paper. Here are some highlights to pay attention to:
questions to ask as you take or review your notes that will guide your writing
suggestions for how to organize your notes. (Or actually, I should spell it "organise" with an "s" since the video comes from Australia.)
ways to add interpretation to what you say about your sources
language to use to comment on the studies you're summarizing and synthesizing
examples of literature review synthesis
What three strategies or elements from the video do you plan to incorporate into your own Literature Review?
Now it's time to start drafting your paper. Follow the structure from your outline and start filling in the missing parts. Get out your notes and remind yourself of the sources you plan to talk about. You don't have to write your paper from beginning to end in order—you can go to the parts that feel the easiest and start there. Here are some places you can start:
Writing your Bullet Points should be as fast as this Bullet Train. Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash
I often have my students start with a Bullet-Point draft that takes the ideas they've been outlining and fills them in with more details but only in bullet-point form. The beauty of bullet points is that they keep you from getting caught up in the language and style and allow you to focus simply on your main points. You can smooth out the sentences and transitions later, but for now, just get your ideas on the page.
Write the Introduction
Another way to get started is to just write the Introduction. You already have a thesis statement that can go at the end, so now you can start introducing your topic and its importance, setting up your Literature Review. See below for more specific help with Introductions.
Write a Body Paragraph
Or a third place to start is to jump into writing a body paragraph that synthesizes your sources—the way you did in that synthesis activity earlier. Take your notes and choose one set to talk about in paragraph form.
Don't think too hard about getting things perfect when you're drafting—that's what revision is for. Just focus on getting started and filling in some of the missing pieces. If you get stuck, do some brainstorming activities to get your creative juices flowing. Once you have something written, I suggest seeking feedback to make sure you're going in the right direction. In fact, I recommend getting as much feedback as possible along the way.
Now it's your turn to choose somewhere to start writing—choose either a bullet-point draft, the introduction, a body paragraph or something else. Then write the equivalent of at least one paragraph.
How to Write Each Section
Once you know what your main points will be, you're ready to introduce your ideas. As in any paper, you can't just jump right into your thesis statement and points; you need to set the stage first. Here are the elements of a good introduction to a literature review:
A good introduction
introduces the topic and indicates its importance (impact on individuals)
gives a context for the research question
defines key terms, concepts, and/or theories
explains what search methods were used and how many and what types of sources were reviewed (this is sometimes optional)
suggests the organization of the rest of the paper
Remember in some style guides like the APA Manual, you don't need to title your Introduction "Introduction"—you simply center the title of your paper at the top of your page (bolded and in title capitalization format) and then jump right into your first paragraph.
Tip: You don't always know where you're going when you start a paper, so just get a good draft of an introduction down. Then when you finish writing a first draft of your paper, read your conclusion and consider using some of it in your introduction instead. I often tell my students that conclusions make good introductions because you finally know exactly where you went in your paper. Either way, you'll want to revisit your introduction once your paper's done so you can adjust it to better match where your paper went.
Get a start on your introduction by writing an opening sentence that introduces your topic and/or indicates its importance. Then you can use that to jump start the rest of your introduction.
The of your paper is where you can develop your points and use your newfound synthesis skills. Remember the synthesis activity with the videos you did in the last chapter? As you create a draft, you can start composing paragraphs using your awesome notes just like you practiced with those videos. Try to incorporate several sources into each paragraph to be sure that you're synthesizing and not just summarizing or listing without making connections. Your color-coded notes can help you be sure that each paragraph contains multiple sources.
In the body of your paper, you should
synthesize previous studies to inform the reader of the state of research
“identify relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature” (APA Manual, p. 8)
group your points into major headings and subheadings (You choose the arrangement based on what you’ve found: similar concepts or theories, similar methods, chronological development, controversies, etc.)
support all points with sound reasoning or evidence drawn from sources and in which all borrowed information is documented
summarize sources most of the time, paraphrase sometimes, and use quotations very sparingly—only when specific wording is poignant or can’t be said in any other way.
One way to talk about your sources is known as the CEC Method: Claim-Evidence-Commentary.
Claim + Evidence + Commentary
Just like any paragraph, you should start with a Topic sentence that acts as a mini-Thesis statement or a generalabout your topic. Then you need to give evidence to support that claim. In a literature review, your evidence comes in the form of studies that have been done—all those brilliant notes you've been taking. This is where you can synthesize your sources and show that they are related under the umbrella of a topic. However, just listing or summarizing sources does not make the connection between them and your topic sentence clear. This is where commentary comes in. Your job is also to comment on and interpret the significance of your "evidence" so your audience can understand the connections between them. In synthesis, your language is the key.
In the next chapter, we'll talk more about how to do this, especially how to incorporateinto your paragraphs.
Metacommentary is the key to synthesis.(aka metadiscourse) is a type of commentary that guides your reader and helps them interpret the sources and evidence you're presenting. Think of it as really powerful transitions. First, let's remind ourselves what are. Transition words act like signposts—they guide your reader through your points. They can also glue your ideas together so they feel more cohesive. Beware that transitions can definitely be overdone, but I'd say most students in general could use more transitions in their papers rather than fewer.
Here's an awesome list of transition words (also linked in the frame below) that are grouped by category from the famous Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab—scroll down to see the list). You can also download a great handout from the University of Maryland here.
I always suggest that my students keep a categorized transition list like this handy as they write so that when they know they want to connect ideas in a certain way (e.g. to show contrast), you can easily find a good list of options (e.g. in contrast, conversely, etc.). Not only will transitions help your ideas feel more connected, they will also smooth out your writing style like butter.
You might think you can just stop at transition words, but metacommentary is much more than just sprinkling some "therefores" and "howevers" throughout your paper—metacommentary actually takes your synthesis to the next level. Remember the Claim-Evidence-Commentary pattern I've mentioned? The commentary part of that sandwich is where you should focus right now. What do you comment on? You can either highlight why a source is important or connect it with other sources. This is your chance to point out the answers to the four questions you looked for in your note-taking:
What do researchers agree and disagree about?
How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?
What are each study’s limitations and strengths?
What’s the next step in research—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)
You can think of metacommentary as a sandwich with your name on it. If my student's name were Alisa, here's what an "Alisa sandwich" would look like:
First, Alisa starts with a claim about what's happening in the field or about a particular subsection or focus of the field. This could serve as a topic sentence for a paragraph, for example.
Second, she sets up the source with guiding language like transitions and references to her past points or sources.
Third, she talks about the source itself and summarizes pertinent information.
Lastly, Alisa comments on the source and/or connects it to her main point or to next source.
This metacommentary is a lot like the interpretation mentioned in the video at the beginning of this chapter. This type of "sandwich" can occur several times in a paragraph as you synthesize your sources. Here's a sample paragraph from Chris, a Public Health student, (check this) who wrote a paper called "The Causes of a Behavioral Pandemic: Screen-time Addiction and Consequent Depression Among Adolescents." I've bolded the metacommentary Chris had added to guide his readers and to connect his points together.
Even though there have been far fewer studies on adolescents than adults, adolescent studies have consistently shown that those who are more physically active experience less depressive and associated symptoms, as well as a greater overall state of well-being (Kremer 2014). These studies have also shown that low levels of vigorous exercise in youth can independently cause depressive symptoms. One longitudinal study revealed that over 30% of children who participate in high levels of screen-time use experience moderate to high levels of depressive symptoms (Kremer 2014). Additionally, another study of children in the United States demonstrated that those who participated on a sports team were less likely to exceed recommended screen-time limits established by the US Department of Health. This study also demonstrated that as the number of total physical activity sessions increased among youth, both during free time and at organized events, children were less likely to exceed recommended screen-time limits (Carlson 2010). In this study, children who were more physically active consistently showed lower rates of depression and other emotional disorders. Therefore, evidence across multiple studies suggests that participating in screen-time activity may not be the direct cause of depressive symptoms, but rather the sedentary lifestyle and lack physical activity it causes among youth. With this recent evidence, experts are beginning to search for ways to replace screen-time participation of adolescents with physical activities.
If You Get Stuck
Literature reviews can be hard. If you get stuck, I have a little trick I tell my students. For your first draft, try starting every sentence with "Researchers . . ." I know this seems formulaic, but if you can keep your focus on what particular researchers did or what they agree or disagree on, you'll avoid the most common pitfalls of literature reviews: sounding like a typical argumentative research paper. If your focus is always on what researchers are doing or what they've found, then at the very least you'll stay in the realm of the literature review genre. Later you can go back through and change up your sentence structure, but I've found that this is an easy way for students to get through a first draft.
A Quick Word on Verb Tense
A Single Study or Event
McFly (1989) investigated the usefulness of hoverboards in a chase.
Generally Accepted Knowledge of the Field
One of the most promising areas of hoverboard technology is the use of electromagnets (Allain, 2015).
Present Perfect Tense
An Area of Inquiry
The usefulness of skateboards in a chase has been widely researched (McFly, 1985; McFly, 1989; McFly, 1990).
Verb Tenses to Use in Literature Reviews
Your last section will either be calledor (or will possibly not have a heading depending on your teacher's preferences or the style guide you're following). In an effective Discussion (aka Conclusion) section you should
do more than sum up what you have said (though you should do that as well)
explain where there are gaps and limitations in the previous research done
indicate recommendations for future research based on those gaps
At the end of this section,
restate your position (thesis statement)
show the implications of your findings
You must also include a list of your (also known as a Bibliography or Works Cited page depending on the documentation style) showing all the sources you referred to in your paper. Your references page must be in alphabetical order and formatted according to your chosen style guide (see Chapter 9: Talking About Sources).
Your teacher might require you to include these other elements in your Literature Review paper. Be sure to follow the format from your style guide.
I've waited until now to talk about titles because it's wise to wait until you have a good draft before you choose a title. Why? Because you often don't know exactly where your paper will go until you've written it out. Your title is your readers' first entry into your paper, so you want it to be interesting and also reflect what's inside. Your title should also include as much information as possible while remaining appropriately short and sweet. For example, the APA Manual recommends not using extraneous words but sticking to the main point of your paper. My student Justin's title follows this model:
Implications of Chinese Involvement on Africa's Economy
He basically summarizes his main point in one succinct statement—the ultimate summary. APA would be proud.
However, depending on your sub-field in the Social Sciences, many scholars like to do what I call a "reverse mullet." As you might know, the rad '80s mullet haircut that's short on top and long in the back has been described as
The Mullet: Business in the front, party in the back
A mullet starts with the serious and ends with the fun. But academic titles often do the reverse: they have an interesting introductory phrase, then a colon, and then the standard, more serious title. That's why I call them the
The Reverse Mullet: Party in the front, Business in back
A reverse mullet title gets the reader's attention before adding the serious explanation. For example, one of my students named Katelyn wrote her Literature Review on how much high school students' perception of their teachers was influenced by their teachers' apparel. Her title included a Reverse Mullet structure:
Keeping it Class-y: How Formality of Teacher Apparel Affects
Student Perceptions of the Teacher in the Classroom
Your Name (centered)
Your Teacher's Name (centered on the next line)
A Page Number (in the top right corner that's continued throughout the paper)
Optional: the Name of the School or Department
Optional: the Name/Number of Your Course (e.g., English 315)
Optional: the Date
You should save writing your abstract until after you've completed your paper because it's a summary of the main points of your paper. You can try writing a preliminary abstract now as a type of outline, but you run the risk of finding out that once you're done with your paper, you actually went in some different directions. My advice is to hold off and wait to write the abstract until the end. You can create a page after the title page where your abstract will go, but to emphasize that you should write this last, we'll wait to cover the details of writing an an abstract until the next section.
If you have tables or figures ( or formulas or other data) that are too big to be added inside the text of your paper, you can put them at the end. If you only have one, you can call it just that. But if you have more than one, call them Appendix A, Appendix B, etc. and refer to them as such in the text of your paper.
Tables and Figures
One more element that could be helpful to your paper is to include tables and/or figures. You're probably familiar with Tables (you know, the boxes with lots of horizontal and vertical cells). A Figure is any type of image, graph, or chart besides a table. You can use tables or figures from your sources as long as you cite them properly. You can also create your own table or figure either from existing data or to explain a concept. See Chapter 6: Design for the details of how to create, use, or format tables and figures. Just remember to check your style guide; for example, in APA Format, you need to title and number your tables and figures separately.
I hope you feel like you have a better sense of the structure for your own Literature Review paper. In the next chapter, we'll talk about how to draft and revise your paper.
12.2 Write an Abstract
Not that kind of abstract! As great as abstract art is, what you need now is the abstract of your paper. (Note: some teacher's won't require an abstract, so you can skip this section in that case.) Why do you think we've saved the abstract for last even though it's the first thing your audience will read (after your title)? You guessed it: it's because the abstract is a summary of everything you've talked about in your paper, so if you haven't written your paper yet, it's pretty hard to summarize it.
A lot of students think that the abstract is a preview of your paper that simply invites the reader to learn more. But that's not the purpose of the abstract, that's the purpose of the Introduction. If your paper were a movie, your abstract would not be the movie trailer. A movie trailer is an invitation to see more without giving away too much; that's the point of your Introduction. Instead, your abstract would be the movie plot synopsis. It would have a big SPOILER ALERT sign in front of it because in it you want to give away all the punchlines from your paper. In fact, the more you include your most important points or findings, the better. Because readers might only ever read your abstract, you want the most important information there. Then just like you did in your own database searching, they will decide based on the abstract whether they should open your paper and read more details. Your job is to make sure they have the best information to do that.
An abstract has a few main parts that mirror the parts of your paper but in miniature. First, in 1-2 sentences, you should introduce the topic, its importance, and the problem or question you tried to answer. Then you should succinctly explain your methods (database searching) and the scope of your project. The last and largest part should consist of your main findings such as the main areas of inquiry where researchers are congregating. You should include the major strengths and limitations (gaps) you found in your review. Finally, you should explain any implications of your study and suggest where future research should go. See? A miniature paper. It should be so miniature, that the APA Manual says an abstract should not exceed 250 words. At the end, you can also list a few Keywords to make it easy to search for your paper on databases.
To solidify your understanding of how to write an abstract, watch this 3-minute video from the University of Melbourne that takes you through a good example. Try not to get distracted by their awesome Australian accents.
Now if you would like more details, you can refer to this explanation.
12.3 The Real Last Step: Revise (and Revise and Revise)
The best writers revise (and revise and revise). Think back to Chapter 3: Writing Processes and the section on Revision. You need to think like your audience, which means you have to get out of your own head and think mindfully. One way to do this is to revise with purpose or in other words, with specific goals in mind.
You can't revise without a decent draft, so don't blow off the first draft deadline. The better your first draft, the better your paper will be in the end because you'll have enough time to really look at your paper. Actually re-look at your paper, or in other words, re-vise. Get it? Re-vision?
So how can you get out of your own head? Two ways: people and levels. The first way to get a fresh perspective is audience-oriented revision: peer review, teacher conferences, writing center appointments, and other outside feedback from real, live people.
When you find out how other people react to your paper, it will give you invaluable perspective into what's working and what's not. This is feedback and is extremely valuable. Your teacher should help you do these kinds of peer reviews and revisions in class.
Feedback can also come from anyone—friends, teachers, relatives, Writing Center tutors, roommates—just be sure to choose someone you trust who also knows about good writing and won't hesitate to tell you where you can improve. I don't know your grandma, but if she's the type of grandma who will tell you your paper is great no matter what's in it because you're just so nice, then run away! Okay, don't really run away from your grandma—she's probably very loving and supportive. Give her a hug instead. However, don't give your paper to your grandma to critique in that case. My grandma is actually a fantastic writer and wouldn't be afraid to tell me where I can improve. Do give your paper to someone like my grandma.
Here's a tip: Most universities have a Writing Center where you can take your paper to a Writing Tutor for help and feedback for free. Do it! It's free! And they can even meet with you online.
We're lucky at BYU that we even have our very own Social Science-specific Writing Center: the FHSS Writing Lab. They know Literature Reviews well and can help you with any stage of the writing process from selecting a topic to citing sources to synthesis. If you have more general writing questions (or if you need an appointment after 5pm), you can also go to the main BYU Research & Writing Center. They also offer online appointments. If you're not on our campus, look up your school's writing center.
As an undergrad, my husband didn't start out with the best writing skills, so he used to take his papers to the BYU Writing Center over and over and over. I think they made the rule that you can only go once a day because of him. And guess what? It helped! His grades went up! That was his secret to success that I'm passing on to you. Your teacher doesn't have time to personally meet with each student over and over and over, but the Writing Tutors are literally paid to do just that. Well, maybe keep your visits to only one per day, but you get what I mean. Take advantage! Make an appointment right now! Did I mention that it's free?
If you need more motivation to just do it, watch this "motivational" video by Shia Le Boeuf.
Revise by Levels
The second way to improve your paper is to go through a layered revision process focusing on global and then local issues. As you re-see your paper, take my advice and tackle before you focus on . What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a quick story.
A Revision Story Involving Cats
When my family and I were moving to our town, we looked at a lot of houses online. We fell in love with a beautiful old house that had been totally renovated but was selling at a shockingly low price. When we finally visited the house with our realtor, we discovered why it had been on the market for so long: it smelled like cat pee. Like really, really smelled. It turns out the house had been occupied by what many people would call a "crazy cat lady"—an older woman who lived with at least 50 cats. Then tragically, a fire completely destroyed the house (I'm pretty sure the woman and her cats survived).
The home owner used $400,000 of insurance money to beautifully restore the house. They rebuilt the intricate wooden staircase, restored the stately crown molding, installed lush carpet, and added upgrades to a gorgeous kitchen. The only problem was that they did their restoration in the wrong order—they took care of the local issues of paint color and carpet thickness while ignoring the more global issue of the smell. Eventually, they had to rip up all their work in the basement in order to treat the floor with a special enzyme that combated cat urine. If they'd just treated the cat smell first, then they could have saved themselves thousands of dollars, hours of work, and could have sold their house for a much higher price.
The Moral of the Story
What does all this have to do with revision? You've got it—treat the global issues first! Get rid of the cat pee! Don't worry about local issues like flowery language or sentences that connect perfectly to each other if you're just going to have to completely renovate that section later. Work on the global issues like ideas, logical order, and evidence first and wait until those are intact before focusing on the details. Put another way, whole-paper and paragraph-level revisions should come before sentence-level and word-level changes.
As a final gift, fantastic BYU Family Science professor Julie Haupt offers the following path for doing four purposeful revisions—two global revisions and two local revisions. If you really want to improve your literature review, follow these steps.
GLOBAL REVISION—The Forest
Level 1: Structural Review (Global)
Purpose: The structural review examines the document as a whole to see if all requirements are met and the document’s organization is sound.
Meet Assignment Requirements. Ask yourself if your paper meets all the requirements of the assignment? Look at your structure and make sure you have all necessary sections such as the following:
Introduction (with Thesis Statement and/or Organizing Statement)
Body with Headings
Include a Thesis and an Organizing Statement. Does the current version of the thesis statement match the tone, scope, and organization of the body text? Does an organizing statement after the thesis introduce the major topics and the order they will appear in the body (e.g., “In this review, I will first discuss . . . then . . . and finally . . .)
Use Headings. Is the body text subdivided in a logical way with evidence-based information located in appropriate sections? Are the major sections roughly symmetrical (in terms of length)? Are the headings brief, yet descriptive? If subheadings are used, does the major section contain at least two? Are all levels of headings separated by text?
Level 2 (Global): Paragraph/Logic Review
Purpose: The Paragraph/Logic Review is designed to review each paragraph for cohesion and compliance to the CEC (Claim-Evidence-Commentary) format.
Sequence Paragraphs Effectively. When reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, does the logical pattern of the paper emerge? Do the claims made in these topic sentences coordinate well with the thesis of the paper?
LOCAL REVISION—The Tree
Level 3 (Local): APA Formatting Review
Purpose: The APA Formatting Review is designed to make sure all APA conventions are explicitly followed to help the paper reflect a high level of professionalism.
Check Document Formatting. Do the title page, abstract, body text, and reference page appear in the correct page formatting as required? (Use the APA Manual if you have questions.)
Examine the Reference List Closely. Are all references in the reference list ordered alphabetically? Is the reference list double spaced entirely (with no extra gaps between paragraphs)? Are all references (e.g., journal articles, internet resources, or books) listed in the correct format? Is every reference on the reference list cited at least once in the body and does each in-text citation have a corresponding reference in the reference list?
Make a Final Check of the In-Text Citations. Is all information properly cited with an in-text citation when needed? Do all in-text citations include the year next to the author(s)? When more than one citation is listed within parentheses are they separated by semi-colons and ordered alphabetically by first author’s last name? If included in parentheses, do studies with multiple authors use ampersands ("&" rather than the word "and") before listing the last author?
Use “et al.” Correctly. If a study has three or more authors, do you include only the first author’s last name + et al. + publication year in in-text citations? Do you include all authors up to 20 in the References page? For any publications with 21 or more authors, do you include the first 19 authors' name, then insert an ellipsis ( . . . ), and then the last author's name?
Level 4 (Local): Finishing Review
Purpose: The Finishing Review is an opportunity to look closely at sentence construction, language,(qualifying statements), and grammar/punctuation.
Review Phrasing with a Read-Aloud Session. Read your paper aloud. Since having to read a sentence twice to get its meaning or “tripping over” phrasing can be an indication of awkward construction, are all sentences easily read aloud? Are any sentences so long that they have become difficult to comprehend, but could be split without changing the meaning?
Use Non-Biased, Non-Absolute Language. Do all references to people comply with the “people first” designation and avoid inappropriate uses of terms for various groups? Are the findings and summary statements in the review properly “”?
Check Punctuation and Grammar. Are all commas, semicolons, colons, hyphens, and other punctuation used correctly throughout the document (including the reference page)? Are common grammar mistakes, such as parallelism, subject-verb agreement, incorrect misuse of pronouns, and other grammatical issues corrected?
I know Literature Reviews can be daunting, but I hope that after reading this chapter you feel better prepared to tackle this bodacious writing assignment. As you practice writing, you'll find that it'll get easier and easier until it's as intuitive as riding a hoverboard.
If you're still confused or would like more guidance on writing a literature review, here is an optional 25-minute video that thoroughly goes through the entire process of writing a literature review. As an extra bonus, it's made by Michael Paye from the University of Dublin who has an awesome Irish accent. Enjoy!
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