How to Write a Literature Review

The Introductory Section

Firstly, do not confuse a literature review with a book review. In this type of review, the writer examines various articles, books, and other scholarly sources to find suitable materials relating to a specific topic, theory, or research area. They then critically evaluate, describe, and sum-up each text in their literature review. The main purpose of this exercise is to provide an overview of any important literature available or published on a given topic.

The Component Parts

As is the case with doing any type of primary research, there are four simple stages involved in reviewing literature and writing about what you find:

  • Formulate the problem: What field or topic are you studying and what are its main issues?
  • Look for suitable literature: This means looking for topic-related materials.
  • Evaluate the information you find: Here, you must determine which pieces of literature contribute in a significant way to understanding the topic.
  • Interpret and analyse all relevant data or information: This means discussing any important literature you find and drawing conclusions.

A literature review is comprised of the elements described below:

  • The writer should provide an overview of the topic, theory or problem they are working on and say why they are reviewing various works of literature i.e. their objectives.
  • They should divide any works being reviewed into appropriate categories. For example, you could create the following groupings: a) those works that support a specific position, b) those that oppose that stance, and c) those that put forward an entirely different view.
  • The writer should explain how each literary work is similar and/or different from other works.
  • Come to conclusions about which works are a) best in the way they consider the argument(s), b) offer the most persuasive opinions, and c) contribute most effectively in developing and understanding the research area.

Things to consider when evaluating each work:

  • How objective is the work: Is the perspective of the author prejudiced or evenly-balanced? Do they consider opposing opinions or information or do they ignore important facts to prove their point?
  • How persuasive is the work: Which theses are most persuasive or not at all persuasive?
  • How valuable is the work: How convincing are the conclusions and arguments put forward by the author? How well, if at all, does the work contribute to understanding the topic?
  • What is the provenance of the work: What qualifications or credentials does the author have? Does the author support his or her arguments with evidence i.e. with primary source material, historical data, statistics, recent research findings, narrative, or case studies?

Purpose or Use and Definition

Literature reviews can be a vital chapter of any dissertation or thesis or they may be stand-alone papers. Whatever the case, a literature review serves the following purposes:

  • Puts each literary work into context in terms of how it contributes to understanding a given topic.
  • Describes how various works relate to each other.
  • Suggests fresh ways of interpreting a topic, and fills in gaps in existing knowledge.
  • Identifies previous efforts in a given field to prevent duplication. 
  • Resolves conflict where existing information seems to be contradictory.
  • Puts the writer’s paper into context among existing work.
  • Recommends areas for further or future research.

NB: A literature review does not in itself present any new scholarship of the primary variety.