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Academic writing: What is a literature review?

A review of the literature in a discipline is not the same as an annotated bibliography of sources, though an annotated bibliography can be a type of literature review. The purpose of a lit review is not only to tell your reader the state of scholarship about a given topic, but also to organize and evaluate the major points, parts, or arguments of each source.

From the University of Toronto Writing Centre’s Tips on Conducting the Literature Review:

"A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It's usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question."

A lit review may serve as a stand-alone piece or article. For example, see the Sample Stand-Alone Literature Review with instructor annotations done in APA style. However, more often a lit review is part of a larger research publication: Sample Literature Review within an analytical essay done in MLA style.

What should a literature review include?

Introduction:  Explain why this research topic is important. Outline what direction your review will take: i.e., what aspects of the topic you’re focusing on.

Body:  Present your summaries and evaluations of the sources in a clear, logical, and coherent manner. Some options for organizing your review include chronological, order of importance, two sides of a controversial problem, differences in perspective or viewpoint. Your review must “read” like a coherent paper, not a list.

Note: Most literature reviews describe only the main findings, relevant methodological issues, and/or major conclusions of other research.

Ensure your final list of references includes all sources you’ve discussed, and use the citation style required in your discipline.

Don’t provide a lot of detail about the procedures used in your sources. Don’t mention every study conducted on the topic. Include only the ones that are most relevant for the purpose and scope of your review.

Plan and organize your literature review

  • Define your central problem, issue, or focus (create a research question or thesis statement)
  • Consider audience expectations. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Critically read and annotate your sources with your research question or central issue in mind. Effective annotations
    • summarize the “gist” or main ideas of the source
    • comment on the source’s usefulness, relevance, methodology, and/or findings in the context of your question or issue
  • Do not use a “list-like” approach in drafting your lit review. Rather, organize your information logically to address your research question, thesis, or central issue. For example see the Purdue University OWL Social Work Literature Review Guidelines and the Monash University guide to writing a scientific literature review.
Tip If you’re not sure of the difference between an annotation that describes the source and an annotation that critiques the source, see the examples on the Memorial University Libraries page "How to write annotated bibliographies".

Revise your literature review, keeping in mind these tips for effective writing

  • Pay attention to sentence structure
  • Use the active and passive voices appropriately
  • Reduce or omit wordy, redundant phrases
  • Proofread for common punctuation and expression errors

More

For more about literature reviews, including definitions, protocols and guidelines, search strategies, and managing citations, see the Library's Literature reviews for graduate students.