How to Write a Literature Review

The problem of how to write a literature review is a common one. It is a basic academic skill – but one that receives very little attention during research training. Often, people are simple just expected to know how to write a literature review. However, from undergraduate days onwards, it is something researchers will have to do on a regular basis. Whether writing an essay, a report, PhD or funding application, knowing how to produce a literature review is essential.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review presents a focused account of published research and/or theory relevant to a specific research question.  It will provide a self-standing overview of key aspects of an idea’s research history – who said what, when, where and why. It will detail relevant ideas, arguments or findings in the main work in your field of research in order to present a persuasive argument for viewing the literature in a particular way. It is often, therefore, critical in its approach.

What should a Literature Review do?

The format of a literature review will vary across disciplines but, in general,  in order to produce a good literature review you will:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with, and understanding of, what has previously been written on a subject
  • Establish limits to the research area you are exploring. (You simply can’t review everything.)
  • Show links and common ideas that are apparent across the literature reviewed
  • Group similar ideas in the literature together
  • Highlight differences in approach, findings, methods or assumption across authors
  • Establish gaps, problems or limitations in previous research
  • Position what you go on to write within this existing literature of research and ideas
  • Be clear about its purpose.


What should a Literature Review not do?

Your literature review should offer an interpretation of the literature you explore and offer a synthesis of the ideas contained within. When considering how to write a literature review, consider that a good literature review should NOT:

  • Simply reproduce a chronological overview of the field
  • Describe what previous authors have said but fail to comment on it
    • Why is their work important?
    • What does it help us understand?
    • What are the problems with their approach or conclusions?
    • Why is it relevant to the argument you are developing?
  • Fail to make a strong argument for interpreting the problem as you have.


How to Write a Literature Review

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