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Writing a Literature Review: Home

This brief guide defines what a literature review is and gives the basic steps for writing one, along with some examples. #lit review #literature review


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     A literature review is a guide to the published information on a topic. While a literature review summarizes each author’s ideas and contributions, it is not just an alphabetical or numbered list. Sources are usually grouped into subtopics or ideas important to the topic. For example, a review of the literature on crop circles might be divided into specific geographic areas or it might represent the skeptic’s viewpoint as well as the believer’s.


     Here is an excerpt from The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill:

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

     Literature reviews are very valuable to researchers who need an overview of what’s been written about a topic, but they do not count as scholarly journal articles when you are collecting sources for a term paper.


     If you have to write a literature review, you need to take care that the topic you choose is neither too broad or too narrow. You could spend the rest of your life doing a literature review on war whereas a literature review on women in the Gulf War might be adequately addressed in several pages. Conversely, you might choose a topic and discover that almost nothing has been written about it. Consult with a reference librarian or your professor to be certain you’ve chosen wisely.


     Next, decide what types of literature will be included. Will you use books, journal articles, magazine articles, newspaper articles, web sites, and/or something else? How old should the material be? How many items will be included?


     The thesis statement for a literature review argues neither for or against a particular position but for a particular perspective on the literature. Continuing on with our example of crop circles, a possible thesis statement might be:

The phenomenon known as “crop circles” has become worthy of investigation by the scientific community.


The hallmarks of scientific literature on hoaxes are revealed in the literature on the phenomenon known as “crop circles.”

A Crop Circle

Aerial photo of a crop circle.


     There is a lot more to writing a literature review than can be easily covered in this guide. Get all the details you can from your professor. Find a literature review to use as a model. Consult one of these books or Web sites:

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