Literature reviews are complex research papers (or sections of research papers) which require academics to walk a fine line between summary and synthesis. The author of a literature review essentially provides an objectively written synopsis of current research on a specific topic and shows the relationships among relevant studies. Literature reviews often also identify gaps in existing research. Keep in mind that literature reviews are not unconnected summaries of individual works. Rather, think of literature reviews as scholarly narratives; they offer readers descriptions of a research topic’s relevant literature. Therefore, consider how your source material relates. Do any common themes, trends, or debates connect the literature reviewed?
When you are ready to start your literature review, draft an outline first. Remember: literature reviews demand organization. In your outline, consider how you will organize the relevant literature. You can incorporate subheaders as an organizational strategy; subheaders, coupled with an effective topic and transition sentences, help direct the focus of both author and reader. Next, consider how you will introduce the research topic of your literature review and how you will construct the objective thesis statement. For your thesis, you may identify the central controlling theme of the research (i.e. what relationship have you inferred between the relevant literature?). As well, your thesis should answer the “so what?” question. In other words: why should your reader care about the research topic and your review?
What are some effective strategies for writing your literature review? Relevant literature contains a lot of important information, so the overall length and breadth of a review usually depends on a narrow focus of the research topic. Most academic writers wonder: what do I include and what do I exclude in my literature review? I recommended focusing primarily on how the relevant literature addresses your own research question. Focusing on how researchers address specific aspects of your research question can make it easier to summarize and synthesize specific parts of the source material. Thinking about how scholarly literature addresses your research question can also help you exclude unimportant details that may not pertain to your own research project. As the author of a literature review, you must show a direct relationship between source materials and help readers see connections within the literature.
A final issue writers have with literature reviews is the conclusion. I personally find conclusions the most difficult part of any research paper because it is often difficult to wrap up my discussion in a coherent, concise, and nuanced way. For the conclusion of your literature review, I first recommend restating your thesis and providing at least three main takeaways from the review. You should remind your reader of the research topic and how the relevant literature addresses that topic. Next, you may include what academics call a “forward-thinking moment.” The “forward-thinking moment” effectively makes the case for future research based on any gaps or shortcomings you found in the literature. As a scholar, you can accept your own call for future research and help bridge the gap in a thesis, dissertation, conference paper, or article.