How to write your literature review

What is a literature review?

when you've finished this page you will be able to...


Not relishing the prospect of writing a literature review? Thinking it'll be hard work and difficult? You're right, it will be - but don't be let this put you off. Reviewing the literature is worth the effort: it will give you a fascinating, in-depth insight into your topic (we're assuming you're interested in your topic!), and, even better, a great literature review will vastly improve your chances of getting a great mark. Take a look at some of the criteria for a great dissertation or report:

Criteria for an excellent dissertation or report - according to a university marking scheme - include:

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Wondering what 'literature' you should be reviewing? In this context, literature is published work in your area of interest; this could be studies published in journals, reports, conference proceedings or sources on the Internet.

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The length of your literature review will depend on why you're writing it: journal articles often include literature reviews of a few hundred words; whereas a thesis can include a review that is many chapters long. Check the details of your assignment to see how long your literature review should be.

So why do you need to review the literature? Is it for a stand-alone assignment, or will it form part of an introduction to a longer piece of work - perhaps a dissertation or a project? Whatever your situation, the aim of your literature review will remain the same. So why do you think you need to review the literature? Spend a few moments pondering this question, and then take a look at the reasons for writing a literature review in the list below. By thinking about why you need to review the literature, you'll start to see what should be aiming to achieve in your review. Literature reviews are written to...

We re-visit these reason for writing a literature review at the end of the course; they're included in a checklist to help you make sure your review ticks all the right boxes.

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In a nutshell, you need to show your readers (probably a tutor or examiner) that you've located, read, understood and thought critically about the important published work on your topic.

To know what your literature review should achieve, it's really important to understand why a literature review is written. In the next activity we'll think some more about what a literature review should do - and shouldn't do.

Activity: What should a literature review do - and not do? - 10 minutes

1. Read the list of statements in the table below about what a literature review should and should not do.

2. For each statement, decide whether this is something a literature review should do, or should not do.

3. Place a tick next to the 'should do' statements, and place a cross next to the 'shouldn't do' statements.

4. When you're happy with your choices, take a look at our choices and our explanations for why we made these choices (you'll find them in the box below).

A literature review should/should not...


only include well-conducted, robust and unbiased research
simply list the important literature  
include work disagreeing with the research hypothesis  
provide a comprehensive review of all the literature on your topic  
identify areas for future research  
only include research published in journals  
assume that all published research is of a high standard  
show that you are aware of the important issues in your research area  
provide an exhaustive analysis of every aspect of each piece of research  
highlight the best and most influential research  
include every paper or resource you read, even if not strictly relevant  
discuss work that is not relevant, but is interesting  
highlight gaps in the existing research  
be a critical discussion of other work  
summarise or paraphrase important parts of the literature  
How did you do?

When you're happy with your choices, click here for the answers.

Recommended Further Reading

Now that you have an idea of what a literature review should and should not do, you know what to aim for in your own review. In the next section, we look at how you can keep track of the literature you'll be reading for your review.

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