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A Literature Review is an overview of what others have written about a specified topic.  Obviously, you cannot read everything that has been written about a subject but your Literature Review should show that you have a good grasp of the main issues.


Your source material may include books; articles from journals, newspapers or reputable magazines; websites, etc.


Although you are reporting what others have written, your literature review is not simply a lot of "separate chunks" of "stuff you have read".  You should aim to compose your ideas into a flowing argument or explanation.  To this end, you might:

  • compare or contrast the different viewpoints you have encountered;

  • group together those authors who broadly agree with each other;

  • note the disagreements that exist between authors;

  • trace the development or refinement of a theory;

  • identify areas that have not been considered or researched;

  • raise questions;

  • add your own opinions (suitably backed up by argument or experience).




It goes without saying that you will need to read literature that is relevant to the subject being reviewed.  Deciding what to read can be difficult.  There may be a number of recognised proponents of a particular theory or practice.  If so, then their publications (relevant to the subject) can form a starting point.


An examination of bibliographies can also help to identify the main works on a topic; the more they are cited the more likely they are to be important.


A search of the Internet can often turn up useful synopses of main theories (as well as being a useful way of bringing very recent ideas to light).  Bear in mind that you need to form a judgement about the reliability of anything you encounter on the worldwide web.


Be selective about what you read.  The quantity is not important (though you will want a cross section of viewpoints) but the quality IS.  Check the abstract (if there is one) to see if what you have found is really relevant.  Check out chapter headings and abstracts too.  There is no point reading an entire book if only a few of the chapters are relevant to your line of enquiry.  (This goes against the grain of certain learning styles but you will have to discipline yourself.)


It can be useful if you find references to other authors in what you are reading but do check that you are sticking to your main line of enquiry and not veering off at a tangent.


Make notes! (Old Chinese proverb - "An ounce of notes is worth a cartload of recollection")  It is not necessary - nor is it a good idea - to copy out whole sections of what you are reading.  Try to summarise in your own words.  If something is summarised so succinctly by an author that you cannot reduce it any further, consider using it as a quotation.


You may decide to use Mindmapping to help with your note-taking.  It is an excellent way of recording an overview of the major arguments - though you may need to supplement it with additional notes linked into your main Mindmap.  (See link below.)


Keep references!  Make a note of where you found out each piece of information (Author, book title, publisher, place and date of publication - as required by Harvard referencing conventions - see link below.)  It is useful to have this information on each section of your notes (especially if you are going to chop them up - see later suggestion) so it is a good idea to establish a simple cross-referencing system (eg: putting author & date & page no. in the margin of each page of notes.) 





There is more than one way to set about writing a Literature Review but the following suggestions may prove helpful.


Assuming you have made lots of notes - summarise each "chunk" of notes in a few key words or a short key phrase.  You could write these keywords in coloured pen in the margin.  Keywords might be as simple as "FOR", "AGAINST", "MAIN BENEFITS", "DRAWBACKS", "BEGINNINGS", "RECENT THINKING" - but will be more useful if they briefly summarise the main idea of that particular "chunk" of notes (Eg: "BOUD & WALKER CRITICISE REFLECTION ON DEMAND")  If you have written each "chunk" of notes onto separate sheets of paper - or onto post-it notes - you can now set about grouping these into themes - and then arranging the themes into a logical sequence that will form the structure for your Literature Review.


If you have made your notes in the form of a Mindmap, the structure of the diagram will suggest the structure for your Review.  You should easily be able to see which topic areas (the branches of your map) are more populated with ideas and comments - and this helps you make judgements about how to organise the sections of your Literature Review.





This will depend very much on what you are reading about.


Your structure might be "modular" - examining the different ways in which a particular practice or theory is applied in different contexts or locations.  (This might result in an investigation of similarities and differences in practice.)


Your structure might be "sequential" - following the way in which a particular theory or practice has developed, been refined or modified over a period of time.


Your structure might be "hierarchical" - showing the way in which a particular theory or practice has branched - perhaps over a period of time, or as the theory has been disseminated.


Your structure might be more "confrontational" - marshalling arguments "for" and "against" a particular theory or viewpoint. You might "see-saw" between these.


Your structure might be a combination of several of these approaches.





If you are producing a Literature Review for assessment, you need to show that you have done more than merely "read and summarise".  You need to show that you are capable of making critical judgements about what you have read.  You need to show that you can be analytical.  And, of course, you need to show that you can summarise your findings clearly and systematically.


You will not need reminding of the need to accurately reference your work.




For more information about Mindmapping, click here.


You may find the following websites useful:


How to write a Literature Review - Birmingham City University


The Literature Review - Powerpoint presentation - University of Huddersfield


Doing a Literature Review - Study Skills leaflet - Loughborough University


Carrying out a Literature Review - Palgrave (publishers)