Literature reviews

Writing a Literature Review

This Brief Guide gives an overview of what a literature review is, what purposes it may serve and offers you advice on how to approach writing one yourself. In this context, literature means the books and writings published on a particular subject.

1 - What is a literature review?

A literature review can be:

  • An exploration of a body of knowledge (research and theory) to be found in relevant literature (that means books, academic journals and other significant writing) in your topic area. See also Research Skills section
  • An investigation that enables you to analyse, discuss and evaluate the ideas, issues, arguments, discourses, and findings in the writing
  • An informed presentation of the current knowledge in a particular area
  • It is a critical look at what has been written on a topic by scholars and researchers (see also Study Hub's Critical Thinking sections)
  • It is NOT just a summary of other people's work
  • It is NOT a review of individual texts in sequence

2 - What is an annotated bibliography?

You might be asked to compile an annotated bibliography (especially if you are doing a dissertation proposal). You will need to identify what you think will be your most important sources of information (books, journal articles, archives etc) for the research you are undertaking. Compile them as a reference list (using your course's preferred style of referencing) and then add notes below each entry to explain why you have chosen it and how you will use it in your research and writing. You will be given guidance on the information required and, usually, a word count or minimum number of sources. The annotated bibliography is a useful staging point between your search for sources and your final written up literature review.

3 - Why would I do a literature review?

A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or it may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. It can:

  • Show that you have engaged with a range of knowledge (theories and concepts) appropriate to your topic
  • Develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of your area of enquiry
  • Provide historical contextualisation to your issue/problem
  • Analyse (and evaluate) contemporary debates, issues, and questions in a particular field

For dissertations/research projects in particular, a literature review serves to:

  • Underpin and contextualise your research 
  • Where possible, to show gaps in knowledge that your research will address
  • Enable you to analyse and interpret the data you collect
  • Provide an indication of related research in your field and show how your research extends or contests this

4 - What is the process of writing a literature review?

Development of the literature review requires the following steps:

  1. Clarifying the task - which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? What are you seeking to learn, highlight or discuss?
  2. Literature search - finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. See also Research Skills.
  3. Data evaluation and notemaking - deciding which texts make a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic and why; recording this in your notes. See also Reading and note-making.
  4. Analysis and interpretation - explore the findings and conclusions of the texts in relation to each other, highlighting agreement and conflict, evaluating similarities and divergences. What categories exist that might help you sort your notes? What patterns emerge in the literature? What is not being said in the literature? Make notes! see also Critical Thinking.
  5. Write a first draft
  6. Edit and re-draft your work until you are fully happy with it
  7. Check that your references are complete, that there are no spelling or grammatical errors, that the formatting is in keeping with your module requirements and that your writing flows. See also Reviewing your writing.


Tips: Defining your topic

  • Narrow down what you want to research - a narrower topic allows you to focus more deeply, rather than skimming the surface
  • Divide your topic into key themes to make it easier to look up information
  • Use your reading list to identify key authors or theories that relate to the themes and make them your starting point
  • Do your key authors suggest any further reading? If so, track it down
  • Use the library's specialist search engines to locate more - ask a librarian if you are not sure how these work
  • Organise your literature: store any paper copies in folders and files, grouped into themes
  • Read all the stuff and make notes - make decisions as to whether you want to follow up more leads
  • Fit the literature into the key themes you have identified – if any don’t fit, or they don’t see important enough to include, put them to one side

5- What does the structure of a literature review look like?

While there is no one way to present your review, they all have a basic structure that consists of three main sections:

An introductory section which sets the context for the reader. This consists of an overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review

The main body where you develop your argument and discuss the literature. You may find it useful to divide this up into categories highlighted by your notes (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely) as this is the part where you present your analysis and interpretation

A conclusion. A summing up of the info discussed related to the aims of the literature review