Writing a literature review

In Planning a literature review Charlotte Mathieson explained the purpose and scope of a literature review. Now, all you need to do is write one! As this is easier said than done, here Charlotte guides you through writing your review of literature, from first draft through to later revisions.

Writing the literature review: first steps

Compiling and writing the literature review can seem like a daunting task as you begin to navigate through a seemingly endless reading list. With some planning and organisation you will find it a crucial part of the research process.

Your supervisor should advise you when to start working on the literature review. Typically this will be in the first year of your research project, as the process of writing the literature review helps you to learn more about your field and better understand the purpose and value of your project.

What information do you need and how should you organise it?

In order to fulfill the objectives of the literature review your reading needs to remain focused on your project. It’s easy to get distracted and follow the many sub-paths that reading opens up, but you do not have space in the literature review to incorporate too much extra material. Keep coming back to the key questions: what information do I need and why?

You can also focus your reading around the following points:

  • Define what you’re reading for: give yourself key terms relating to theories, methodologies, background context, and other central aspects of your research project.
  • Limitations: you will need to define the scope of your literature review, e.g. by date of publication.
  • Relevance: keep coming back to your research project and think about how and why each material is useful (or not) for your project. If it’s just “very interesting” rather than “highly relevant” ask yourself if this really needs to be incorporated in your literature review.

Note taking

An effective note taking strategy is important for ensuring that you collect all the material that you need to write your literature review. Everyone develops their own style and system of writing and organising notes, but for the purposes of the literature review you need to pay particular attention to the following points:

  • What is in the material you’re reading: writing down what the key arguments are, the reasoning given, and any key examples or quotes that you might want to refer to later
  • Your critical evaluation of the material: identifying strengths and weaknesses in the approaches and arguments, linking this to other reading you have done, and formulating opinions of your own in response to the reading
  • The relevance to your project, and any ideas that it sparks for your own research development (for example, directions you could take)

(Re)writing the Literature Review

The most important step in writing the literature review is re-writing. In the early stages of research you will still be familiarizing yourself with your research topic and getting to grips with large amounts of new material. The first draft(s) are a useful step in enabling you to assimilate and process new information; but writing at this stage can often lack command over the material, and your own voice can become lost under a wealth of critical opinions.

As you progress throughout your research you will become more adept at being able to critically synthesize information, you will have a clearer sense of your arguments and where your research fits into other debates. For this reason you will need to re-write the literature review, with particular attention to:

  • The framing arguments and questions of your research project in general, and the purpose of the literature review in relation to this.
  • Charting the progression and development of your critical thinking: your literature review needs to be written from your perspective at the end of your research project, but should show some development in how your project came about and progressed.
  • Incorporating new material that you’ve read: this can be a large task at the end of your project, but good notes and an annotated bibliography will make this task easier.

Whilst you’ll need to do this at the end of your PhD, you might also want to periodically re-visit your literature review throughout your research to consider how your critical perspective is developing.

University of Toronto writing pages

The Royal Literary Fund gives a suggested structure for the literature review

Image: Andrew Dunn, Wikicommons| Nomadic Lass/Creative Commons

13 thoughts on “Writing a literature review

  1. Terrific writing on random topics. Im currently trying to
    accomplish something similar to what you have here except for on
    a totally different topic. Thank you for the motivation to
    write better content.

  2. I had developed to leave a comment, man do I’ve a hard time writing
    a blog. Im seeking to kick start one on my website and I must say
    its challenging at all. I do admire people like yourself who are
    able to reveal anything easily. Keep up the good work!

  3. am in my first year of my PhD programme, and am making good use of this information. Was scared where to begin from!! Thanks.

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