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.