Writing a Literature Review Text-Only Script

Hi, I’m Cassie and I’ll be your presenter today. My topic is an introduction to writing a literature review. This workshop may be especially helpful for graduate students.

This is a brief overview of the components of this workshop. We will:

  1. Define literature reviews as a writing genre typical in many disciplines
  2. Examine the common writing conventions and rhetorical moves
  3. Discuss strategies for getting started
  4. Consider the expected organization of a final draft

Periodically I will pose a question. The questions do not have correct answers; instead, they will provide you with additional information based on your response or ask you to reflect on the information presented.

Literature reviews are typically part of a larger project such as a research paper, article, book, thesis, or dissertation. This workshop focuses on literature reviews as part of a larger project, but you may also be assigned to write a standalone literature review.

A literature review has two related purposes. The first purpose is to evaluate existing research related to your topic and the second is to position your argument within the existing research.

A common misconception of a literature review, likely due to the term “review,” is that it is simply a summary of existing research. Literature reviews are not decontextualized summaries of individual sources; instead, they show the relationships between existing research and your project.

Question 1: Which point of the research process best describes your current status?

A) I have not begun collecting and reviewing literature.

Feedback: You might consider meeting with a Research librarian at this point to get a jump start on your research process. You can also ask your faculty mentor or dissertation chair to recommend key texts.

B) I have some sources, but I’m not sure what the next step is.

Feedback: One suggestion might be to look at the “Works Cited,” “Bibliography,” or “References” pages of the most recently published sources that you do have. These can help you begin tracing the existing research.

C) I am comfortable with the quality and amount of my sources, but I want to learn more about writing the literature review itself.

Feedback: Great! Continue, and we’ll discuss the rhetorical moves and how to get started writing.

Now we’ll look at some of the common rhetorical moves of a literature review across disciplines.

  1. Synthesizing sources
  2. Articulating a gap
  3. Positioning your argument

Let’s look at an example passage from a literature review that synthesizes sources. Remember that earlier I defined one of the purposes for literature reviews as an evaluation of existing research related to your topic. I also emphasized that literature reviews are not decontextualized summaries of individual sources; instead, they show the relationships between existing research and your project.

This literature review passage is on the topic of graduate education. The author shapes these individual sources to create new meaning through showing relationships. Pay attention to how multiple sources are put into conversation with one another by showing relationships.

Much of the research focusing on graduate education (e.g., Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Seagram, Gould, & Pyke, 1998; Tuckman, 1991) has been concentrated on structural variables (e.g., time-to-degree) or on the factors (such as the presence of mentors, fellowships, or assistantships) operating in the lives of graduate students deemed to be successful, typically defined as those who not only complete their doctoral work but also land a full-time, tenure-track position in academia or, in the case of the sciences and engineering, a position in the private sector. A small but growing body of literature attempts to move beyond analysis of single, discrete variables in order to probe more fully the graduate school experience and its complexities. Anderson (1996), Conrad, Haworth, and Millar (1993), Golde (1998), and Lovitts (2001), among others, have provided insights into how students themselves experience graduate school. The work of these researchers takes us “inside” the experience, thus providing the context necessary for a more complete understanding of graduate education.

Remember, synthesis means putting your sources in conversation with one another instead of considering them as isolated theories or research.

Identifying a Gap

In addition to identifying and articulating the ongoing scholarly conversation through synthesis of sources, you will make an argument about where your research fits into your field. We call this rhetorical move “identifying a gap.”

When you identify the gap that your research will fill, you show the relationship between the existing research and your project. You are making an argument that research still needs to be done. You may use language such as:

“While several studies have addressed ___, this study focuses on ___ with attention to ___.”


Finally, you will clearly position the argument of your project within the existing research.

You may identify the research questions you intend to take up and which research themes are most relevant for your project.

Question 2: Next I’ll talk about some strategies for getting started based on where you are in your research writing process. You may wish to skip ahead to the aspect of getting started that most interests you.

A) Getting started on organizing and synthesizing my sources.

B) Brainstorming questions to articulate the gap my project intends to fill.

Getting started on organizing and synthesizing my sources:

You will likely need an organization system for your sources. You goal is to begin mapping out similarities and differences, eventually dividing into themes, theoretical positions, methodologies, and/or debates.

Before you begin reading, determine an evaluation strategy. Ask similar questions of all your sources. Your discipline’s expectations and conventions will likely determine how you evaluate sources, but methods, argument, date, credibility, and relevance are common evaluative categories that you can compare across sources.

One common way to organize and evaluate is creating annotated bibliography with the citation, summary, and explanation of its relationship to other sources and your project.

Here I’m showing an example summary with key phrases color coded.

Another organization strategy is a chart or double entry notebook  with the source information and summary on the left, reflections and connections on the right. Again, the themes here are color-coded.

Use citation management software such as Zotero or EndNote.

Both allow you to sort, tag, and create summaries of your sources in a library. If used correctly and consistently, software like these can make citation much easier throughout your research writing process.

Writing, organizing, and reorganizing as you read and encounter sources will make drafting your literature review much easier.

Brainstorming: articulating the gap and positioning your argument

Here are some questions to help you begin brainstorming when you are ready to articulate the gap in current research and position your argument. You will likely need to have a good grasp of most of the existing literature before you can identify the gap your research fills. You may ask yourself:

Does my project extend the existing research?
Does it challenge or question the existing research?
Does it pull together two or more previously unconnected threads?
Does it apply, or forward, the research in a new context?

You want to have a clear sense of your initial research questions and how they developed. Then, you answer the “how” question:

How does your research intend to fill the gap?

Why is this important to do or know?

Question 3: Can you think of a way that your research responds to a gap in the current literature? If so, this is a good moment to reflect and jot down notes.

Let’s now briefly look at the expected organization of a final draft of a literature review.


Here you define the overall issue or topic. You should point out the overall trends or themes you identified in through your evaluation synthesis activities. Finally, you will establish your position or argument for your project and provide your audience a “road map,” or preview, to the body paragraphs.


Again, consider how you organized your sources. You will present a synthesis of your sources shaped by one organizational strategy such as thematic, methodological, chronological, argument-based, or theory-based.

You will likely need to include all relevant sources, but spend the most time on the ones that have the most significance to your project.


In your conclusion, you will indicate the gap you identify in current research and restate your argument from the introduction. You will make an argument for why and how your research is viable in relation to the work already done.

Question 4: Briefly identify your next two steps in your research writing process. Take a moment to reflect and write.

Let’s review what we discussed today. Today we:

  1. Defined literature reviews as a writing genre typical in many disciplines. A literature review positions your research within the ongoing scholarly conversation by synthesizing and evaluating the literature.
  2. Examined the common writing conventions and rhetorical moves. We looked at synthesis, identifying the gap, and positioning your argument.
  3. Discussed strategies for getting started. It is important to organize your sources, write as you read, and write our clear answers to how your research relates to the ongoing conversation.
  4. Considered organization expectations. Literature reviews have an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Thank you for participating in this workshop from the University Writing Center.