How to Write a Good Literature Review

How to Write a Good Literature Review

Literature review is one of the most challenging types of student essays. It can be written as a separate assignment, but in most cases it is part of a larger research project or a dissertation. Many students need academic help with literature reviews, because it requires the presentation of a critical perspective on a variety of works in a particular field. A literature review reflects the researcher’s ability to select relevant texts, and to engage them in an informative, and yet analytical theoretical discussion. This article suggests three tips on what makes a good and well-researched literature review.

Choose your sources carefully

Most essay websites and academic writing textbooks advise that the key for writing a good literature review is to choose your sources carefully. Make sure your choices are relevant to the topic of your student essay, and the authors of your chosen resources are prominent contributors to the field you are discussing. For example, if you are writing a paper on neo-realism as a theory of International Relations, in your literature review you have to mention the works of Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer. If you are writing about world poverty and economic development, you need to make sure you literature review refers to the works of Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs.

One thing upon which most students stumble in their literature review is the relevance of their resources. For example, if you are writing about the prospects of democracy in Syria and Iran, you do not have to necessarily look for resources which answer your research question directly. You can start the literature review with a discussion of works on the subject of democracy, then proceed with literature related to the politics of Syria and Iran, and conclude with works which cover both elements.

Always remember to discuss your sources in relevance to the topic you are researching. Sometimes when you research a question which consists of two or more variables, like in the case of democracy in Syria and Iran, it may be a good idea to divide the literature review into sections, which tackle different groups of publications related to your research variables. In some other cases, where you need to examine existing theories, you might want to group the publications based on the position of their authors, e.g proponents, critics of a given theory or based on the strengths and weaknesses of a given theory.

Remember, a literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography. A common mistake made by many students is that they discuss each work separately, and focus on its strengths and weaknesses as an academic text. This is not the purpose of the literature review. The goal is to asses your chosen publications in relation to their ideas, their validity, and their contributions to the subject in discussion. You have to look for trends in existing literature, and it is good to discuss groups of texts which share similarities in terms of findings, research methods or the position of their authors.

Do not summarise, analyse

A good literature review needs to present an informed view on relevant and well-chosen resources. While it is good to mention something about the background of the works you are discussing, you should not go into details about their content. Many students get carried away with lengthy summaries, which is not necessary when you write a literature review. The idea of the literature review is to show your ability to critically approach academic works, and to analyse their strengths, weaknesses, and contributions in relation to your particular topic.

Highlight points of contention and gaps in research

An important element of the literature review is finding points of contention and existing debates among scholars or researchers in the field. Through the critique of their works, try to establish why there are points of contention, what its sources are, and whether they are justified? Based on these findings, you can build the theoretical framework of your paper, or the angle, on which your paper and your research will rest.

It is always useful to look for gaps in existing research and to assess the availability of literature on the subject. If you feel there are any gaps in existing research, will you paper or dissertation attempt to fill them? Why are these gaps there in the first place? What aspects of your topic have NOT been well covered by the literature on the subject? For some topics you can have the exact opposite situation when literature in your subject is abundant, and there are many researchers working in that particular field. In both cases, your wrap up of the literature review needs to provide an assessment of the availability of works, and of their relevance to your research aims and objectives.

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