How to Write a Literature Review

Chapter header

Learning Outcomes

 In this chapter, you'll learn the steps to creating a literature review including 
  • analyzing sources
  • noticing patterns
  • organizing and grouping sources
  • creating a map or outline of your literature review
  • drafting your literature review
  • 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.

Step One: Take Notes Like a Boss

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Good notes will make your life much easier! (Public Domain) Photo by Elijah Hail on Unsplash

Remember back in Chapter 3: Writing Process where we introduced you to the steps of the writing process? And do you remember that the first step is to Plan? I hope so. Because for a big paper like a Literature Review, the more you prepare and plan, the better your paper will turn out. The key to a good Literature Review is finding the patterns and connections between sources and synthesizing those sources rather than just talking about them individually. Therefore, before you begin writing or even planning what to write, you need be sure you've done your homework and have good notes to work with. For the purposes of this section, I'm going to assume that you've already done the steps in Chapter 7: Finding and Evaluating Sources : you've created a research question, gathered many relevant and reliable sources, annotated your sources, taken good notes, and hopefully have even written an Annotated Bibliography.

The next step is to go Back to the Future and map out the past, present, and future:

Time-Traveling Delorean (Public Domain) Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Imagine you're getting into your time-traveling Delorean so you can figure out

Recall from Chapter 1: Writing in the Social Sciences that any publication is written as part of an ongoing conversation. So it helps to see all the sources you've found as contributions to the larger conversation. Your job is to figure out the most important threads of that conversation. For this reason, a good Literature Reviewer synthesizes the sources--compares them and shows them in a larger context--rather than just talking about them individually. Like Marty McFly, your readers need the big picture.

“A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.” -- The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What is Synthesis?

Throughout the rest of this section you'll be going through a tutorial created by superstar research librarian Emily Swensen Darowski and illustrious associate professors Nikole D. Patson and Elizabeth Helder Babcock to take you through the process of synthesizing sources. Have your notes from your sources ready and follow the instructions after each video.

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Step 1: Color-Code Your Notes

Color-Code Your Notes Public Domain Photo by Sara Torda on Unsplash

This is where your notes will come in handy. If you've already color-coded your summaries from your sources, then you're one step ahead. If not, all is not lost. Just watch this video and follow the steps. Remember, you can use paper cards or electronic note-taking software like Trello .

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Step 2: Look for Patterns

Look for Patterns (Public Domain) Photo by James McDonald on Unsplash

As opposed to just writing general summaries like you did for an Annotated Bibliography, you're going to take your note-taking to the next level. Now as you read through your notes and sources, you'll be looking for patterns and themes that emerge. If you're not writing your literature review as part of a bigger empirical research project (those are the kind that end up as the Introduction to an article in IMRAD format), then you don't need to look for all the items listed in the video--you just need to look for things that help you see what's happening in the field, what researchers are doing. So you can ignore the items in the video such as "Methodology that you might 'borrow' for your proposed materials or procedures" because you won't be conducting any experiments or primary research in this class. Your teacher might eventually ask you to propose research in a grant proposal, but that's the most you'll have time for. So for now, just focus on the items relevant to a literature review as you organize your notes.

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I tell my students to ask four questions as they look through their sources and notes:

  1. What do researchers agree and disagree about?
  2. How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?
  3. What are each study’s limitations and strengths?
  4. What’s the next step in research—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)

Revisit your sources from your Annotated Bibliography. Look through them again looking for these patterns:

Another way to think of these groups is to think HEAT: Where are the hottest areas of research? What are the most heated debates? Which studies are the hottest--most cited? Which are only lukewarm because they have major limitations/weaknesses? Where does the research go cold (where are there gaps that need to be filled)?

Step 3: Organize and Group

Group your notes into themes or umbrellas. Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Now you can group your notes into themes or umbrellas based on the four questions you've been asking yourself. Or if you notice similarities or connections between sources, feel free to make an umbrella based on that. This process doesn't have to be perfect, so don't get caught up in making things match perfectly. The point is that you're starting to organize your notes based on your own agenda.

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What do researchers agree and disagree about?

Many students are tempted to simply report on what's been established and agreed upon in their field, but the problem with this is that if everyone in your field agrees about something, then it becomes common knowledge and is no longer counts as a gap in knowledge. So if you only report on what is commonly agreed upon, you're writing a research report rather than a literature review. Students in fields like Public Health where reports are common need to pay extra attention to avoiding this tendency. When you find information that most researchers agree on, that information becomes background information for your literature review. While it can be good to point out what's been established in a literature review, the point is to find the gaps in research where questions haven't been answered. So look for areas of controversy--those are especially valuable in a literature review because it means we don't have definitive answers and, therefore, there are gaps.

How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?

Remember as well that researchers are constantly trying to create new information. They do this in two ways:

  1. by narrowing or shifting their focus or
  2. by taking something that's been done before and doing it in a new way as a type of re-vision.

It's your job to point out how researchers in the field are currently creating new information and where you think the field is going next (aka the gaps in research). If you notice, for example, that researchers have started to look at specific geographic areas and if there are differences in those populations but they haven't looked at different age groups, then this could be an area for further research. It's valuable to show a trajectory of how variables are being narrowed because that helps us know where things are bound to go in the future as well.

What are each study's limitations and strengths?

When I have a student who's struggling with how to compare sources, I often tell them to go through each source simply write out what the strengths and limitations are of that source. it's a great way to start because it gets your analysis juices flowing. Perhaps a limitation is in methodology--is the study reporting on a small number of participants? That usually allows for richer data (a strength) but at the cost of being able to generalize to a bigger population (a weakness). Is the study only quantitative in nature? That allows for easily measurable results about larger populations (a strength), but perhaps they are missing the richer data interviews or qualitative surveys could produce (a weakness). Does someone's interpretation of results seem to miss what another research group published? Ta da! You've found a gap that can be filled with future research.

What’s the next step—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)

All of this is leading to the ultimate goal of a literature review, which is to show where researchers should go next. We need to analyze the literature that's out there in order to find things that have been overlooked--and then we or someone else in the field can fill in that missing knowledge. In terms of hoverboards, once we know what's been tried before and where the field is, we can know what the next step is and remain on that cutting edge.

Make a Map

Make a map of your sources. (Public Domain) Photo by oxana v on Unsplash

As you compare sources and group your notes, you'll be able to figure out the main paths that the conversation is taking. This is why Literature Reviews are generally organized around themes rather than simply a list of information about each source separately. In fact, most Literature Reviews are organized in one of these four structures:

  1. Similar concepts or themes
  2. Similar methods
  3. Chronological development
  4. Controversies

My students often find it helpful to literally make a map of their sources to show where themes are emerging. This is similar to the creative mindmapping we talked about in the brainstorming section earlier. As with brainstorming, it often helps to physically draw the connections because it encourages your creativity and your ability to make connections. Here's an example of geography student Carly Ringer's paper on the uses of Social Media during Crises and Disasters. Making a map of her topic and what she found in her sources allowed her to visually see where the areas of inquiry are in her field. This map could easily be used to create themes for her notes or even to structure her outline for her literature review.

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Step 4: Assess Groupings

You can also look through the way you've grouped your notes and see where your sources are landing. Make sure you have multiple sources under each umbrella so you will be able to synthesize once you get to the drafting stage.

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Step 5: Write

Now you can try writing a paragraph that synthesizes the sources under one of your groups of notes. If you can include synthesized paragraphs like this throughout your paper, your literature review will be much more sophisticated than a simple annotated bibliography or research report--you will show that you understand the areas of inquiry in your field and how researchers are approaching your topic.

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Step 6: Check Out an Example

Now check out this example of how these steps to synthesis can work.

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Now that you've started organizing your notes into themes, patterns, and idea umbrellas, you're ready to start thinking about the structure of your paper. So we'll take a break from working with notes and think through the structure of a literature review.

Step Two: Structure Your Paper

A Literature Review follows a general structure. As you start organizing your ideas and formulating what you want to say, think about how and where your ideas will fall into this structure.

In addition, your teacher might ask you to include other elements like a Table of Contents, List of Tables and Figures, or an Appendix.

I'm going to cover each of the main elements of Literature Review structure, but instead of talking about them in the order they go in your paper, I'm going to talk about them in the order you should tackle them. Trust me, it'll make your life easier.

Thesis Statement

Now that you've grouped your notes and seen patterns emerge, you're ready to create the crux of your literature review: the thesis statement. But don't be fooled into thinking that you are writing a typical research paper with an argumentative thesis statement where you take a position on an issue. In contrast, your position in a literature review is simply what you believe to be the state of the field on an issue . Some people call it an expository thesis because it exposes or announces your topic rather than taking a position or arguing your opinion. So any claim you make will be determined by the sources that you've been organizing and grouping and the trends or patterns you found. One way to think of a literature review thesis statement is in two parts:

Thesis = Main Areas of Inquiry + Future Research Directions

Areas of Inquiry

In other words, you will describe what you think the main areas of inquiry are concerning your topic. This is the new knowledge you're personally bringing to the table and that justifies writing a literature review--now that you've read and analyzed your sources, you can tell us your findings. And your findings consist of the fact that that researchers in your field are congregating in certain arenas--or in other words, areas of inquiry. Your job is to point out where those areas are. Go back to your notes from the Synthesis activity in the last section and also do some mind mapping until you have decided on 3-4 main areas of inquiry you want to talk about in your paper. If you're organizing your Literature Review chronologically or by methodology instead of by theme/area of inquiry, then you can divide your ideas in to 3-4 sections based on those perspectives. Either way, you can even write out the headings you would use for each section.

Future Research Directions

And because there are still limitations or gaps in knowledge, you are also in a position to explain where you think future research should go. So your thesis statement--or main point--is a summary of these things. You'll put this statement at the end of your Introduction.

In the body of your paper you'll go into detail about each of your points and will show evidence of these areas of inquiry by synthesizing your sources. Then at the end of your literature review, you'll spend time discussing future areas for research. But for now, start by creating a thesis statement.

Another difference between a typical research paper and a literature review is that in the former, a thesis statement is short--one or two sentences--and makes a claim; in contrast, a literature review thesis statement can be as long as a paragraph. In fact, the thesis statement can serve two purposes: it can explain your main points and it can indicate the organization of your paper. (Be sure to list everything in the same order you'll talk about them in your paper.)

For example, my student Justin's thesis statement is actually a paragraph long and sets up the organization of his paper. (This came at the end of his Introduction.)

In this paper, I will give an overview regarding the history of Africa’s relationships with their traditional investors and then compare that to China’s relationship with Africa now. I will then cover the three main ways that China is involved with Africa which are FDI, trade, and aid and discuss what researchers have found both China and Africa have to offer in all of these interactions. Then, I will synthesize how current researchers agree and disagree regarding both the positive and negative effects of China’s interaction on Africa from a macroeconomic and microeconomic level. I will then end this review by offering what researchers say is the future of Africa based on their relationship with China.

As you can see, this is very different than a typical thesis statement. It's long and doesn't take a stand on an issue. But it still serves the purpose of delineating the main points of his paper, indicating that there are gaps in the research that will be addressed, and setting a direction for where he'll go.

Write a Thesis Statement


Outlines are like topiaries. (Public Domain) Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

Once you have a basic statement--or even as you're trying to create one--you can start organizing your ideas into an outline. Your notes should already be grouped under umbrellas, so it shouldn't be too hard now to make a general outline of the rest of your paper. There are two types of outlining that can be seen as helpful for setting up your paper: the formal outline and the organic outline. Or the structured and unstructured. Dr. Matt Baker (2019), a BYU Linguistics professor, has studied the way students outline and likes to compare the two types of outlining to making a topiary--you know, those shaped trees or bushes that often look like animals.

Organization-Only Outlines are like Topiary Wire Frames. https://www.flickr.com/photos/topiarygarden/5903589263/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Baker calls the formal/structured type of outline an Organization-Only Outline and says this is similar to the formal way gardeners create topiary bushes. The formal way is to create a metal wire frame first and then grow the bush into the frame until it's shaped beautifully. This is like the types of formal outlines you're probably most familiar with that use Roman numerals:


If you already have a good sense of where you're going with your literature review, then this can be a great way to start filling in the details. You can make your major areas of inquiry the first level of Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.), and start adding subsections underneath. Your notes should help you a lot with this.


The second type of outlining is more organic. Baker calls this type a Content-Exploration Outline . This involves many of the idea-generating activities we've done like brainstorming, mind mapping, and grouping. This is like the type of topiary where a gardener sees a full-grown bush and starts trimming it from the outside-in to create a shape. You can group ideas and work on one area and then another as your paper takes shape. You can write the sentences and paragraphs that feel the most fruitful and then organize them as you go.

“Over the course of my 17-year writing career, I began to give up on outlining — that is, before I write. I’ve come to prefer a more organic approach to creation, first laying out my raw material on the page, then searching for possible patterns that might emerge.”

Hamburger, Aaron. 2013. “Outlining in Reverse.” The New York Times. January 21, 2019.

Of course, you can also have a combination of both types of outlines, which is what most students do. As you may have noticed, the activities we've done earlier in this chapter have had the purpose of helping you to organize your ideas into the shape of a paper.

Here is an example of a Literature Review outline for one of my student's papers:

Home-Based Therapy for Children with Autism

    1. Introduction
      1. Autism Spectrum Disorder
        1. Definition
        2. Occurance
      2. Autistic children
        1. Current research/study methods
        2. Current treatments
          1. In-home or in-school?
    2. How the environment affects autistic children
      1. Sensory enrichment therapy
        1. Definition
        2. Useful for autistic children?
      2. How the studies were administered
        1. Positive/negative results
        2. Limitations
        3. Parent-involvement in therapy
    3. Home-Based Therapy
      1. PLAY Project Home Consultation program
        1. Purpose
        2. Results
      2. Quantitative measurement
        1. Caregivers biased?
      3. Qualitative measurement
        1. Specific autism symptoms tests used
        2. Results of home-based therapies
    4. Effect of home-based therapy on family
      1. Positive
        1. Easier to do things in familiar environments
      2. Negative
        1. Strain on parental relationships
        2. Strain on sibling relationships
    5. Future Research
      1. Long-term goals
        1. Have a long-term follow-up to current home-based therapies
        2. Positive/negative results of following-up long-term (use specific study)
      2. More test subjects
        1. Family-centered approach only done on 1 family
        2. Not enough subjects = can’t be statistically significant
    6. Conclusion
      1. Children with autism
        1. Effect of the environment
        2. Effect of the home
      2. Home-Based therapy
        1. Effect on family
        2. How effective it is for the child
      3. Maybe quickly reiterate the future research needed?

**I honestly could use any suggestions on how to organize this better. I've spent hours trying to organize my sources/info better but could use any thoughts y'all have on how to make it better!

My favorite part about this outline is the comment at the end that this student invites any suggestions for improvement. That shows exactly the right attitude to approach a project--open to feedback.

Create an Outline


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

Now check out this great explanation How to Write an Introduction to a Literature Review from BYU's FHSS Writing Lab (Literature Review is the second page of the document) . Remember that in APA Format, you don't need to title your Introduction "Introduction"--you simply center the title of your paper at the top of your page (with no bolding or other formatting) and then jump right into your first paragraph.


What is at least one idea from the FHSS Handout "How to Write an Introduction" that you plan to incorporate into your own Introduction?


The body of your paper is where you can develop your points and use your newfound synthesis skills. This is where all the paragraphs will go that you've set up with your note-taking and grouping.

In the body of your paper, you should

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 general claim about 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 to also comment and interpret the significance of your "evidence" so your audience can understand the connections between them. In the next section we'll talk more about how to do this, especially how to incorporate metacommentary into your paragraphs.


The section will either be called Discussion or Conclusion (or possibly not have a heading) depending on your teacher's preferences. In an effective Discussion (aka Conclusion) section you should

At the end of this section,


You must also include a list of your References (also known as a Bibliography or Works Cited page in other documentation styles) showing all the sources you referred to in your paper. Your references page must be in alphabetical order and formatted according to APA Format (for more details, see Chapter 8: Citing Sources ).

Other Elements

Your teacher might require you to include these other elements in your Literature Review paper. Be sure to follow the format from the APA Manual (2019) .

Title Page

Your title is your readers' first entry into your paper. Your title should include as much information as possible while remaining appropriately short and sweet. 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.



The Mullet. Business in the front, party in the back. Wikimedia, CC-SA 

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 Reverse Mullet:


Reverse Mullet.jpg

Reverse Mullet By Weidmaier, CC-BY NC

The Reverse Mullet: Party in the front, Business in back

A reverse mullet 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

Because her field is education (Social Science Teaching), this second type of title structure is appropriate and adds interest. You can talk to your writing teacher or the professors in your major to find out which type of title would be most appropriate for you to use in your field. If you want to just play it safe, stick with a plain title, but know you might be missing a chance to draw your readers in.

What else should go on your title page besides your title?

Your title and these additions should go in the top half of the page. Your teacher can tell you any other information they require like a page number. If you're using APA Format, then you'll need a page number in the upper right corner as well as a Running Head with a shortened version of your title that can "run" at the top of all your pages. See Chapter 8: Citing Sources for more information about how to do that.


You should save writing your abstract for last because it's a summary of your completed 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 we'll cover writing Abstracts in Section 9.10 Write an Abstract .


If you have tables or figures that are too big to be added into the text of your paper, you can put them at the end. If you only have one Appendix, you can call it just that. But if you have more than one, call them Appendix A, Appendix B, etc.

Tables and Figures

One more element that could be helpful to your paper is to include tables and/or figures. Tables should be familiar to you. Figures are any type of image, graph, or chart besides a table. You can use tables or figures from your sources as long as your cite them properly. You can also create your own table or figure either from existing data or to explain a concept. See Chapter 5: Design for the details of how to create, use, or format tables and figures. Just remember to check APA Format; for example, in APA, 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. In the next section we'll talk about how to start drafting your paper.


Step Three: Draft and Synthesize

At this point, I want you to watch this 10-minute video because it both reviews what we've talked about thus far and provides great ways to get started on the actual writing of your paper. Here are some highlights to pay attention to:

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Video Review

What three strategies or elements from the video do you plan to incorporate into your own Literature Review?

Start Drafting

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:

Bullet-Point Draft



Writing your Bullet Points should be as fast as this Bullet Train. Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

I 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 transitions and allow you to focus simple 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. Feel free to read the Introductions from student example papers (to be added later) to help you get started.

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.

Get Feedback!



Seek feedback! Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One of the most valuable ways to improve your paper is to get feedback. Feedback can come from anyone--peers, 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! 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 .

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--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?


Now, back to writing. Remember the synthesis activity with the videos you did earlier in this 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 you're synthesizing. As you write your paragraphs, you might wonder how to connect your ideas and do that Claim-Evidence-Commentary thing I talked about before. The answer is to the "commentary" part of that is in your language.

Add Metacommentary

Metacommentary is the key to synthesis. Metacommentary (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 transitions are. Here's a great two-minute video to remind yourself.




As University of Maryland's Clancy Clawson says in the video, 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 (below) that are grouped by category from the famous Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab--scroll down to see the list). I always suggest that my students keep a categorized transition list like this handy as they write so that when you know you 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 "therefore's" and "however's" 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 interpret why a source is important, highlight its significance, or connect it with other sources. This is your chance to point out the answers to the four questions I had you look for in your note-taking:

  1. What do researchers agree and disagree about?

  2. How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?

  3. What are each study’s limitations and strengths?

  4. 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 and Alisa sandwich would look like:


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.

Note how the last few sentences of this paragraph consist entirely of metacommentary--points that connect to the bigger picture of Chris's literature review. Also notice how Chris used transition words and phrases to glue his points together so it didn't come out of the blue when he brought up a new study. Also notice how Chris talked about more than one study in this paragraph, demonstrating his abillity to synthesize and not just summarize. But without the metacommentary, it would be much harder to see the connections between the studies and how they fit into the bigger picture

Metacommentary takes practice, but you can do it! And it will not only make your points stronger, it will make it easier for your audience to read and understand--which should always be your goal.

If You Get Stuck

Literature reviews can be hard. If you get stuck, I have a little trick I tell my students. 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 Word on Verb Tense

Students often ask about verb tense in relation to literature reviews--do you say that someone "conducted a study" in past tense? But then what if you're saying that "researchers agree" about something? That's in present tense. I use this rule of thumb: if you're talking about something specific that was completed in the past, use the past tense. If you're talking about a current attitude or something currently accepted in a field, then use present tense. For example, if you say that you conducted a review of the literature, then that's over and done with, so you should use the past tense. Or if you want to talk about a particular study that was done, then use the past tense, too. But if you want to say that researchers in general agree about something, then you can use the present tense

Things get a little trickier when you talk about what's been done in general by researchers in the field. For example, if many people have studied hoverboard technology, then you should talk about it in that same tense--they "have studied." That's called the present perfect tense (the verb "to have" + past participle). You don't need to remember the name--just the fact that you can use this tense when you want to say that researchers in the field "have done" something in general or that a review of a topic "has been done." So here's a table based on the work of Feak and Swales (2009) to sum this up:








Past Tense


A Single Study or Event


McFly (1989) investigated the usefulness of hoverboards in a chase.


Present Tense


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).



Step Four: Write an Abstract



Not THAT kind of abstract! (Public Domain) https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1563849

Not that kind of abstract! As great as abstract art is, what you need now is the abstract of your paper. Why do you think I'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 it in you will 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, so you want the most important information there. Then just like you did in your 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 so 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 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.

Image preview of a YouTube video
Watch on YouTube https://edtechbooks.org/-dITC


Now if you would like more details, you can read this explanation.



The Real Last Step: Revise (and Revise and Revise)


Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

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? The first answers are peer review, teacher conferences, writing center appointments, and other outside feedback. 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 audience-oriented revision and is extremely valuable. Your teacher will help you do these kinds of revision in class.

The second answer is to take care of Global Issues before you focus on Local Issues . 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).



To protect the innocent, this is not the infamous cat house but is close to what it looked like. Photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash

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, 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 would 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


Always get rid of the cat pee first! Photo by Andrew Umansky on Unsplash

What does all this have to do with revision? You 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 and only then should you focus on the details. Put another way, whole-paper and paragraph-level revisions should come before sentence-level and word-level changes.

Fantastic BYU Family Science professor Julie Haupt offers the following suggestions for doing four purposeful revisions--two global and two local.



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:

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., “This review 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?

Check Topic Sentences and Cohesion. Does the topic sentence or claim provide an effective overview of the information that is located in the paragraph? Is the claim supported by several points of synthesized evidence, rather than a single study? Does each paragraph seem well directed and cohesive? Do the sentences build one upon another within the paragraph in a logical way?

Evaluate Paragraph Length. Are any paragraphs too long (longer than approximately ½ page)? Are any paragraphs too short (approximately three sentences or less)? Do paragraphs transition well from one to the next and use transitional words to connect ideas? Find more about transitions here.



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 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 to five authors, does the first in-text citation for the research list all the authors, along with the year of publication? Do these same studies at subsequent mentions include only the first author’s last name + et al. + publication year? Do any in-text citations of six or more authors include only the first author’s last name last name + et al. + publication year?

Level 4 (Local): Finishing Review

Purpose : The Finishing Review is an opportunity to look closely at sentence construction, language hedging/genuine regard, and grammar/punctuation.

Review Phrasing with a Read-Aloud Session. 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 “hedged”?

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, use 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.


*Bonus Video

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!

Image preview of a YouTube video
Watch on YouTube https://edtechbooks.org/-wDdC

Suggested Citation

(2019). How to Write a Literature Review. In , Writing in the Social Sciences. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/writing/literature_review_2