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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Science Research Projects

Writing a Literature Review

After you’ve written a critical analysis (these assignments will be given out in class) of each source, you will need to compile all of the critical analyses into what’s called a “literature review.” I’ll hand out the literature review assignment in class.

Getting started on your literature review

You have read the literature surrounding your topic, so you are ready to write your literature review. What is a literature review? Literature reviews are designed to:

1) Show what is known (or the current thinking) on a topic,

2) Evaluate research or work that has been done on a topic, and

3) Provide context for your own research and/or writing on a topic.

Your literature review should:

1) Be objective. A literature review is an analytic piece of writing, e.g. it remains as objective as possible and does not include personal opinion. Be fair! However, a literature review almost always contains an implicit argument: you are implicitly arguing that your summary and analysis provide an accurate and complete description and analysis of your sources.

2) Include relevant literature. A literature review includes sources that somehow apply to your research question. If they are not relevant, you should exclude them from your review. (What should you do if only four of your critical analyses apply to your topic? I will accept a literature review with only four sources, provided the review is still at least 5 pages long and all 5 critical analyses are submitted separately.)

3) Focus on a central insight into the literature. A literature review will synthesize the included literature, providing some sort of central insight into the surveyed literature. Your review should not read as a haphazard catalog of everything you read. It should not read as a series of five long book reviews.

4) Both summarize and evaluate all sources. You should summarize whatever ideas in the source best meet the needs of your review’s purpose. When you evaluate your sources, you should identify any problems or information gaps in your sources, paying special attention to any questions that have not been addressed or answered by your sources. Additionally, you should pay attention to any conclusions your sources have made that might not be warranted.

5) Consider audience. When writing the literature review, you should be mindful that you are writing for an audience so you should plan on organizing the review in some way that makes the central insight readily apparent to a reader who knows nothing about the topic. As you summarize and evaluate your sources, you should be careful to present this information in a way that makes it easy to understand. Avoid using jargon, undefined terms, and other confusing vocabulary! Consider your tone, striving to avoid being too informal or too formal when demonstrating your expertise.Whenever you present your own conclusions, you should be careful to show how you reached your conclusions. If you do not, your reader may well assume you are biased!


6) Be organized. Assume your audience knows nothing about your subject so make it easy for them to understand your review.


  • All literature reviews start with an introduction. It should:

  • Introduce the general topic from which the texts are drawn.

  • Contain a one-sentence statement that provides your central insight on your synthesis. Your entire review should remain focused around this insight, giving your review a strong sense of purpose.


How do you write a central insight statement? First write your research question, then synthesize the information from your sources, making connections between them whenever possible. How do you synthesize? You can compare and contrast sources, looking for similarities and differences. You can look for any themes and patterns, or things they all left out, or a few left out, or everyone covered. You could consider what the author of one source might think about the other sources. When you have synthesized your sources, write your answer. Your answer is your central insight or controlling focus statement.


Why synthesize your sources? Synthesizing sources is the final step in thinking about your sources fully: first you located them, then you read them, then you analyzed and evaluated them, and now you put all of that work together for your reader so they need not do it. And you point out things in the literature which they might never see.


  • The body of the literature review should be organized in a way that supports your central insight statement.


You can organize by theme, point, similarity, or aspect, etc., of the topic.  Your organization will be determined by the patterns you see in the literature you are synthesizing. It helps if you make a list of all of the main ideas or points that support your central insight. You may want to reread your sources in order to see which ideas support your central insight statement.


  • Each paragraph should:

  • Begin with a sentence or phrase that states the main idea in the paragraph.

  • Most likely include information from more than one source.

  • Clearly indicate which material comes from which source, using in-text or parenthetical citations.

  • Show the patterns, similarities, or differences between your sources so the essay is as informative as possible. Remember to use lots of examples!

  • Represent the texts fairly, even if doing so may eventually weaken your final argumentative essay.


  • The conclusion of the review could:

  • Remind readers of the most significant themes you found and the way these themes connect to your topic.

  • Suggest further research or comment on things where it was not possible for you to discuss them in the main body of the essay. Yet you should strive to remain objective in your comments!


7) Be edited for clarity and precision. No one has time to read confusing, vague, and wordy reviews, so edit your prose carefully. If you allow even one or two sentence-level errors in grammar, sentence construction, spelling, or punctuation, then you lose credibility as an expert! Allow plenty of time (usually at least 30 minutes per page) for proofreading, and proofread by reading your review aloud many times!


8) Document and cite all sources precisely and accurately. Your reader may want to track down and read your sources, so show them where to go!


  • Use APA-style citations

  • Include an APA-style title page

  • Attach an APA-style reference page (lists only the sources in your review)


Tip#1: The biggest mistake people make? Failing to organize the review around a central insight statement, relying instead on just cutting/pasting each critical analyses into the document.