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How to Write a Literature Review

An introduction to a Literature Review: what it is, the purpose, strategies, guidelines, and resources to help you to get started.

Critical Reading Tips

The first step towards critical reading is to keep your purpose in mind when you read. Don't let the arguments distract you from your reading agenda.

Previewing or prereading can help focus your thoughts. Skim headings and article abstracts, perhaps look at the first line of each paragraph and the conclusion.

Critical Reading

Unlike journal articles and scholarly books,  the majority of information found with a Google search has not been peer reviewed, unlike journal articles and most scholarly books found via library databases. It is therefore very important that you read these writings critically and objectively.

When you are looking at resources (particularly from a Google search) keep a critical focus. Use the CRAAP method to evaluate your information:

  • Currency:  How old is the material? Is it current enough for your topic?

  • Reliability: Is there reliable evidence to support the author's contentions?What is the perspective of the writer?  Is it balanced?

  • Authoritativeness: Who are the authors of this piece? What are their credentials? 

  • Accuracy: Are the arguments logical?Has the material been reviewed or refereed?  Is the material supported by evidence?

  • Purpose: Is this fact or opinion?  Is it biased?  Is the author trying to sell you something?  Or persuade you?

Asking Questions

You should have some specific questions in mind as you read, which will help you deal with the material actively.

Keeping a list of questions in mind will sharpen your analytical skills and help you keep an objective outlook. These sample questions are aimed at eliciting a criticism of experimental methodology:

  • What were the authors trying to discover?

  • Why is this piece of research important?

  • What was measured?

  • How was the data collected?

  • What were the results?

  • What do the authors conclude and to what do they attribute their findings?

  • Can you accept the findings as true?

  • How can you apply these findings to your own work?

These questions should form the basis of your literature review. If you take comprehensive notes in your own words you will have done the hard work before you start to write.

Image sources:  Reading glasses.  Evan-Amos.  Public domain.  Wikimedia Commons; Ludwigs2, Question Mark.  CC BY-SA 3.0.  Wikimedia Commons.

Taking Notes

Your note taking should reflect your reading questions. Summaries have their uses, but they aren't the building blocks of a good literature review. Taking notes and making critical comments is more useful.

  • When you take notes try splitting your notes page in two.

  • Write your summary of the authors conclusions and evidence in one of the columns.

  • In the other column, note your reactions to what you have read.

  • Comment on the methodology used.

  • Make connections between your project and what you are reading.

  • Compare and contrast the views of other authors.

  • Make a note of what you think about the material.

  • Even "These arguments are confusing" or "I don't understand this" may be useful when you are criticising the work.

This two column system has several advantages:

  • It keeps you thinking about the major issues and ideas.

  • You will be able to differentiate between your views and the work of others, thus reducing the risk of plagiarism.

An alternative to the two columns is to use two colours of pen - one for your ideas and the other for quotes and paraphrases. If you prefer writing your notes on file cards, this may be a better choice.

It doesn't really matter how you organize and write notes as long as you:

  • Keep track of the difference between your ideas and those of other authors

  • Make sure your notes are legible

  • Provide clear references for all resources you work with, including page numbers, so you can find it again or cite it in the review.

Image source: Trounce. GFDL. Wikimedia Commons. 2008.