What the heck is a literature review? This is the thought that went through my head the first time I sat down to write one. I was confused about how it differed from annotated bibliography, and I didn’t know what features separated a well-written one from one that was poorly developed. Over time, I gained a better understanding of what lit reviews were and I developed a set of skills that helped me to write them more efficiently. In this blog post, I will discuss some ways that you can write a literature review in an organized and efficient manner.
What is a literature review?
As I conceive it, a literature review incorporates a critical analysis of the relationship among several different sources including empirical research articles, meta-analyses, reviews, book chapters, and perhaps even dissertations. The key idea here is the relationship. Although the goal of the lit review is to describe, summarize, and evaluate the previous research in a given area, it wouldn’t be enough if you just stopped there. In fact, an annotated bibliography also describes, summarizes, and evaluates previous research, but it is the literature review which expands upon how each of those studies relate to each other. Lit reviews are usually focused on a specific topic of interest, often times leading to a research question. For the sake of this blog post, I will focus on how to write literature reviews that serve as the introduction for an empirical research paper rather than how to write a lit review to be a paper in and of itself. However, many of the ideas that I share in this post can most certainly be applied to both types of reviews. I am a firm believer in pre-writing (steps you take before you start writing to make the process easier), and I want to outline four steps that I’ve found helpful when pre-writing a lit review.
What is the issue you want to examine? In other words, what is your research question? It is important to keep your research question fluid, because writing a literature review is often an iterative process. It may be difficult to develop a research question without first reviewing what other researchers have done in your area, and your question may be further developed upon discovering new and exciting research in your field. Chances are nobody has asked the exact research question you plan on investigating (and this is a good thing when trying to create a research space for yourself), so it may be difficult to find many studies that are directly related to your exact topic of interest. Thus, I suggest breaking down your research question as much as possible to examine all of its component parts. This will help you when you start the search for research articles.
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