How to write a literature review
You can learn how to write a literature review with five easy steps. However, before you can begin writing a literature review you need to understand what one is. Put simply, a literature review is a review of existing research in a chosen area of study. Used to evaluate and summarise work published on a topic; a literature review is an integral part of any conducted research.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
The purpose of a literature review is to gain an understanding of existing research and ideas in a particular area of study. You present this knowledge in the form of a written report. By doing so you are building your knowledge on your area of study through the means of evaluating existing works.
As the writer of a literature review you will show what has been studied in your chosen topic thus far and areas of which have potential for further study.
Including a literature review allows you to demonstrate why your research is useful, important and valid.
How to write a literature review
Step 1 - Search for relevant literature
The first step to writing a literature review is looking for your sources. When doing so it is best practice to think about the types of literature that are leading the research in your field of study and the materials that are the most up to date.
Examples of literature sources include:
- Peer reviewed journals
- Academic books
- Government documents
Step 2 – Evaluate your sources
After gathering your sources, you need to evaluate the information you have found. Firstly, to ensure that your sources are fit for purpose you must look at their credibility and what they offer to your field of study. Once you have decided a source is trustworthy you can then take a closer look at the information offered.
Some questions to consider when evaluating sources are:
- Is this source trustworthy and credible?
- Is this source relevant to my field of study?
- What are the key terms and concepts?
- Are there any gaps for further study?
Step 3 - Determine the themes, debates, and gaps
Your literature review must present a critical analysis of a chosen subject area. Therefore, you must determine the themes and debates whilst also accounting for areas of further study.
Reading through your sources will help you to piece together common themes and ideas. An example of how to collate your sources would be to write brief paragraphs about how each relates to your overall theme and how they can work together. This should also present to you the areas which require further study. By doing so you should be able to determine your key themes and debates, helping to outline your structure.
Step 4 - Outline the structure
The structure of your literature review is important. You want to make sure that your themes and debates are laid out concisely so that you can present a balanced and well-thought-out discussion.
When deciding on the structure it is important to consider the following questions:
- What do you want the reader to take away from your literature review?
- How can you organise your sources concisely?
Step 5 - Write your literature review
Now that you better understand what a literature review is, it is time to begin writing. A literature review format is split into three sections: introduction, main body and conclusion - not forgetting a list of correctly cited references at the very end.
Structure of a literature review
Writing the introduction
In your literature review introduction, you will present your chosen topic including explanations of main terms and concepts and relevant background information.
This is where you will explain the importance of your topic and how it fits into the wider subject area. You will need to talk about your aims and what the purpose of the literature review is.
You can also use this section to discuss the scope of the review including which aspects of the topic will be covered.
Writing the main body
The main body of the literature review is where you will discuss your sources making sure that every paragraph has a theme or is making a relevant point. Here you will be providing insight into the relation between your chosen topic and the wider subject area.
To ensure a balanced literature review you need to talk about the areas which show flaws or gaps in existing research.
When structuring your main body section there are multiple ways you can go about it. The most common two being chronological and thematic.
A chronological structure is grouping and discussing your sources in order of publication date. Here you would start your discussion with the earliest released literature leading up to the most recent. With this method you can track the progress of research over a period of time. A chronological structure allows you to discuss relevant developments.
A thematic structure is grouping and discussing your sources dependant on the themes and topics they cover. This method allows you to see how many sources you have found for each issue and in turn will show you areas where more reading may be necessary.
No matter which type of structure you choose there are certain areas you need to cover for each source. These are:
- A description of the publication
- A summary of the main points
- An evaluation on its contribution to the topic
- Potential gaps in the research
Writing the conclusion
For your literature review conclusion, you will need to summarise and present your key findings. It is a good idea to refer to the purpose of your literature review here, detailing specifically what you have been able to achieve.
In your conclusion you can recommend areas for further study, discussing any flaws or gaps you have come across in existing material.
It is important when writing a conclusion that you never include new information or present new ideas. This section should only be used to summarise the points you have already made.
Writing the references
Every literature review needs to include a list of references or bibliography. This list will include all sources used and will be formatted accurately to your university/organisation standard.
References give your reader an easy means of evaluating your sources and protects your work from the potential accusations of plagiarism.
Writing literature reviews can be a common part of your university experience. If you are an international student looking to study a degree in the UK, Kingston University International Study Centre has a range of pathway programmes to prepare you for university study. As well as pathway programmes, you can also study one of our English language courses or our introductory Prepare for Success programme to further develop your study skills.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the three parts of a literature review?
A literature review is made up of an introduction, main body and conclusion.
The introduction is where you will present what your chosen area of study is.
Next is the main body which is used to evaluate and analyse your sources, talking about their relevance and contributions to the field.
Lastly is the conclusion which is where you will present your findings and talk about areas for further study.
What makes a good literature review?
When writing a good literature review it is important to make sure you are using credible sources. From these you need to be able to make clear and concise arguments to show you have a strong understanding of the topic.
How long is a literature review?
The length of your literature review depends on the length of the essay, the nature of the subject and the level of study. For an undergraduate dissertation style essay it is recommended to use 8-10 sources.