What is a literature review?
A literature review is a critical analysis of published sources, or literature, on a particular topic. It is an assessment of the literature and provides a summary, classification, comparison and evaluation. At postgraduate level literature reviews can be incorporated into an article, a research report or thesis. At undergraduate level literature reviews can be a separate stand alone assessment.
The literature review is generally in the format of a standard essay made up of three components: an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It is not a list like an annotated bibliography in which a summary of each source is listed one by one.
Why do we write literature reviews?
At university you may be asked to write a literature review in order to demonstrate your understanding of the literature on a particular topic. You show your understanding by analysing and then synthesising the information to:
- Determine what has already been written on a topic
- Provide an overview of key concepts
- Identify major relationships or patterns
- Identify strengths and weaknesses
- Identify any gaps in the research
- Identify any conflicting evidence
- Provide a solid background to a research paper’s investigation
How to write a literature review
Determine your purpose
Work out what you need to address in the literature review. What are you being asked to do in your literature review? What are you searching the literature to discover? Check your assignment question and your criteria sheet to know what to focus on.
Do an extensive search of the literature
Find out what has been written on the topic.
What kind of literature?
Select appropriate source material: Use a variety of academic or scholarly sources that are relevant, current and authoritative. An extensive review of relevant material will include — books, journal articles, reports, government documents, conference proceedings and web resources. The Library would be the best place to search for your sources.
How many resources?
The number of sources that you will be required to review will depend on what the literature review is for and how advanced you are in your studies. It could be from five sources at first year undergraduate level to more than fifty for a thesis. Your lecturer will advise you on these details.
Note the bibliographical details of your sources
Keep a note of the publication title, date, authors’ names, page numbers and publishers. These details will save you time later.
Read the literature
- Critically read each source, look for the arguments presented rather than for facts.
- Take notes as you read and start to organise your review around themes and ideas.
- Consider using a table, matrix or concept map to identify how the different sources relate to each other.
Analyse the literature you have found
In order for your writing to reflect strong critical analysis, you need to evaluate the sources. For each source you are reviewing ask yourself these questions:
- What are the key terms and concepts?
- How relevant is this article to my specific topic?
- What are the major relationships, trends and patterns?
- How has the author structured the arguments?
- How authoritative and credible is this source?
- What are the differences and similarities between the sources?
- Are there any gaps in the literature that require further study?
Write the review
- Start by writing your thesis statement. This is an important introductory sentence that will tell your reader what the topic is and the overall perspective or argument you will be presenting.
- Like essays, a literature review must have an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
Structure of a literature review
Your introduction should give an outline of
- why you are writing a review, and why the topic is important
- the scope of the review — what aspects of the topic will be discussed
- the criteria used for your literature selection (e.g.. type of sources used, date range)
- the organisational pattern of the review.
Each body paragraph should deal with a different theme that is relevant to your topic. You will need to synthesise several of your reviewed readings into each paragraph, so that there is a clear connection between the various sources. You will need to critically analyse each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching.
The body could include paragraphs on:
- historical background
- previous studies on the topic
- mainstream versus alternative viewpoints
- principal questions being asked
- general conclusions that are being drawn.
Your conclusion should give a summary of:
- the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
- any gaps or areas for further research
- your overall perspective on the topic.
Checklist for a literature review
- outlined the purpose and scope?
- identified appropriate and credible (academic/scholarly) literature?
- recorded the bibliographical details of the sources?
- analysed and critiqued your readings?
- identified gaps in the literature and research?
- explored methodologies / theories / hypotheses / models?
- discussed the varying viewpoints?
- written an introduction, body and conclusion?
- checked punctuation and spelling?
The introduction is not the section of the essay in which you merely introduce the topic, it also presents a fantastic opportunity to get the reader hooked on your take on the title! There is no formula for a successful essay, and the best ones will always be in your style, with your flair and your own excitement - however I'd like to share some tips from my experience on how to make the essay fun and powerful to read and to write.
Try to avoid writing "In this essay I will...". Where it might seem like an easy tool to say what you need to say in the introduction, even something simple like "After exploring X, I will then consider its impacts on Y" makes the paragraph run smoother.
Make the first line exciting and slightly controversial. The first line is your chance to grab the reader and take them with you. Often some of the best essays have controversial first lines, forcing the reader to think 'how can they possible say this!?', and then proceed to prove that very first line. Lines like "Weimar Classicism should not have even existed", "Atonement shows the flaws of the imagination rather than celebrating it", or even something a bit milder like "The Great Gatsby is not a book about characters, but tracks a descent into a chaotic void" will have the reader at least a bit further towards the edge of their seat.
Don't spoil the ending. The conclusion and the introduction are very different and serve very different purposes. Where you'll want to leave your most interesting point for the conclusion, the introduction makes sure the reader reads every word of what you're about to write and maps out the rough direction of your essay. Everything except your final hurrah in your conclusion (see 'How to write a powerful conclusion')
Finally, as I said at the beginnning, these are just my tips for essay writing, and in opposition to grammar it is very much better if you tackle them with your own set of ideas. However, if you are finding yourself bored while essay writing my final tip is to make it exciting - how you do that is up to you but your teacher will thank you, your grades will thankyou, and you'll be doing yourself a favour too!