Writing a Literature Review

These guidelines have been designed as a starting point for students working on the literature review of their theses or doctoral dissertations. They can also be used for writing literature reviews for smaller assignments.

What is a Literature Review?

  • Seeks to describe, summarize, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate information in your field of study
  • Is nearly always a standard chapter of a thesis or dissertation
  • Places your project into the context of established work in the field
  • Identifies the dimensions of current work in your field/provides a comprehensive and up to date review of the topic

Why write a Literature review?

  • To increase your breadth of knowledge in your subject area
  • To assess the current state of research in your field and identify trends
  • To identify seminal works and authors in your area
  • To identify possible gaps in the literature or the research
  • To demonstrate your command and understanding of your field
  • To provide the background to and justification for the research undertaken
  • To give your research a conceptual framework

How do I start?

  • Define your topic but keep in mind that during and after your review of the literature, you will very likely be forced to redefine and revise your original topic and research questions.
  • Become familiar with the resources available at your library:
    • Become familiar with reference material in your field  (encyclopedias, bibliographies, biographies etc.)
    • Learn how to effectively perform a search in a research database or on the Web to retrieve current information.
  • Gather data and organize it
  • Evaluate the information you gather:
    • When possible, read the abstracts before requesting the materials, extensive abstracts may tell you enough about the document to make a decision on its value and relevance.
    • Use critical thinking skills to evaluate an article, a book, or a web site’s biases, objectives, accuracy, and methodology.
    • Understand that you will likely collect a lot more data than you will actually include in the review; concentrate on relevancy over quantity.
  • Look at dissertations written on your topic.


  • Ask your librarian for a Reference by Appointment:
    • Spend time with a reference librarian learning to use a research database, building effective search strategies, request materials and other time savers.
  • Consult with your advisor regularly.
  • Investigate citation software such as End Note
    • Citation management software helps you keep track of what you read; it formats it in the citation format of your choice (APA, MLA etc)
  • Be organized, set deadlines and try to meet them.
  • Give yourself time to read the material; do not request everything at once
  • Buy the latest style manual used by your department (APA, MLA etc).
  • Understand that you will very likely have to redefine your topic and revise your research questions along the way.
  • Use checklists to consistently assess strengths and weaknesses of the information collected. (Such checklist or guidelines can be found in several of the books in the bibliography below)
  • Find out if your program offers dissertation workshops.

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