• Tips for Writing a Literature Review

     

    The purpose of an academic literature review is to provide an overview and understanding of a specific area of information. People often write literature reviews in preparation for a new study. Academic researchers use the information they gather in the process of writing a literature review to develop research questions and inform their research methods. There are several tips for writing a literature review that may make the writing process go more smoothly. This article will cover tips on focusing the literature review, reading academic texts, the benefits of note-taking while reading, and the revision process.

     

    First and foremost, the writer must know the focus of the literature review. What message is being argued to the readers? For most academic texts, the argument is that the proposed study on which the literature review is based is necessary. The premise of the literature review is often that the current literature is insufficient, and the newly proposed study is important to add to the current body of literature. The literature review should focus on one core and specific topic. For example, if the writer’s interest is in the breathing mechanics of long-distance runners in old age, they should focus on previous research similar to that topic. Note that the exact research topic should not be present within the current body of literature, as it should be unique. However, there may be previous studies on ultra-endurance athletes and age-related respiratory chances that the writer should consult. The writer should not include research that is not closely related to the topic of interest. Eating habits in old age, for instance, are unlikely to be of use for the literature review on the breathing mechanics of long-distance runners. Writing a literature review starts with a focused idea.

     

    After the focus of the literature review is determined, an important step in writing the literature review is reading and reviewing relevant information. There are many academic texts that the writer may use to inform the literature review. These could include empirical studies, review articles, books, and videos. Although there is often a lot of information that one could use, most of it is often irrelevant to the literature review. The writer should utilize filtering mechanisms when reviewing information. For example, when searching empirical databases like PubMed, the writer may want to include specific search terms such as “breathing mechanics” “breathing mechanisms” or “breathing,” and “aging” or “elderly,” and “endurance,” “long-distance,” or “long distance,” and “running” or “run” or “runner.”  Specifying search terms will yield results targeted to the writer’s focus of the literature review. Simple search terms that don’t use specific queries, like “breathing mechanisms in old age” typically result in more information than the writer needs for the review. Simple search terms may miss some of the nuances in the way that previous researchers described their findings. For example, “old age” is just one way people might describe older adults. Using various search terms with multiple synonyms as described above will yield more useful results.

     

    In addition to using targeted search terms, the writer should be aware of recent and older information related to the topic of interest. It is important to review any information that is closely related to the topic of interest, regardless of whether it was published 50 years ago, 5 years ago, or 5 days ago. The information included should be focused but also inclusive across time.

     

    When culling through information for a literature review, it is easy to feel overloaded. Taking notes while working on a literature review is one way to organize ideas. Note-taking is helpful for condensing high volumes of information into their most important aspects and facilitating connections between ideas. When writing a literature review, taking notes on details such as study characteristics may help with finding similarities between studies. For example, the writer may find that the breathing mechanics of long-distance swimmers are better than long-distance runners, and the studies for both types of athletes were only done in young adults. Given that the writer has notes on the participants included in each study, she may notice that the age range for all of the ultra-endurance athletes is from 18-45. This might support an argument that little to nothing is known about breathing mechanics for ultra-endurance athletes who are 60 years of age and older. Without notes, understanding connections between studies and gaps within a broad literature might get overlooked. Thus, taking notes while gathering information for the literature review can aid in understanding connections within the literature and thereby make the writing process go smoothly.

     

    The last step of writing a literature review is the revision process. Academic manuscripts are often peer-reviewed, meaning people with similar areas of focus review the author’s text before the text is sent to publication in an academic journal. Revision helps to improve the quality and rigor of academic writing. Writers should first review their own literature review to check that the writing is in alignment with the purpose of the text. Irrelevant information should be removed. Any unclear text should be clarified. Examples should be provided. Also, the writer should review the text for simple grammatical and mechanical errors. After this first round of revisions, it is helpful to share the document with peers (e.g., co-authors on the document, classmates, lab group) for additional review. These colleagues are normally able to find places for improvement within the text that the original writer may have missed. Careful revision is critical for writing a literature review.

     

    It may feel daunting to be tasked with writing a literature review, but these tips may help the writing process feel less intimidating. Writing a literature review can be simplified with the following tips: (1) write on a focused topic, (2) gather information specific to the research topic, (3) condense and connect information by taking notes, and (4) revise with additional help from peers. Although academic writing can sometimes feel intense, these tips will help improve each step of the process of writing a literature review.

     

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