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HIS397 - Seminar in Comparative History

The Process of Writing a Literature Review

Mastering synthetic writing is key to a successful literature review. Use these resources to learn how to analyze the articles you want to use for your literature review, keep track of common themes using an article analysis matrix, and how to convert the notes in the analysis matrix into a piece of synthetic writing.

Think of working on your literature review as a multi-step process:

  1. Identify a topic.
  2. Find research articles on that topic.
  3. Read and analyze each article. (Use the Individual Article Analysis Worksheet)
  4. Compare all of the themes addressed in the articles. (Use the Article Analysis Matrix)
  5. Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your literature review (make an outline).
  6. Write your literature review by discussing one theme at a time--how is this theme covered in the literature?
  7. Your literature review will also need an introduction and a conclusion. Some students like to start with the introduction, while others find it is easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of their literature review.
  8. Don't forget to include References at the end of your paper, and to cite them properly with the text! (Use the ASA Style page of this Course Guide if you need citation help)

Synthetic Writing

A literature review is not the same as a research paper. Key Points to Consider:

  • The purpose of a literature review is to report the current state of the topic. Literature reviewed should be relatively current (generally 5-10 years old).
  • Organize your paper according to themes. It may be helpful to make each theme a subheading in your paper. Your subheadings should be broad enough so that you can bring multiple articles into the discussion.
  • All works cited must be both in the text of the literature review and the bibliography
  • Avoid passive voice (ex: It was found that...); Use active voice ("Smith (2013) reported that...")
  • Report what the literature says, not what you think

The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution.

A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn-- instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

Example Article Analysis Matrix

Create a matrix by listing the sources you want to analyze in the top row of the matrix, and the major themes in the far left column. You will then review each article to see what themes are covered in that article. Check the appropriate boxes for what themes are discussed in each article. When you are done, you will be able to easily see which articles share common themes, and where there are gaps in the research regarding coverage of certain concepts.


Source 1

Source 2

Source 3

Source 4

Example Article Analysis Matrix
Theme 1 X X X X
Theme 2     X  
Theme 3     X X
Theme 4 X   X  
Theme 5 X X    

What does this example matrix tell you? What themes are well covered in the literature? Which are lacking? What do the different articles have in common?