How to write a literature review

You may be required to do a literature review in postgraduate or undergraduate courses at university.

Literature reviews can be used alone, or in research projects, reports, articles and theses. They are a way of bringing together, analysing and evaluating a range of sources in relation to a particular topic or research question.

So how do you write a literature review? Follow these four simple steps:

1. Establish focus

If you have a set research topic, problem, or question to analyse, it is important to take time to clarify what is expected of you before you start researching and writing.

Not sure where to start? The Preparing for your assignment module can guide you through the process of formulating key questions to focus your research.

If you are developing your own research topic and question, try:

  • Defining the general topic area
  • Identifying the particular problem or issue that you are interested in investigating
  • Turning the problem into questions e.g. Why does this happen? How can we solve this problem? What are the main features of this issue?
  • Brainstorming ideas and key points

2. Develop search strategies

Once you have questions to guide your searching, you are ready to start locating relevant literature. To locate relevant research, you will need a search strategy.

A search strategy is a structured organisation of terms used to search an online research tool, such as a library database or catalogue. The search strategy shows how these terms combine in order to retrieve the best results.

Online research tools work in different ways so you need to adapt your search strategy for each one.

To develop a search strategy:

  1. Identify the keywords in your assessment topic
  2. Identify any related words (use a dictionary, encyclopaedia or provided readings)
  3. Combine your keywords and related words into a search strategy using the terms AND, OR and NOT

Once you have developed a search strategy, head to the Library Catalogue. The Library Catalogue shows you what is in the library and where you can find them.

You will also need to identify other research tools to help you with your literature review. The Library has databases and other research tools that can be used to find highly specialised information.

3. Manage what you find

In a literature review, you are not simply recounting what each author says about a topic. You need to critically evaluate and discuss the literature, and convince the reader of its relevance to your own work. 

To do this, you need to question each item you read to assess its:

  • Reliability – are the facts accurate?
  • Credibility – is the author an authority?
  • Perspective – is there bias or opinion?
  • Purpose – does the information inform, explain or persuade?
  • Evidence – does the author use facts, examples, statistics, expert testimony?

There are many ways to sort and classify the literature that you are reading. Literature can be classified by:

  • Thesis chapters (if applicable)
  • Your own categories
  • Theoretical perspective (e.g. ‘Marxist’, ‘Behaviourist’, ‘Post-modernist’)
  • Categories in your discipline
  • Whether they support, or conflict with, your thesis or central argument
  • Reliability

4. Putting it all together

How you organise your review will depend on what information you have gathered and how your discipline arranges them. But, you could organise it this way:

  1. Introduction – including your topic, aim, main ideas, overall plan, limits, and scope.
  2. Body – including your research (where applicable); discussion of evidence, theories, concepts, and relationships between different literatures.
  3. Conclusion– where you bring together the key issues, trends, common threads, major gaps, and/or agreements and disagreements in the literature.