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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.

Guidelines

Part of your task in taking notes is to begin the process of sifting and arranging ideas. Although your literature review will rely heavily on the sources you read for its information, the structure of the review should be dictated by you. It is important that the concepts are presented in an order that makes sense in the context of your research project.

You need to do some work on planning and structure to ensure that your literature review is a coherent piece of work. Some of this planning work can happen as you read, but you may also need to do a brainstorming session to work out a plan for the review as a whole.

There may be clear divisions in the sets of ideas you want to discuss, in which case your structure may be fairly clear. This is an ideal situation. In more cases, there will be several different possible structures for your review. Making an outline or plan is a good way to experiment with these different structures. Talk to your supervisor before you make a final decision and start writing.

Tips on structure

A common error in literature reviews is for writers to present material from one author, followed by information from another, then another.... The way in which you group authors and link ideas will help avoid this problem. To group authors who draw similar conclusions, you can use linking words such as:

  • additionally
  • similarly

When authors disagree, linking words that indicate contrast will show how you have analysed their work. Words such as:

  • however
  • conversely
  • on the other hand

will indicate to your reader how you have analyzed the material. At other times you may want to qualify an author's work (using such words as specifically, usually or generally) or use an example (thus, namely, to illustrate). In this way you ensure that you are synthesizing the material, not just describing the work already carried out.

Another major problem is that literature reviews are often written as if they stand alone, without links to the rest of the thesis. There needs to be a clear relationship between the literature review and the hypothesis and methodology to follow. At the end of your review, include a summary of what the literature implies. You need to do this in a way that clearly links with your own hypotheses and methodology.

Source:  University of Newcastle.  Used with permission.

Image source:  DLM. 2013.

Checklist

Selection of sources

  • Have you indicated the purpose of the review?

  • Are the parameters of the review reasonable?

  • Why did you include some of the literature and exclude others?

  • Which years did you exclude?

  • Have you emphasized recent developments?

  • Have you focused on primary sources with only selective use of secondary sources?

  • Is the literature you have selected relevant?

  • Is your bibliographic data complete?

Critical evaluation of the literature

  • Have you organized your material according to issues?

  • Is there a logic to the way you organized the material?

  • Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?

  • Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?

  • Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?

  • Have you indicated the relevance of each reference to your research?

Interpretation

  • Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader's understanding of the problems?

  • Does the design of your research reflect the methodological implications of the literature review?

Note

  • The literature review will be judged in the context of your completed research.

The review needs to further the reader's understanding of the problem and whether it provides a rationale for your research.

Image source:  Nobbler 76.  Public Domain.  Wikimedia Commons.

Source:  University of Newcastle.  Used with permission.