Academic Writing: writing a literature review

A stack of books

Not long ago I was asked to offer input on how to write a literature review for a long paper or thesis in the Humanities. There are many websites that treat this subject matter, but I will try to compile the most important information here. Literature reviews are essential parts of academic writing in most disciplines, and in fact vary little (except perhaps in length or title) across different fields and text genres, so it is not too complex to describe them here.

What is a literature review? Well, it is not a book review, in which a single book is described and recommended for reading. And it is not a critical review, in which one book is more deeply analysed for its contribution to society, academic discourse, etc. Mostly, those two things are stand-alone writings about reading material. A literature review can stand alone as well, but it is more often seen within a longer piece of academic writing, in particular a research proposal, article or a thesis on a particular topic. In a literature review, a scholar describes and discusses published research already done that is relevant to her own research. That is, this text covers the previous research on the subject matter at hand, and not only names and describes it, but also offers a critical analysis of the research and conclusions in those papers. If that is not clear to you, you can find more information on strategies for effective and critical reading here.

This leads us to the answer to the next question, which is why a literature review is included in such a research paper. The literature review helps the writer to establish the larger picture, or discourse, in which he is writing, the current state of the research, and often the gaps which her current research seeks to fill. It shows that she is aware of and perhaps reacting to what others have already said about the matter, what conclusions are helpful (or not), and perhaps what methods have been attempted, proven, rejected, or modified. Since academic discourse is about holding a kind of conversation with other scholars, this is clearly an important part of showing the interactive, conversational part of the research. It is also about showing the foundations on which the current research is established, often background assumptions of which we are largely unaware until we try to explain ourselves to others or realize that different researchers in fact have different theoretical approaches. It becomes clear here just how essential a good literature review is.

So, finally, how do you write a good literature review? First of all, you of course do a good deal of critical reading in your subject area (see additional posts for more on effective and critical reading). As you read, you may categorize or classify your sources based on several points, for example:

  • type of source (primary, secondary, article, monograph, etc.)
  • what they contribute to your specific project:
    • sub-topics as related to your own research
    • standpoint toward your theoretical approach / methodology / potential conclusions
  • perhaps relative authority (or lack of it) in the academic field

Vitally, you choose which works to include based on two criteria: their significance within the field may be the first, but far more important is their relevance to your own research. For example, if you are writing about the linguistic features of German folk tales, you don’t go into detail about Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical interpretations of their importance to young children or discuss the scientific proof for human-caused climate change when your paper is really about how politicians talk about climate change. When you have selected the works you wish to include in your review, you read them closely and take careful notes on their content, their connections, and their conclusions. This, of course, may refine or change your classification of the texts. By now it should be more about how they relate to your own project, i.e. your research question and response to that.

This final classification is essential not only in determining what is included in your literature review in the end, but also in structuring it. As you list, describe and analyze the discourse related to your topic, it is important that you show the sources in relation to one another and to your own ideas. Thus, alphabetical listing is nonsensical. A chronological organization based on publication date may make sense, but it may not. Instead, structure your literature review based on the content and contexts of the sources. And remember that this is an analytic overview, i.e. you are expected to give general, not detailed descriptions, and more importantly your critical opinion of how credible and useful each source is. This table, excerpted from a longer one on critical writing, may help you to determine if you have succeeded in this.

Descriptive vs. CriticalWhat is the balance between
descriptive and critical,
i.e. evaluative or analytic writing?
Is there more critical
writing than description?
Try colored pens or highlighters
to set apart descriptive and
analytical text. Description is
necessary, but should not be
too extensive.
EvaluationHow much information do
you include about the sources
and how do you approach them?
Have the strengths and weaknesses
of each source been identified?
Are the sources all reliable,
relevant and up to date?
Check that you have put
each source in its historical
and disciplinary context, and
make sure that all quotes
and their relevance to your
argument are explained.
AnalysisDo you present other writers'
work straightforwardly, or
do you should how and why their
research is either problematic
or acceptable? Are there reasons
why the conclusions of the writers
you refer to should be treated
with caution?
Look for analytic and
evaluative language in your
writing like quantifiers,
adjectives and adverbs.

In the end, the literature review should lead your reader directly to your own research. It serves to show errors or gaps in what has already been done, but also the foundations on which you are working. Whether you write it at the beginning of your research, or after your empirical work, you should always be careful to spend as much time on it as necessary to paint the larger picture of your topic.