Composing an Authentic, Academic Narrative Literature Review: How to Evaluate Scholarly Articles and Write a Thorough Narrative Literature Review
Over the course of many years of teaching, I’ve found that both my students and I struggle with our course unit on research writing. It’s boring, it’s difficult, and we all undoubtedly become aggravated with each other throughout the process.
If you’ve ever experienced a lesson burnout, like I have so many times, you know how frustrating it can be for both teacher and students. Unless you’ve written tons of research papers in your lifetime, they can seem like a daunting task. This is especially true for middle school and high school students who are likely just learning how to do so.
If your students are embarking on a research project, one of their first steps in the research process will be completing a comprehensive narrative literature review.
Ironically, I’ve had to do my own narrative literature review of sorts to bring you the resources you’ll find herein. Of note, after you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’ll be able to effectively guide your students in composing a narrative literature review by focusing on these basic tenets:
What is a narrative literature review?
- Systematic vs. Narrative literature reviews.
- The different types of narrative literature reviews.
- Steps in writing a narrative literature review.
Defining, Differentiating, and Composing a Narrative Literature Review
Essentially, it is a step in the research process that follows selecting a topic and asking a research question. Before developing an engaging thesis, a researcher has to ascertain that scholarly literature exists in support of their proposed thesis.
For students who have grown up with the ability to simply Google a wealth of information and receive desired results in a moment’s time, vetting sources may seem like a foreign concept. Teaching your students how to write this type of work will teach them how to scrutinize sources.
But what is a narrative literature review? According to top researchers, “A literature review is a type of research article published in a professional peer-reviewed journal.” These articles are published in vetted, scholarly journals that you and your students can trust as fact.
In essence, your students select a research topic then hit the databases in search of reputable, trustworthy journal articles that answer their research query and support their anticipated position on that topic. By reviewing the existing literature on the selected topic, students can be sure there is proven data and a body of existing knowledge that supports their thesis.
According to J.D. Baker, a professor at Charles Sturt University, acquiring current and relevant literature on a given topic is, “…an essential part of the research process [that] help[s] to establish a theoretical framework and focus or context for your research.” For this reason, the narrative literature review may very well be one of the most important steps in the research process.
As one of the first few steps in the research process, a step that is likely a foreign task to your students, it’s imperative that the process is broken down into simplified, manageable tasks.
Rebecca Alber, blogger for Edutopia, discusses the importance of scaffolding projects for students. She expounds upon the pedagogy of breaking projects into manageable chunks and “providing concrete structure for each.”
By reading through and analyzing the body of knowledge on a given topic, researchers, like your students, can focus and justify their research. As discussed here , the thesis is the most important part of a research paper, but you can’t arrive at your thesis without a thorough narrative literature review.
In this video, research specialist, Sarah Bronson, explains what a narrative literature review does, how to plan it, and how to write a cohesive and proper review.
Systematic vs. Narrative Literature Reviews: Knowing the Difference
In short, the difference between a narrative literature review and a systematic literature review has to do with the search terms used and the methodology employed when searching databases.
According to those in the know, “A narrative literature review is fairly broad, as it involves gathering, critiquing and summarizing journal articles and textbooks about a particular topic.” In other words, you enter general search terms into a search engine and sift through the yielded articles.
Essentially, a narrative literature review summarizes and synthesizes the body of work on a topic. The review may be generally focused on a broad topic or a specific research question.
A systematic literature review, on the other hand, “tend[s] to use specific search terms and inclusion/exclusion criteria, whereas the criteria for narrative reviews may not be as strict.” This type of work is best employed by writers who have already focused their query and/or thesis. By including or excluding particular terms, a more pointed search return is gleaned.
In essence, the goal of a systematic literature review is to answer a focused objective question. To be clear, in this type of work, the researcher is working with a clearly defined question.
Check out this helpful video that further explicates the point and process of a systematic literature review. Cochrane provides insight into why, in some instances, a systematic review is more useful than its narrative counterpart.
Though both systematic and narrative literature reviews can be useful in producing desired and relevant research documents, knowing which method to use depends on your experience and how far into the research process you’ve gone.
If you are beginning preliminary research, you’ll likely only be able to perform a narrative literature review. You may have a general topic that you’d like to investigate before committing to a topic and a thesis.
However, if you’ve already focused your study and have a better grip on the direction you wish to go, then you may find the systematic review to be useful.
Again, the literature review is just one step in a series of interrelated steps that help students write a focused and cohesive research paper. In this article, you can take a look at later steps in the writing process.
Narrative Literature Reviews: Four Unique Approaches
According to Onwuegbuzie and Frels, there are four common types of narrative literature reviews. Essentially, literature reviews can be broken down into these four categories: general, methodological, theoretical, and historical. Let’s take a look at how they differ from one another.
A general literature review takes a close look at the most important and most current knowledge on a given topic. This type of work will form the basis for your thesis or dissertation; it’s what you’ll do before focusing your query.
Sources cited in a general literature review may include scholarly articles, governmental data, books, interviews, and websites. The general literature includes a summary and assessment of the literature.
A methodological literature review defines the methodology used to apprehend the literature. In other words, this type of paper outlines and explains research methods and parameters.
The methodological literature review analyzes how information was arrived at not necessarily what the literature asserts.
A theoretical literature review analyzes how theories inform research practices. Basically, this type of paper identifies pre-existing theories, the connection between and among them, how well scrutinized the theories are, and the development of new possible theories.
Finally, a historical literature review focuses on the emergence, development, and historical context of a research topic as it presents in a body of knowledge. To be clear, this type of literature review traces the history of a particular issue or theory and how it has evolved since its onset.
In this excellent resource featuring Leigh Hall of teachingacademia.com, Hall further explains the different types of narrative literature reviews. Hall explains the four types of reviews in further detail to help writers determine which is best suited for their research purposes.
Teachers should be clear about their expectations of students concerning which type of narrative literature review is expected of them. A closer look at which type of review is best suited to your students’ projects can help you, the teacher, in guiding your students.
As one of the most important steps in the research process, it’s imperative students can successfully complete a literature review before moving on in the research process.
Lisa L. Munro, Phd., a blogger who examines the importance of creating writing communities among our students, asserts the importance of, “writing a concise literature review just comprehensive enough for the purpose of an academic journal article.”
Narrative Literature Review: A Writer’s Checklist
The writing process is a step-by-step undertaking and some steps are more of a process than others. That’s especially true of composing a narrative literature review.
Essentially, a narrative literature review is a project in and of itself. A proper review adheres to the following steps.
Entitle your review as a “review of…” Titling your work this way lets your reader know exactly what you’re setting out to do in the subsequent paragraphs. However, as a researcher, doing so helps you keep your sources organized and makes it easy to refer back to that source.
Write a brief summary of the article and how it applies to your course of study. This step is where you synthesize the information gleaned from a particular source. It will provide you, the researcher, with an opportunity to decide if it’s useful information that will support your research query.
Your abstract should include a sentence about how the source applies to your own research, your purported thesis, a summary of the literature, and conclusions you’ve made based on your findings.
The writer provides his/her rationale and objectives for the literature review. Your introduction should establish your topic of study and an explanation of why your research is important.
Describe the methods used in performing the research. Essentially this is a few sentences explaining the steps and mediums used to acquire your sources. This indicates whether or not your research comes from reputable sources.
Here is where you explain if you used computer databases along with the search terms you employed, scoured physical files at a given office building, read physical texts on a given topic, etc.
The writer discusses his/her discoveries as well as an overall summary of the information. Without repeating what you’ve written in the other parts of your review, in the discussion, you summarize your main findings, interpret those findings, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the given source, compare your findings with other literature on the topic, explain how and if your findings answer your research query, and assert if your thesis is supported by the literature.
In this helpful tutorial, David Taylor, an online writing professor, walks you through the formatting of a literature review. He walks writers through the five-step process of completing a paper in less than 30 minutes.
As in writing any type of composition, students should be reminded to carefully proofread for clarity and correctness. I always suggest that students read their compositions aloud as readers will often hear mistakes before they see them.
A final consideration that students inevitably need to be reminded of is avoiding plagiarism. I find it’s helpful to define plagiarism for students so there’s no question about why copying another’s ideas is problematic.
There are many online plagiarism checkers for teachers and students to use to ensure work is entirely authentic. Check out this article for some tips and tricks for avoiding and identifying plagiarism.
- What is a research paper?
- How to format a research paper
- 113 great research paper topics
- Writing an educational research paper: research paper sections
One of the most arduous tasks in a research project is gathering the right sources for your purpose. Help students understand how to search in the right places for articles and how to evaluate sources.
One of the questions my students rightfully ask is why they can’t use news media websites. News networks like CNN deliver the facts, don’t they? This article may help you and them to better recognize and evaluate credible source material.
A thorough narrative literature review will get your students off on the right foot. Everything after the literature review falls into place more readily when you have the right sources for your purpose.
Literature Review: Traditional or narrative literature reviews
Traditional or narrative literature reviews.
- Scoping Reviews
- Systematic literature reviews
- Annotated bibliography
- Keeping up to date with literature
- Finding a thesis
- Evaluating sources and critical appraisal of literature
- Managing and analysing your literature
- Further reading and resources
A narrative or traditional literature review is a comprehensive, critical and objective analysis of the current knowledge on a topic. They are an essential part of the research process and help to establish a theoretical framework and focus or context for your research. A literature review will help you to identify patterns and trends in the literature so that you can identify gaps or inconsistencies in a body of knowledge. This should lead you to a sufficiently focused research question that justifies your research.
Onwuegbuzie and Frels (pp 24-25, 2016) define four common types of narrative reviews:
- General literature review that provides a review of the most important and critical aspects of the current knowledge of the topic. This general literature review forms the introduction to a thesis or dissertation and must be defined by the research objective, underlying hypothesis or problem or the reviewer's argumentative thesis.
- Theoretical literature review which examines how theory shapes or frames research
- Methodological literature review where the research methods and design are described. These methodological reviews outline the strengths and weaknesses of the methods used and provide future direction
- Historical literature review which focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.
References and additional resources
Baker, J. D. (2016) The purpose, process and methods of writing a literature review: Editorial . Association of Operating Room Nurses. AORN Journal, 103 (3), 265-269. doi:10.1016/j.aorn.2016.01.016
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- Next: Scoping Reviews >>
- Last Updated: Oct 12, 2023 3:36 PM
- URL: https://libguides.csu.edu.au/review
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- How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.
What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .
There are five key steps to writing a literature review:
- Search for relevant literature
- Evaluate sources
- Identify themes, debates, and gaps
- Outline the structure
- Write your literature review
A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.
Table of contents
What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.
- Quick Run-through
- Step 1 & 2
When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:
- Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
- Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
- Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
- Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
- Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.
Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.
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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.
- Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
- Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
- Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
- Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)
You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.
Download Word doc Download Google doc
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .
If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .
Make a list of keywords
Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.
- Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
- Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
- Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth
Search for relevant sources
Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:
- Your university’s library catalogue
- Google Scholar
- Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
- Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
- EconLit (economics)
- Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)
You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.
Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.
You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.
For each publication, ask yourself:
- What question or problem is the author addressing?
- What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
- What are the key theories, models, and methods?
- Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
- What are the results and conclusions of the study?
- How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.
Take notes and cite your sources
As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.
It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.
To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
- Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
- Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
- Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
- Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
- Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
- Most research has focused on young women.
- There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
- But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.
For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:
- Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
- Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.
As you write, you can follow these tips:
- Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts
In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !
This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.
Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.
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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Sampling methods
- Simple random sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Cluster sampling
- Likert scales
- Null hypothesis
- Statistical power
- Probability distribution
- Effect size
- Poisson distribution
- Optimism bias
- Cognitive bias
- Implicit bias
- Hawthorne effect
- Anchoring bias
- Explicit bias
A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .
It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.
There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:
- To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
- To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
- To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
- To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
- To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic
Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.
The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .
A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .
An annotated bibliography is a list of source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a paper .
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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.
Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?
There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.
A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.
Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.
What are the parts of a lit review?
Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.
- An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
- A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
- Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
- Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.
- Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
- Connect it back to your primary research question
How should I organize my lit review?
Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:
- Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
- Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
- Qualitative versus quantitative research
- Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
- Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.
What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?
Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .
As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.
Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:
- It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
- Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
- Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
- Read more about synthesis here.
The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.
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Narrative or traditional literature reviews can take many shapes and forms. They do not need to follow any specific guideline or standard. A narrative literature view may be assigned as part of your coursework or capstone.
A narrative literature review can be a first step to building on other research in the field. After all, if it's a topic that you're interested in, you need to know what's already been done, right?
Your Narrative Literature Review Should Have...
- A clearly defined topic
- A search for relevant literature
- A logical organization structure
- An interpretation and discussion of the selected relevant literature
A common structure for narrative literature reviews is IMRaD, or:
- What is your topic?
- What are you interested in finding out?
- Why did you select this topic?
- How did you look for the literature?
- Where did you look?
- What search terms did you use?
- What kind of literature did you find?
- Did the literature you found change your opinion on the topic?
- Did you find out something new?
- What were the key concepts?
- and Discussion
- Evaluate and summarize the major concepts
- Connect the major concepts to future research potential
While the structure above may be sufficient for your topic, you may also consider using the similar but more robust structure IAMRDC, or:
- Ferrari, R. (2015). Writing narrative style literature reviews. Medical Writing, 24 (4), 230-235. https://doi.org/10.1179/2047480615Z.000000000329
- Sollaci, L. B., & Pereira, M. G. (2004). The introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRAD) structure: a fifty-year survey. Journal of the Medical Library Association 92 (3), 364–367. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC442179/
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Writing narrative literature reviews for peer-reviewed journals: secrets of the trade
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Claire D. Johnson
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This document may be redistributed and reused, subject to certain conditions .
To describe and discuss the process used to write a narrative review of the literature for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Publication of narrative overviews of the literature should be standardized to increase their objectivity.
In the past decade numerous changes in research methodology pertaining to reviews of the literature have occurred. These changes necessitate authors of review articles to be familiar with current standards in the publication process.
Narrative overview of the literature synthesizing the findings of literature retrieved from searches of computerized databases, hand searches, and authoritative texts.
An overview of the use of three types of reviews of the literature is presented. Step by step instructions for how to conduct and write a narrative overview utilizing a ‘best-evidence synthesis’ approach are discussed, starting with appropriate preparatory work and ending with how to create proper illustrations. Several resources for creating reviews of the literature are presented and a narrative overview critical appraisal worksheet is included. A bibliography of other useful reading is presented in an appendix.
Narrative overviews can be a valuable contribution to the literature if prepared properly. New and experienced authors wishing to write a narrative overview should find this article useful in constructing such a paper and carrying out the research process. It is hoped that this article will stimulate scholarly dialog amongst colleagues about this research design and other complex literature review methods.
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Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.
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15 Literature Review Examples
Literature reviews are a necessary step in a research process and often required when writing your research proposal . They involve gathering, analyzing, and evaluating existing knowledge about a topic in order to find gaps in the literature where future studies will be needed.
Ideally, once you have completed your literature review, you will be able to identify how your research project can build upon and extend existing knowledge in your area of study.
Generally, for my undergraduate research students, I recommend a narrative review, where themes can be generated in order for the students to develop sufficient understanding of the topic so they can build upon the themes using unique methods or novel research questions.
For more advanced students and scholars, literature reviews like systematic and meta-analyses may be more fitting, especially if the review is not to identify potential areas of research but to present practical and clinical recommendations based directly upon a reading of the literature.
Literature Review Examples
For the following types of literature review, I present an explanation and overview of the type, followed by links to some real-life literature reviews on the topics.
1. Narrative Review Examples
Also known as a traditional literature review, the narrative review provides a broad overview of the studies done on a particular topic.
It often includes both qualitative and quantitative studies and may cover a wide range of years.
The narrative review’s purpose is to identify commonalities, gaps, and contradictions in the literature .
I recommend to my students that they should gather their studies together, take notes on each study, then try to group them by themes that form the basis for the review (see my step-by-step instructions at the end of the article).
Title: Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations
Citation: Vermeir, P., Vandijck, D., Degroote, S., Peleman, R., Verhaeghe, R., Mortier, E., … & Vogelaers, D. (2015). Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations. International journal of clinical practice , 69 (11), 1257-1267.
Overview: This narrative review analyzed themes emerging from 69 articles about communication in healthcare contexts. Five key themes were found in the literature: poor communication can lead to various negative outcomes, discontinuity of care, compromise of patient safety, patient dissatisfaction, and inefficient use of resources. After presenting the key themes, the authors recommend that practitioners need to approach healthcare communication in a more structured way, such as by ensuring there is a clear understanding of who is in charge of ensuring effective communication in clinical settings.
- Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review (Reith, 2018) – read here
- Examining the Presence, Consequences, and Reduction of Implicit Bias in Health Care: A Narrative Review (Zestcott, Blair & Stone, 2016) – read here
- A Narrative Review of School-Based Physical Activity for Enhancing Cognition and Learning (Mavilidi et al., 2018) – read here
- A narrative review on burnout experienced by medical students and residents (Dyrbye & Shanafelt, 2015) – read here
2. Systematic Review Examples
This type of literature review is more structured and rigorous than a narrative review. It involves a detailed and comprehensive plan and search strategy derived from a set of specified research questions.
The key way you’d know a systematic review compared to a narrative review is in the methodology: the systematic review will likely have a very clear criteria for how the studies were collected, and clear explanations of exclusion/inclusion criteria.
The goal is to gather the maximum amount of valid literature on the topic, filter out invalid or low-quality reviews, and minimize bias. Ideally, this will provide more reliable findings, leading to higher-quality conclusions and recommendations for further research.
You may note from the examples below that the ‘method’ sections in systematic reviews tend to be much more explicit, often noting rigid inclusion/exclusion criteria and exact keywords used in searches.
Title: The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review
Citation: Roman, S., Sánchez-Siles, L. M., & Siegrist, M. (2017). The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review. Trends in food science & technology , 67 , 44-57.
Overview: This systematic review included 72 studies of food naturalness to explore trends in the literature about its importance for consumers. Keywords used in the data search included: food, naturalness, natural content, and natural ingredients. Studies were included if they examined consumers’ preference for food naturalness and contained empirical data. The authors found that the literature lacks clarity about how naturalness is defined and measured, but also found that food consumption is significantly influenced by perceived naturalness of goods.
- A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018 (Martin, Sun & Westine, 2020) – read here
- Where Is Current Research on Blockchain Technology? (Yli-Huumo et al., 2016) – read here
- Universities—industry collaboration: A systematic review (Ankrah & Al-Tabbaa, 2015) – read here
- Internet of Things Applications: A Systematic Review (Asghari, Rahmani & Javadi, 2019) – read here
This is a type of systematic review that uses statistical methods to combine and summarize the results of several studies.
Due to its robust methodology, a meta-analysis is often considered the ‘gold standard’ of secondary research , as it provides a more precise estimate of a treatment effect than any individual study contributing to the pooled analysis.
Furthermore, by aggregating data from a range of studies, a meta-analysis can identify patterns, disagreements, or other interesting relationships that may have been hidden in individual studies.
This helps to enhance the generalizability of findings, making the conclusions drawn from a meta-analysis particularly powerful and informative for policy and practice.
Title: Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk: A Meta-Meta-Analysis
Citation: Sáiz-Vazquez, O., Puente-Martínez, A., Ubillos-Landa, S., Pacheco-Bonrostro, J., & Santabárbara, J. (2020). Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease risk: a meta-meta-analysis. Brain sciences, 10(6), 386.
O verview: This study examines the relationship between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers conducted a systematic search of meta-analyses and reviewed several databases, collecting 100 primary studies and five meta-analyses to analyze the connection between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease. They find that the literature compellingly demonstrates that low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels significantly influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research (Wisniewski, Zierer & Hattie, 2020) – read here
- How Much Does Education Improve Intelligence? A Meta-Analysis (Ritchie & Tucker-Drob, 2018) – read here
- A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling (Geiger et al., 2019) – read here
- Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits (Patterson, Chung & Swan, 2014) – read here
Other Types of Reviews
- Scoping Review: This type of review is used to map the key concepts underpinning a research area and the main sources and types of evidence available. It can be undertaken as stand-alone projects in their own right, or as a precursor to a systematic review.
- Rapid Review: This type of review accelerates the systematic review process in order to produce information in a timely manner. This is achieved by simplifying or omitting stages of the systematic review process.
- Integrative Review: This review method is more inclusive than others, allowing for the simultaneous inclusion of experimental and non-experimental research. The goal is to more comprehensively understand a particular phenomenon.
- Critical Review: This is similar to a narrative review but requires a robust understanding of both the subject and the existing literature. In a critical review, the reviewer not only summarizes the existing literature, but also evaluates its strengths and weaknesses. This is common in the social sciences and humanities .
- State-of-the-Art Review: This considers the current level of advancement in a field or topic and makes recommendations for future research directions. This type of review is common in technological and scientific fields but can be applied to any discipline.
How to Write a Narrative Review (Tips for Undergrad Students)
Most undergraduate students conducting a capstone research project will be writing narrative reviews. Below is a five-step process for conducting a simple review of the literature for your project.
- Search for Relevant Literature: Use scholarly databases related to your field of study, provided by your university library, along with appropriate search terms to identify key scholarly articles that have been published on your topic.
- Evaluate and Select Sources: Filter the source list by selecting studies that are directly relevant and of sufficient quality, considering factors like credibility , objectivity, accuracy, and validity.
- Analyze and Synthesize: Review each source and summarize the main arguments in one paragraph (or more, for postgrad). Keep these summaries in a table.
- Identify Themes: With all studies summarized, group studies that share common themes, such as studies that have similar findings or methodologies.
- Write the Review: Write your review based upon the themes or subtopics you have identified. Give a thorough overview of each theme, integrating source data, and conclude with a summary of the current state of knowledge then suggestions for future research based upon your evaluation of what is lacking in the literature.
Literature reviews don’t have to be as scary as they seem. Yes, they are difficult and require a strong degree of comprehension of academic studies. But it can be feasibly done through following a structured approach to data collection and analysis. With my undergraduate research students (who tend to conduct small-scale qualitative studies ), I encourage them to conduct a narrative literature review whereby they can identify key themes in the literature. Within each theme, students can critique key studies and their strengths and limitations , in order to get a lay of the land and come to a point where they can identify ways to contribute new insights to the existing academic conversation on their topic.
Ankrah, S., & Omar, A. T. (2015). Universities–industry collaboration: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 31(3), 387-408.
Asghari, P., Rahmani, A. M., & Javadi, H. H. S. (2019). Internet of Things applications: A systematic review. Computer Networks , 148 , 241-261.
Dyrbye, L., & Shanafelt, T. (2016). A narrative review on burnout experienced by medical students and residents. Medical education , 50 (1), 132-149.
Geiger, J. L., Steg, L., Van Der Werff, E., & Ünal, A. B. (2019). A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling. Journal of environmental psychology , 64 , 78-97.
Martin, F., Sun, T., & Westine, C. D. (2020). A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018. Computers & education , 159 , 104009.
Mavilidi, M. F., Ruiter, M., Schmidt, M., Okely, A. D., Loyens, S., Chandler, P., & Paas, F. (2018). A narrative review of school-based physical activity for enhancing cognition and learning: The importance of relevancy and integration. Frontiers in psychology , 2079.
Patterson, G. T., Chung, I. W., & Swan, P. W. (2014). Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits: A meta-analysis. Journal of experimental criminology , 10 , 487-513.
Reith, T. P. (2018). Burnout in United States healthcare professionals: a narrative review. Cureus , 10 (12).
Ritchie, S. J., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). How much does education improve intelligence? A meta-analysis. Psychological science , 29 (8), 1358-1369.
Roman, S., Sánchez-Siles, L. M., & Siegrist, M. (2017). The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review. Trends in food science & technology , 67 , 44-57.
Sáiz-Vazquez, O., Puente-Martínez, A., Ubillos-Landa, S., Pacheco-Bonrostro, J., & Santabárbara, J. (2020). Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease risk: a meta-meta-analysis. Brain sciences, 10(6), 386.
Vermeir, P., Vandijck, D., Degroote, S., Peleman, R., Verhaeghe, R., Mortier, E., … & Vogelaers, D. (2015). Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations. International journal of clinical practice , 69 (11), 1257-1267.
Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology , 10 , 3087.
Yli-Huumo, J., Ko, D., Choi, S., Park, S., & Smolander, K. (2016). Where is current research on blockchain technology?—a systematic review. PloS one , 11 (10), e0163477.
Zestcott, C. A., Blair, I. V., & Stone, J. (2016). Examining the presence, consequences, and reduction of implicit bias in health care: a narrative review. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations , 19 (4), 528-542
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Literature Review Guide: Examples of Literature Reviews
- What is a Literature Review?
- How to start?
- Search strategies and Databases
- Examples of Literature Reviews
- How to organise the review
- Library summary
- Emerald Infographic
All good quality journal articles will include a small Literature Review after the Introduction paragraph. It may not be called a Literature Review but gives you an idea of how one is created in miniature.
Sample Literature Reviews as part of a articles or Theses
- Building Customer Loyalty: A Customer Experience Based Approach in a Tourism Context
- Sample Literature Review on Critical Thinking (Gwendolyn Reece, American University Library)
- Hackett, G and Melia, D . The hotel as the holiday/stay destination:trends and innovations. Presented at TRIC Conference, Belfast, Ireland- June 2012 and EuroCHRIE Conference
Links to sample Literature Reviews from other libraries
- Sample literature reviews from University of West Florida
Standalone Literature Reviews
- Attitudes towards the Disability in Ireland
- Martin, A., O'Connor-Fenelon, M. and Lyons, R. (2010). Non-verbal communication between nurses and people with an intellectual disability: A review of the literature. Journal of Intellectual Diabilities, 14(4), 303-314.
- Phillips, Martin (2015) European airline performance: a data envelopment analysis with extrapolations based on model outputs. Master of Business Studies thesis, Dublin City University.
- The customers’ perception of servicescape’s influence on their behaviours, in the food retail industry : Dublin Business School 2015
- Coughlan, Ray (2015) What was the role of leadership in the transformation of a failing Irish Insurance business. Masters thesis, Dublin, National College of Ireland.
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 3 great narrative essay examples + tips for writing.
A narrative essay is one of the most intimidating assignments you can be handed at any level of your education. Where you've previously written argumentative essays that make a point or analytic essays that dissect meaning, a narrative essay asks you to write what is effectively a story .
But unlike a simple work of creative fiction, your narrative essay must have a clear and concrete motif —a recurring theme or idea that you’ll explore throughout. Narrative essays are less rigid, more creative in expression, and therefore pretty different from most other essays you’ll be writing.
But not to fear—in this article, we’ll be covering what a narrative essay is, how to write a good one, and also analyzing some personal narrative essay examples to show you what a great one looks like.
What Is a Narrative Essay?
At first glance, a narrative essay might sound like you’re just writing a story. Like the stories you're used to reading, a narrative essay is generally (but not always) chronological, following a clear throughline from beginning to end. Even if the story jumps around in time, all the details will come back to one specific theme, demonstrated through your choice in motifs.
Unlike many creative stories, however, your narrative essay should be based in fact. That doesn’t mean that every detail needs to be pure and untainted by imagination, but rather that you shouldn’t wholly invent the events of your narrative essay. There’s nothing wrong with inventing a person’s words if you can’t remember them exactly, but you shouldn’t say they said something they weren’t even close to saying.
Another big difference between narrative essays and creative fiction—as well as other kinds of essays—is that narrative essays are based on motifs. A motif is a dominant idea or theme, one that you establish before writing the essay. As you’re crafting the narrative, it’ll feed back into your motif to create a comprehensive picture of whatever that motif is.
For example, say you want to write a narrative essay about how your first day in high school helped you establish your identity. You might discuss events like trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria, having to describe yourself in five words as an icebreaker in your math class, or being unsure what to do during your lunch break because it’s no longer acceptable to go outside and play during lunch. All of those ideas feed back into the central motif of establishing your identity.
The important thing to remember is that while a narrative essay is typically told chronologically and intended to read like a story, it is not purely for entertainment value. A narrative essay delivers its theme by deliberately weaving the motifs through the events, scenes, and details. While a narrative essay may be entertaining, its primary purpose is to tell a complete story based on a central meaning.
Unlike other essay forms, it is totally okay—even expected—to use first-person narration in narrative essays. If you’re writing a story about yourself, it’s natural to refer to yourself within the essay. It’s also okay to use other perspectives, such as third- or even second-person, but that should only be done if it better serves your motif. Generally speaking, your narrative essay should be in first-person perspective.
Though your motif choices may feel at times like you’re making a point the way you would in an argumentative essay, a narrative essay’s goal is to tell a story, not convince the reader of anything. Your reader should be able to tell what your motif is from reading, but you don’t have to change their mind about anything. If they don’t understand the point you are making, you should consider strengthening the delivery of the events and descriptions that support your motif.
Narrative essays also share some features with analytical essays, in which you derive meaning from a book, film, or other media. But narrative essays work differently—you’re not trying to draw meaning from an existing text, but rather using an event you’ve experienced to convey meaning. In an analytical essay, you examine narrative, whereas in a narrative essay you create narrative.
The structure of a narrative essay is also a bit different than other essays. You’ll generally be getting your point across chronologically as opposed to grouping together specific arguments in paragraphs or sections. To return to the example of an essay discussing your first day of high school and how it impacted the shaping of your identity, it would be weird to put the events out of order, even if not knowing what to do after lunch feels like a stronger idea than choosing where to sit. Instead of organizing to deliver your information based on maximum impact, you’ll be telling your story as it happened, using concrete details to reinforce your theme.
3 Great Narrative Essay Examples
One of the best ways to learn how to write a narrative essay is to look at a great narrative essay sample. Let’s take a look at some truly stellar narrative essay examples and dive into what exactly makes them work so well.
A Ticket to the Fair by David Foster Wallace
Today is Press Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, and I’m supposed to be at the fairgrounds by 9:00 A.M. to get my credentials. I imagine credentials to be a small white card in the band of a fedora. I’ve never been considered press before. My real interest in credentials is getting into rides and shows for free. I’m fresh in from the East Coast, for an East Coast magazine. Why exactly they’re interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish. I think they asked me to do this because I grew up here, just a couple hours’ drive from downstate Springfield. I never did go to the state fair, though—I pretty much topped out at the county fair level. Actually, I haven’t been back to Illinois for a long time, and I can’t say I’ve missed it.
Throughout this essay, David Foster Wallace recounts his experience as press at the Illinois State Fair. But it’s clear from this opening that he’s not just reporting on the events exactly as they happened—though that’s also true— but rather making a point about how the East Coast, where he lives and works, thinks about the Midwest.
In his opening paragraph, Wallace states that outright: “Why exactly they’re interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.”
Not every motif needs to be stated this clearly , but in an essay as long as Wallace’s, particularly since the audience for such a piece may feel similarly and forget that such a large portion of the country exists, it’s important to make that point clear.
But Wallace doesn’t just rest on introducing his motif and telling the events exactly as they occurred from there. It’s clear that he selects events that remind us of that idea of East Coast cynicism , such as when he realizes that the Help Me Grow tent is standing on top of fake grass that is killing the real grass beneath, when he realizes the hypocrisy of craving a corn dog when faced with a real, suffering pig, when he’s upset for his friend even though he’s not the one being sexually harassed, and when he witnesses another East Coast person doing something he wouldn’t dare to do.
Wallace is literally telling the audience exactly what happened, complete with dates and timestamps for when each event occurred. But he’s also choosing those events with a purpose—he doesn’t focus on details that don’t serve his motif. That’s why he discusses the experiences of people, how the smells are unappealing to him, and how all the people he meets, in cowboy hats, overalls, or “black spandex that looks like cheesecake leotards,” feel almost alien to him.
All of these details feed back into the throughline of East Coast thinking that Wallace introduces in the first paragraph. He also refers back to it in the essay’s final paragraph, stating:
At last, an overarching theory blooms inside my head: megalopolitan East Coasters’ summer treats and breaks and literally ‘getaways,’ flights-from—from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the stress of too many sensory choices….The East Coast existential treat is escape from confines and stimuli—quiet, rustic vistas that hold still, turn inward, turn away. Not so in the rural Midwest. Here you’re pretty much away all the time….Something in a Midwesterner sort of actuates , deep down, at a public event….The real spectacle that draws us here is us.
Throughout this journey, Wallace has tried to demonstrate how the East Coast thinks about the Midwest, ultimately concluding that they are captivated by the Midwest’s less stimuli-filled life, but that the real reason they are interested in events like the Illinois State Fair is that they are, in some ways, a means of looking at the East Coast in a new, estranging way.
The reason this works so well is that Wallace has carefully chosen his examples, outlined his motif and themes in the first paragraph, and eventually circled back to the original motif with a clearer understanding of his original point.
When outlining your own narrative essay, try to do the same. Start with a theme, build upon it with examples, and return to it in the end with an even deeper understanding of the original issue. You don’t need this much space to explore a theme, either—as we’ll see in the next example, a strong narrative essay can also be very short.
Death of a Moth by Virginia Woolf
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.
In this essay, Virginia Woolf explains her encounter with a dying moth. On surface level, this essay is just a recounting of an afternoon in which she watched a moth die—it’s even established in the title. But there’s more to it than that. Though Woolf does not begin her essay with as clear a motif as Wallace, it’s not hard to pick out the evidence she uses to support her point, which is that the experience of this moth is also the human experience.
In the title, Woolf tells us this essay is about death. But in the first paragraph, she seems to mostly be discussing life—the moth is “content with life,” people are working in the fields, and birds are flying. However, she mentions that it is mid-September and that the fields were being plowed. It’s autumn and it’s time for the harvest; the time of year in which many things die.
In this short essay, she chronicles the experience of watching a moth seemingly embody life, then die. Though this essay is literally about a moth, it’s also about a whole lot more than that. After all, moths aren’t the only things that die—Woolf is also reflecting on her own mortality, as well as the mortality of everything around her.
At its core, the essay discusses the push and pull of life and death, not in a way that’s necessarily sad, but in a way that is accepting of both. Woolf begins by setting up the transitional fall season, often associated with things coming to an end, and raises the ideas of pleasure, vitality, and pity.
At one point, Woolf tries to help the dying moth, but reconsiders, as it would interfere with the natural order of the world. The moth’s death is part of the natural order of the world, just like fall, just like her own eventual death.
All these themes are set up in the beginning and explored throughout the essay’s narrative. Though Woolf doesn’t directly state her theme, she reinforces it by choosing a small, isolated event—watching a moth die—and illustrating her point through details.
With this essay, we can see that you don’t need a big, weird, exciting event to discuss an important meaning. Woolf is able to explore complicated ideas in a short essay by being deliberate about what details she includes, just as you can be in your own essays.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the third of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.
Like Woolf, Baldwin does not lay out his themes in concrete terms—unlike Wallace, there’s no clear sentence that explains what he’ll be talking about. However, you can see the motifs quite clearly: death, fatherhood, struggle, and race.
Throughout the narrative essay, Baldwin discusses the circumstances of his father’s death, including his complicated relationship with his father. By introducing those motifs in the first paragraph, the reader understands that everything discussed in the essay will come back to those core ideas. When Baldwin talks about his experience with a white teacher taking an interest in him and his father’s resistance to that, he is also talking about race and his father’s death. When he talks about his father’s death, he is also talking about his views on race. When he talks about his encounters with segregation and racism, he is talking, in part, about his father.
Because his father was a hard, uncompromising man, Baldwin struggles to reconcile the knowledge that his father was right about many things with his desire to not let that hardness consume him, as well.
Baldwin doesn’t explicitly state any of this, but his writing so often touches on the same motifs that it becomes clear he wants us to think about all these ideas in conversation with one another.
At the end of the essay, Baldwin makes it more clear:
This fight begins, however, in the heart and it had now been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.
Here, Baldwin ties together the themes and motifs into one clear statement: that he must continue to fight and recognize injustice, especially racial injustice, just as his father did. But unlike his father, he must do it beginning with himself—he must not let himself be closed off to the world as his father was. And yet, he still wishes he had his father for guidance, even as he establishes that he hopes to be a different man than his father.
In this essay, Baldwin loads the front of the essay with his motifs, and, through his narrative, weaves them together into a theme. In the end, he comes to a conclusion that connects all of those things together and leaves the reader with a lasting impression of completion—though the elements may have been initially disparate, in the end everything makes sense.
You can replicate this tactic of introducing seemingly unattached ideas and weaving them together in your own essays. By introducing those motifs, developing them throughout, and bringing them together in the end, you can demonstrate to your reader how all of them are related. However, it’s especially important to be sure that your motifs and clear and consistent throughout your essay so that the conclusion feels earned and consistent—if not, readers may feel mislead.
5 Key Tips for Writing Narrative Essays
Narrative essays can be a lot of fun to write since they’re so heavily based on creativity. But that can also feel intimidating—sometimes it’s easier to have strict guidelines than to have to make it all up yourself. Here are a few tips to keep your narrative essay feeling strong and fresh.
Develop Strong Motifs
Motifs are the foundation of a narrative essay . What are you trying to say? How can you say that using specific symbols or events? Those are your motifs.
In the same way that an argumentative essay’s body should support its thesis, the body of your narrative essay should include motifs that support your theme.
Try to avoid cliches, as these will feel tired to your readers. Instead of roses to symbolize love, try succulents. Instead of the ocean representing some vast, unknowable truth, try the depths of your brother’s bedroom. Keep your language and motifs fresh and your essay will be even stronger!
Use First-Person Perspective
In many essays, you’re expected to remove yourself so that your points stand on their own. Not so in a narrative essay—in this case, you want to make use of your own perspective.
Sometimes a different perspective can make your point even stronger. If you want someone to identify with your point of view, it may be tempting to choose a second-person perspective. However, be sure you really understand the function of second-person; it’s very easy to put a reader off if the narration isn’t expertly deployed.
If you want a little bit of distance, third-person perspective may be okay. But be careful—too much distance and your reader may feel like the narrative lacks truth.
That’s why first-person perspective is the standard. It keeps you, the writer, close to the narrative, reminding the reader that it really happened. And because you really know what happened and how, you’re free to inject your own opinion into the story without it detracting from your point, as it would in a different type of essay.
Stick to the Truth
Your essay should be true. However, this is a creative essay, and it’s okay to embellish a little. Rarely in life do we experience anything with a clear, concrete meaning the way somebody in a book might. If you flub the details a little, it’s okay—just don’t make them up entirely.
Also, nobody expects you to perfectly recall details that may have happened years ago. You may have to reconstruct dialog from your memory and your imagination. That’s okay, again, as long as you aren’t making it up entirely and assigning made-up statements to somebody.
Dialog is a powerful tool. A good conversation can add flavor and interest to a story, as we saw demonstrated in David Foster Wallace’s essay. As previously mentioned, it’s okay to flub it a little, especially because you’re likely writing about an experience you had without knowing that you’d be writing about it later.
However, don’t rely too much on it. Your narrative essay shouldn’t be told through people explaining things to one another; the motif comes through in the details. Dialog can be one of those details, but it shouldn’t be the only one.
Use Sensory Descriptions
Because a narrative essay is a story, you can use sensory details to make your writing more interesting. If you’re describing a particular experience, you can go into detail about things like taste, smell, and hearing in a way that you probably wouldn’t do in any other essay style.
These details can tie into your overall motifs and further your point. Woolf describes in great detail what she sees while watching the moth, giving us the sense that we, too, are watching the moth. In Wallace’s essay, he discusses the sights, sounds, and smells of the Illinois State Fair to help emphasize his point about its strangeness. And in Baldwin’s essay, he describes shattered glass as a “wilderness,” and uses the feelings of his body to describe his mental state.
All these descriptions anchor us not only in the story, but in the motifs and themes as well. One of the tools of a writer is making the reader feel as you felt, and sensory details help you achieve that.
Looking to brush up on your essay-writing capabilities before the ACT? This guide to ACT English will walk you through some of the best strategies and practice questions to get you prepared!
Part of practicing for the ACT is ensuring your word choice and diction are on point. Check out this guide to some of the most common errors on the ACT English section to be sure that you're not making these common mistakes!
A solid understanding of English principles will help you make an effective point in a narrative essay, and you can get that understanding through taking a rigorous assortment of high school English classes !
Need more help with this topic? Check out Tutorbase!
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.
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Foundations, why choose a narrative review, process and rigor, distinctive methods and subtypes, strengths and weaknesses, conclusions, narrative reviews: flexible, rigorous, and practical.
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Javeed Sukhera; Narrative Reviews: Flexible, Rigorous, and Practical. J Grad Med Educ 1 August 2022; 14 (4): 414–417. doi: https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-22-00480.1
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Narrative reviews are a type of knowledge synthesis grounded in a distinct research tradition. They are often framed as non-systematic, which implies that there is a hierarchy of evidence placing narrative reviews below other review forms. 1 However, narrative reviews are highly useful to medical educators and researchers. While a systematic review often focuses on a narrow question in a specific context, with a prespecified method to synthesize findings from similar studies, a narrative review can include a wide variety of studies and provide an overall summary, with interpretation and critique. 1 Examples of narrative review types include state-of-the-art, critical, and integrative reviews, among many others.
Narrative reviews are situated within diverse disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Most forms of narrative reviews align with subjectivist and interpretivist paradigms. These worldviews emphasize that reality is subjective and dynamic. They contrast with the positivist and post-positivist worldviews that are the foundations of systematic reviews: a single reality can be known through experimental research. Unlike systematic reviews, narrative reviews offer researchers the ability to synthesize multiple points of view and harness unique review team perspectives, which will shape the analysis. Therefore, insights gained from a narrative review will vary depending on the individual, organizational, or historical contexts in which the review was conducted. 1 - 5
Narrative reviews allow researchers to describe what is known on a topic while conducting a subjective examination and critique of an entire body of literature. Authors can describe the topic's current status while providing insights on advancing the field, new theories, or current evidence viewed from different or unusual perspectives. 3 Therefore, such reviews can be useful by exploring topics that are under-researched as well as for new insights or ways of thinking regarding well-developed, robustly researched fields.
Narrative reviews are often useful for topics that require a meaningful synthesis of research evidence that may be complex or broad and that require detailed, nuanced description and interpretation. 1 See Boxes 1 and 2 for resources on writing a narrative review as well as a case example of a program director's use of a narrative review for an interprofessional education experience. This Journal of Graduate Medical Education (JGME) special review series will continue to use the Case of Dr. Smith to consider the same question using different review methodologies.
Dr. Smith, a program director, has been tasked to develop an interprofessional education (IPE) experience for the residency program. Dr. Smith decides that conducting a literature review would be a savvy way to examine the existing evidence and generate a publication useful to others. Using PubMed and a general subject search with “interprofessional education,” Dr. Smith identifies 24 000 matches. Dr. Smith begins to randomly sample the papers and notes the huge diversity of types and approaches: randomized trials, qualitative investigations, critical perspectives, and more.
Dr. Smith decides to do a meta-narrative review, because she notes that there are tensions and contradictions in the ways in which IPE is discussed by different health professions education communities, such as in nursing literature vs in medical journals.
Ferrari R. Writing narrative style literature reviews. Med Writing . 2015;24(4):230-235. doi: https://doi.org/10.1179/2047480615Z.000000000329
Green BN, Johnson CD, Adams A. Writing narrative literature reviews for peer-reviewed journals: secrets of the trade. J Chiropr Med . 2006;5(3):101-117. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0899-3467(07)60142-6
Gregory AT, Denniss AR. An introduction to writing narrative and systematic reviews—tasks, tips and traps for aspiring authors. Heart Lung Circ . 2018;27(7):893-898. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hlc.2018.03.027
Murphy CM. Writing an effective review article. J Med Toxicol . 2012;8(2):89-90. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13181-012-0234-2
While each type of narrative review has its own associated markers of rigor, the following guidelines are broadly applicable to narrative reviews and can help readers critically appraise their quality. These principles may also guide researchers who wish to conduct narrative reviews. When engaging with a narrative review as a reader or a researcher, scholars are advised to be conversant with the following 5 foundational elements of narrative reviews.
Rationale for a Narrative Review
First, scholars should consider the framing of the research question. Does the topic being studied align with the type of knowledge synthesis performed through a narrative review? Authors should have a clear research question and a specific audience target. Authors should also provide a rationale for why a narrative review method was chosen. 6 The manuscript should include the initial research question as well as details about any iterative refinements to the question.
Clarity of Boundaries, Scope, and Definitions
Second, although narrative reviews do not typically involve strict predetermined inclusion or exclusion criteria, scholars should explicitly demarcate the boundaries and scope of their topic. They should also clearly define key terms related to the topic and research question and any definitions used. Authors should elaborate why they chose a particular definition if others were available. As narrative reviews are flexible, the initial scope may change through the review process. In such circumstances, authors should provide reasonable justification for the evolution of inclusion and exclusion criteria and a description of how this affected the literature search.
Justification for Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria
Third, authors of narrative reviews should explain which search terms and databases were included in the synthesis and why. For example, did authors include research studies from a particular database, time frame, or study design? Did they include commentaries or empirical articles? Did they include grey literature such as trade publications, reports, or digital media? Each of the authors' choices should be outlined with appropriate reasoning. 7 Narrative reviews tend to be iterative and involve multiple cycles of searching, analysis, and interpretation. High-quality narrative reviews usually include pivotal or seminal papers that address the phenomenon of interest and other manuscripts that are relevant to the research question.
Reflexivity and a Saturation/Sufficiency Statement
Fourth, narrative reviews should clearly specify any factors that may have shaped the authors' interpretations and analysis. One fundamental distinction between narrative and non-narrative reviews is that narrative reviews explicitly recognize that they may not include all relevant literature on a topic. Since narrative reviews do not aim to be inclusive of all literature addressing the phenomenon of interest, a justification for the selection of manuscripts must be included. Authors should carefully outline how researchers conducted analyses and how they determined that sufficient analysis and interpretation was achieved. This latter concept is similar to considerations of saturation or thematic sufficiency in primary qualitative research. 8
Details on Analysis and Interpretation
Lastly, since several different categories of reviews fall under the narrative review umbrella, the analysis conducted in a narrative review varies by type. Regardless of the type of narrative review carried out, authors should clearly describe how analyses were conducted and provide justification for their approach. Narrative reviews are enhanced when researchers are explicit about how their perspectives and experiences informed problem identification, interpretation, and analysis. Given that authors' unique perspectives shape the selection of literature and its interpretation, narrative reviews may be reproduced, but different authors will likely yield different insights and interpretations.
The narrative review has been commonly framed as an umbrella term that includes several different subtypes of reviews. These narrative medicine subtypes share the goals of deepening an understanding of a topic, while describing why researchers chose to explore and analyze the topic in a specific way.
There are several subtypes of narrative reviews with distinctive methodologies; each offers a unique way of approaching the research question and analyzing and interpreting the literature. This article will describe some common narrative review types that will also be discussed in upcoming JGME special articles on reviews: state-of-the-art , meta-ethnographic , critical , and theory integration reviews.
A state-of-the-art review attempts to summarize the research concerning a specific topic along a timeline of significant changes in understanding or research orientations. By focusing on such turning points in the history of evolving understandings of a phenomenon, state-of-the-art reviews offer a summary of the current state of understanding, how such an understanding was developed, and an idea of future directions. A state-of-the art review seeks to offer a 3-part description: where are we now in our understanding, how did we get here, and where should we go next?
A meta-ethnographic review involves choosing and interpreting qualitative research evidence about a specific topic. Working exclusively with qualitative data, this type of knowledge synthesis aims to generate new insights or new conclusions about a topic. It draws together insights and analyses from existing publications of qualitative research to construct new knowledge that spans across these individual, and often small scale, studies.
A meta-narrative review seeks to explore and make sense of contradictions and tensions within the literature. A meta-narrative review maps how a certain topic is understood in distinct ways, conducts a focused search to describe and compare narratives, and then seeks to make sense of how such narratives are interpreted across different disciplines or historical contexts, as part of the analysis. 9
A critical review is a narrative synthesis of literature that brings an interpretative lens: the review is shaped by a theory, a critical point of view, or perspectives from other domains to inform the literature analysis. Critical reviews involve an interpretative process that combines the reviewer's theoretical premise with existing theories and models to allow for synthesis and interpretation of diverse studies. First, reviewers develop and outline their interpretive theoretical position, which is informed by individual knowledge and experience. Next, a noncomprehensive search is completed to capture and identify dominant themes focused on a research question. 8 , 10
An integrative review typically has 1 of 2 different orientations. Empirical integrative reviews analyze and synthesize publications of evidence-based studies with diverse methodologies. In contrast, theoretical integrative reviews conduct an analysis of the available theories addressing a phenomenon, critically appraise those theories, and propose an advancement in the development of those theories. Both types of integrative reviews follow a multistage approach including problem identification, searching, evaluation, analysis, and presentation. 11
Narrative reviews have many strengths. They are flexible and practical, and ideally provide a readable, relevant synthesis of a diverse literature. Narrative reviews are often helpful for teaching or learning about a topic because they deliver a general overview. They are also useful for setting the stage for future research, as they offer an interpretation of the literature, note gaps, and critique research to date.
Such reviews may be useful for providing general background; however, a more comprehensive form of review may be necessary. Narrative reviews do not offer an evidence-based synthesis for focused questions, nor do they offer definitive guideline statements. All types of narrative reviews offer interpretations that are open to critique and will vary depending on the author team or context of the review.
Well-done narrative reviews provide a readable, thoughtful, and practical synthesis on a topic. They allow review authors to advance new ideas while describing and interpreting literature in the field. Narrative reviews do not aim to be systematic syntheses that answer a specific, highly focused question; instead, they offer carefully thought out and rigorous interpretations of a body of knowledge. Such reviews will not provide an exhaustive, comprehensive review of the literature; however, they are useful for a rich and meaningful summary of a topic.
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