How to Write a Literature Review

So, you’ve been asked to write a literature
review. “Great!” you say, “But… why? And, how do I do that?” Lit reviews are important in many disciplines;
sciences, humanities, all of them write lit reviews – they’re a practical, concise,
and thorough way of discussing published information on a particular subject. Professionals use lit reviews to keep them
up-to-date with the latest trends and findings, or to conduct background research for a certain
project. The first step for any lit review is research,
which will help you not only find literature for the bulk of your review, but also narrow
your topic. Sources, published literature, are the physical
texts your review is supposed to discuss. The list of sources that holds a lit review
together is often long; in science, for example, it isn’t uncommon to see a lit review with
upwards of 30 sources. (For the purpose of consistency, we’ll stick
with science when we refer to later examples.) The amount of research that lit reviews necessitate
can be daunting, but online databases can make this process relatively painless. With your Northeastern account, go to
and click on Databases A-Z to find the databases that best suit your project. Many databases are tailored to specific disciplines
and fields; Academic Search Complete and Web of Science, for example, are great for conducting
research in the sciences. Lit review subjects are focused and current. Depending on the subject, the lit review can
be addressed in one of several ways. For example, a writer might choose to address
the subject chronologically, following developments and sources as they were published – or
by theme, organizing their review by grouping the subject’s branches. The subject could also be addressed methodologically,
by examining the specific procedural or experimental methods of the writers or researchers who
produced the sources that are being discussed. In terms of their overarching style, lit reviews
come in many shapes, but chronological, thematic, and methodological formats are probably the
most common. Usually, lit reviews tackle these subjects
by two primary means: summary and synthesis, and these are often done in tandem. A summary is a concise recap of key points
and insights, while a synthesis is a reorganization of those same insights that allows for new
interpretations, or for the joining of old and new interpretations. It’s also important to remember that lit
reviews aren’t academic research papers. Research papers use their sources to build
support for a new insight or argument – lit reviews, on the other hand summarize and synthesize
many research papers without building towards some new insight or argument. So, we’ve discussed what a literature review
does, what goes into it, and why it’s written, but what does it look like? The precise structure of a lit review differs
depending on discipline and overarching approach, but there are still some key features that
most, if not all lit reviews share. Here’s a lit review for the sciences – let’s
look at the features it shares with most other lit reviews. First, it has a title that summarizes the
topic; some lit reviews state, explicitly that they are, in fact, lit reviews. Second, it has an abstract. The abstract is like a spoiler of sorts – it
gives the reader a summary of the lit review’s contents. Third, it has an introduction. The introduction provides the necessary background
to lead the reader into the subject that is ultimately discussed in the body of the review. Fourth, it has a body. The body is the bulk of the lit review – this
is where you’ll discuss, summarize, and synthesize your sources. Many lit reviews have topic-dependent subsections
in the body, which is a good way to organize your review. Fifth, it has a conclusion. The conclusion is a place where the writer
brings together and condenses the main points of the review, possibly providing some recommendations
as to how or where the research might proceed or go. Sixth, it has parenthetical in-text citations
– and lots of them, since almost everything in the review is a reference to a specific
source. Seventh, all sources are listed at the end
of the review. Again, all of this will look different depending
on the discipline. So, what have we learned? Literature reviews look different depending
on the discipline, but they all summarize and synthesize a vast amount of information
on a focussed topic, and they might be organized chronologically, thematically, or methodologically
– and they are not research papers. Also, most lit reviews contain a title, abstract,
introduction, body, conclusion, works cited, and many, many in-text citations throughout. Good luck!

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