Literature Reviews - how to write them
Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:
There are several University web pages with advice on 'How to write Literature Reviews', such as those at Leeds University ([]) and the University of California at Santa Cruz ([]). You may like to look at these: all writers are individuals, and will benefit differently from different forms of advice. You may find the on-line advice, your Supervisor, or others in your class as helpful as this guide, or more so. But here are my tips.
The expected form, content and style of a Literature Review will vary from Department to Department, according to the demands of the subject and the tastes of the teaching staff. You should be aware of any requirements or advice in the Student Handbook of the relevant Department, or similar sources. All good writers keep their audience in mind, and students seeking good marks are ill-advised to irritate their readers. So do what your teacher(s) want you to do. This will include being relevant and appropriate - good advice for all kinds of writing; but also in matters of judgement and experience. No clear rules can be given.
What follows, then, is general advice that may help you; but if it conflicts with what is usual in your subject, then ignore it.
The general tasks common to most Literature Reviews are as follows.
- Collect and master the knowledge of the Literature in your subject field. You do not need to have read everything; but you should know about at least the broad outlines of what is available to be read, and have some idea about its status. Use Reading Lists; handouts and lecture notes; recommendations; Bibliographies in your text-books; library catalogues (don't forget to look in the subject classifications); etc. In some subject areas, there are even indices of citations that tell you how often a given article has been quoted by other texts. (These tell you how popular, influential or seminal a particular text has been. They do not tell you how good it is.)
- (Careful use of the Abstracts found at the beginning of many Journal articles, and elsewhere, may save you a lot of reading - now you may begin to see the point of the Abstract.)
- Give an account of your reading. Be honest; if you have not read something, do not say that you have. You might say something like, "This text is clearly important - it has citations in almost everything that has been published since. One day I hope to read it." Give some sort of view of what the text is like: "This book is said to contain a masterly narrative of the War of 1812", or "This article summarises a Marxist view of post-war economic development". Be aware that for some subjects the date of the material is more important than for others. A text in Science dated 1600 is probably not much use; but it would be an odd paper on Shakespeare that did not include references to texts more than 400 years old.
- Classify the material you have amassed. Here you may group different writers together, perhaps by the schools they belong to, or the periods in which they were writing. "The following writers on Western painting share a perspective formed before the First World War", or "The Darwinists (X, Y and Z) were followed by the Neo-Darwinists A, B and C." In the Social Sciences, you may group different material by virtue of the fact that different studies seek to investigate similar phenomena in different regions. (Sometimes you may want to amalgamate the data or findings later on in your paper.)
- Classification and giving an account of your material may well lead to the next steps: summarise the appropriate items (at an appropriate length), and synthesise appropriate groups of material. (A synthesis may be understood as something like a summary of a group of materials, bringing out their common features: "The Chicago School of economists share the view of inflation that ..." )
- Evaluate the literature. "Professor X's introduction is of immense value in clarifying the different schools of thought in this subject; Professor Y's, though fascinating, is of little direct relevance to the current project, though presenting an alternative way forward; but Professor Z's, much attacked in the press (e.g. Nature, [(date) ... vol., p. no], seems positively misleading [reasons], and will not be referred to again." (The last of these may be too strong an expression of opinion for most undergraduates.)