How to Write a Literature Review

Updated: Nov 2, 2016

Literature reviews often constitute an essential chapter of an academic essay or dissertation, or may be a review of writings on a subject (like a scholarly article).

Literature Review Writing

A literature review (not to be confused with a book review, a form of literary criticism that analyzes a published work’s content, style, and merit) is an overview of literature published on a certain subject. They examine books, scholarly articles, and other sources, like dissertations, on a particular issue, theory, or area of research, to provide a summary, description and critical evaluation of each work.

Literature reviews often constitute an essential chapter of an academic essay or dissertation or may be a review of writings on a subject (like a scholarly article). They are to examine a published work, or series of works, under the context of its contribution to the understanding of a subject – and identify the relationships among these works; also, they offer new ways to interpret a subject and place the student’s work in the context of existing literature.

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Components of a Literature Review

A synopsis of the subject, issue or theory being considered, and the objectives of the student
 A compilation of works used in the review – those supporting a particular position, and those against, and those offering an entirely different approach
• A detailed statement comparing and contrasting the various works being examined
• Drawn conclusions as to which works provide a better argument or understanding of the subject; and which are most convincing and offer the best understanding and development of the area of research


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Four Stages of a Literature Review

Stage 1. Define the topic, or subject being examined, and incorporate the aforementioned components. 

Stage 2. Conduct a search of works published on the topic and further, explore said topic. These works can be found in library catalogs and databases, bibliographies, even a Work Cited, from published academic essays and articles.

Stage 3. Read and evaluate these sources, while keeping in mind how they expand one’s knowledge and understanding of the subject. In assessing the benefit, relevance, and credibility of each work, it’s important the student to consider: 

• The author’s credentials, and if their arguments are evidenced by other sources – primary sources, case studies, narratives, statistics, and recent scientific findings; 

• The objectivity of the published work. The student-writer must ask themselves if the author’s perspective seems jaded or one-sided, if other data disputes their argument, or if crucial, pertinent information has been ignored or misinterpreted in the author’s work;

• The persuasiveness of the author’s points, and which are the most or the least convincing in nature;

• The value of the author’s arguments and their drawn conclusions. It is crucial that the student asks if a particular work truly, significantly contributes to their understanding of the subject. 

Stage 4. Analyze and interpret each work in the context that they provide an ideal understanding of the subject, and provide a discussion of these findings as well as the conclusions drawn from the literature. 

To read examples of a thorough, academic literature review, conduct a keyword search in various academic databases – and even in some search engines that may find scholarly articles that include literature reviews. They are often published as scholarly articles, books, as well as introductions to dissertations. 

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