How do I write a Literature Review?

This blog post was co-written by Alison Foster.  Thanks Alison!

How do I write a Literature Review?

The guidelines for writing a literature review are generally the same for most disciplines, but the practice may be different for each professor or subject. Read your assignment instructions, as they may differ from the guidelines below.

What is a Literature Review?

In general, a literature review is an overview of what has been published on a particular topic by credible researchers and scholars. Literature reviews can be stand-alone assignments, the first step of a research project, or a chapter in a thesis or dissertation. They are not the same as annotated bibliographies or systematic reviews (check back for a blog post on how to write a systematic review).

A literature review includes:

  • An overview of your research topic and a clear statement of your research objective (usually a hypothesis or research questions you’re trying to answer)
  • A description of your topic’s main ideas or issues
  • A critical analysis of the resources you find (for example, are certain aspects of your topic controversial or less-supported by researchers in that field of study?)
  • Questions for further research or investigation

How to Prepare your Literature Review

  1. Make sure you clearly understand your topic, and your research objective (a.k.a. what is the scope of your literature review? What publication dates are you going to include?  What is the purpose of your assignment? What are you hoping to prove?)
    • Example: Your topic is “depression in adolescents”.
      • What concepts are you going to review: the role of adolescents’ families on their depression? Genetics? Peer pressure and social influences? Substance abuse? The outcomes of depression?
      • What dates are you going to cover?  The last 5 years? 10?  Do your assignment instructions say?
      • Do you have to provide an argument or thesis?
  2. Conduct your research.
    • Search systematically, or have some sort of plan. My suggestion is to look for big, overarching resources first and then work down (see a librarian if this part is confusing):
      • For arts and social sciences disciplines, start with books or resources that will give an overview on your topic.  For scientific disciplines, including psychology, see if there are systematic reviews or meta-analyses on your topic.  Look first for resources that tell you “what is accepted as fact, or truth, about my topic?”
      • Then read the literature review sections of other books or journal articles: do they align with the other things you’ve read?
      • Finally, look for the more controversial or recent research on your topic (journal articles are often the place to find this type of information).
    • Use a wide variety of resources.  Don’t just rely on journal articles, or just books.  Your prof will give you details on their expectations (e.g. some assignments may require you to include grey literature) but make sure you’re not missing important research by just looking at one type of resource.
    • Search in a wide variety of places.  At least use the Shared Library Catalogue and two subject specific databases.  Follow this up with either a Summon search or a Google Scholar search to see if you missed anything.
    • Ask for help. Researching is often the most time-consuming (but rewarding!) step in this process; check out these blog posts on how to start your research and tips on searching or ask a librarian for assistance in making a research plan.
  3. Evaluate the resources that you have found; only include materials that offer significant, credible information on your topic. Again, for most literature reviews you shouldn’t talk about every resource you’ve found, but only the main findings or major conclusions about your topic. (See more information on evaluating resources for credibility in this blog post).
  4. Analyze your research. Look for key points about your topic, or common themes, so that you can give a complete account of what is and what is not known about your topic. In addition, you might point out areas of controversy in the literature.  If your literature review is supposed to have an argument, spend time reading for evidence to support this argument.
  5. Prepare to write your literature review. Make sure to be clear on your assignment instructions, including whether you’re supposed to argue or prove something (which is usually the case). There are a few ways you can organize your literature review:
    • Chronologically, or by historical development
    • Order of importance
    • By theme
    • By methodology
    • Different perspectives, or viewpoints on a controversial issue

Tips on writing your Literature Review

  • A literature review is meant to be a discussion of the themes and trends associated with your research objective, not a list of the resources that you have reviewed. Make sure that you are organizing your review in a way that is offering a synthesis of the resources you chose, rather than a list of the resources.
  • Based on your research, you may include a few questions for further investigation on your research area. For example, a literature review of a recent discovery in clinical nutrition may include information on past research, current developments and controversies, and the implications of these studies on future research of this topic.
  • Make sure that you are being unbiased in your research and, subsequently, in your literature review. Presenting only one side of an issue can weaken an otherwise informative literature review. You may have to ask yourself, “is there another side to this issue?” and “does my literature review present both sides of my research objective in an objective, unbiased manner?”
  • The research step can often be the most time-consuming but rewarding aspect of this process! If it seems like the resources available on your topic are not credible or you are having trouble finding resources, talk to your professor or a librarian.

Where to get extra help

Sample Literature Reviews