Writing a literature review

Literature reviews determine what is known on a topic, how well this knowledge is established, and where future research might be directed. This page explains how to write literature reviews.

What is a literature review?

A literature review explores and evaluates the literature on a specific topic or question. It synthesises the contributions of the different authors, often to identify areas that need further exploration.

You may be required to write a literature review as a standalone document or part of a larger body of research, such as a thesis.

  • The point of a standalone literature review is to demonstrate that you have read widely in your field and you understand the main arguments.
  • As part of a thesis or research paper, the literature review defines your project by establishing how your work will extend or differ from previous work and what contribution it will make.

What are markers looking for?

In the best literature reviews, the writer:

  • Has a clear understanding of key concepts within the topic.
  • Clarifies important definitions and terminology.
  • Covers the breadth of the specific topic.
  • Critically discusses the ideas in the literature and evaluates how authors present them.
  • Clearly indicates a research gap for future enquiry.

How do I write a literature review?

This video outlines a step by step approach to help you evaluate readings, organise ideas and write critically. It provides examples of how to connect, interpret and critique ideas to make sure your voice comes through strongly.

Practical examples of how to write a literature review.

Tips for research, reading and writing

  • How can I refine my topic?

    You may be given a specific question to research or broad topics which must be refined to a question that can be reasonably addressed in the time and word limit available.

    Use your early reading to help you determine and refine your topic.

    • Too much literature? You probably need to narrow your scope. Try to identify a more specific issue of interest.
    • Not enough literature? Your topic may be too specific and needs to be broader.
  • How should I approach my research?

    Start with readings suggested by your lecturers or supervisors. Then, do your own research - the best place to go is the Library Website.

    You can also use the Library Guides or speak to a librarian to identify the most useful databases for you and to learn how to search for sources effectively and efficiently.

    Cover the field

    Make sure your literature search covers a broad range of views and information relevant to your topic. Focussing on a narrow selection of sources may result in a lack of depth. You are not expected to cover all research and scholarly opinions on your topic, but you need to identify and include important viewpoints. A quality literature review examines and evaluates different viewpoints based on the evidence presented, rather than providing only material that reinforces a bias.

  • How can I read effectively?

    Use reading strategies

    Survey, skim and scan to find the most relevant articles, and the most relevant parts of those articles. These can be re-read more closely later when you have acquired an overview of your topic.

    Take notes as you read

    This helps to organise and develop your thoughts. Record your own reactions to the text in your notes, perhaps in a separate column. These notes can form the basis of your critical evaluation of the text. Record any facts, opinions or direct quotes that are likely to be useful to your review, noting the page numbers, author and year.

    Stop reading when you have enough

    This depends on the word count required of this literature review. A review of one thousand words can only cover the major ideas and probably less than ten references. Longer reviews that form part of a large research paper will include more than fifty. Your tutor or supervisor should be able to suggest a suitable number.

    As you read, ask yourself these questions:

    • Have I answered my question without any obvious gaps?
    • Have I read this before? Are there any new related issues coming up as I search the literature?
    • Have I found multiple references which cover the same material or just enough to prove agreement?
  • How should I structure my literature review?

    There are many possible ways to organise the material. For example:

    • chronologically
    • by theoretical perspective
    • from most to least important
    • by issue or theme

    It is important to remember that you are not merely cataloguing or describing the literature you read. Therefore, you need to choose an organisation that will enable you to compare the various authors' treatment of ideas. This is often best achieved by organising thematically, or grouping ideas into sets of common issues tackled in the various texts. These themes will form the basis of the different threads that are the focus of your study.

    A standalone literature review

    A standalone literature review is structured much like an academic essay.

    • Introduction - establish the context for your topic and outline your main contentions about the literature
    • Main body - explain and support these inferences in the main body
    • Conclusion - summarise your main points and restate the contention.

    The main difference between an essay and this kind of literature review is that an essay focuses on a topic and uses the literature as a support for the arguments. In a standalone literature review, the literature itself is the topic of discussion and evaluation. This means you evaluate and discuss not only the informational content but the quality of the author’s handling of the content.

    A literature review as part of a larger research paper?

    As part of a larger research paper, the literature review may take many forms, depending on your discipline, your topic and the logic of your research. Traditionally, in empirical research, the literature review is included in the introduction, or a standalone chapter immediately following the introduction. For other forms of research, you may need to engage more extensively with the literature and thus, the literature review may spread over more than one chapter, or even be distributed throughout the thesis.

  • When should I start writing?

    Start writing early. Writing will clarify your thinking on the topic and reveal any gaps in information and logic. If your ideas change, sections and paragraphs can be reworked to change your contentions or include extra information.

    Similarly, draft an overall plan for your review as soon as you are ready, but be prepared to rework sections of it to reflect your developing argument.

Final tip

The most important thing to remember is that you are writing a review. That means you must move past describing what other authors have written by connecting, interpreting and critiquing their ideas and presenting your own analysis and interpretation.

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