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What is the purpose of a Literature Review? For a graduate student the purpose of academic writing changes from what it was as an undergraduate. Where undergraduates often write to demonstrate a mastery of existing knowledge, graduate students are considered scholars and move toward creating new knowledge. Writing in graduate school, then, focuses on communicating that new knowledge to others in their field. In order to communicate this knowledge to other scholars, however, it also necessary to explain how that knowledge engages ongoing scholarly conversations in the field.

A literature review is a common genre for many types of writing you’ll have to do as a graduate student and scholar. Not only do dissertations contain literature reviews, but most articles and grant proposals have some form of literature review included in them. The reason the literature review is so prevalent in scholarly writing is that it functions as an argument about how your project fits in the ongoing scholarly conversation in your field and justifies your project.

A successful literature review does more than list the research that has preceded your work. A literature review is not simply a summary of research. Your literature review must not only demonstrate that you understand important conversations and debates surrounding your project and your position in regard to the conversations, but it must also create an argument as to why your work is relevant to your field of study. In order to create such an argument you must evaluate the relevant research, describing its strengths and weaknesses in relation to your project. You must then explain how your project will build on the work of other researchers, and fill the scholarly gaps left by other researchers. What is typically included in a Literature Review and how do I start?

To show how your project joins an existing scholarly conversation you need to provide readers with the necessary background to understand your research project and persuade them that your intervention in the scholarly conversation is necessary. The first step is to evaluate and analyze the scholarship that is key to understanding your work. The scholarship you evaluate may include previous research on similar topics, theoretical concepts and perspectives, or methodological approaches. Evaluating existing research means more than just summarizing the scholar’s main point. You will also want to assess the strengths and limits of the writer’s project and approach. Questions to consider as you read include: What problems or issues is the writer exploring? What position does the writer take? How is the writer intervening in an ongoing conversation? Where does the writer leave the issue?

Once you have evaluated the research of others, you need to consider how to integrate ideas from other scholars with your ideas and research project. You will also need to show your readers which research is relevant to understanding your project and explain how you position your work in relationship to what has come before your project. In order to do this, it may be helpful to think about the nature of your research project. Not all research has the same purpose. For example, your research project may focus on extending existing research by applying it in a new context. Or you may be questioning the findings of existing research, or you may be pulling together two or more previously unconnected threads of research. Or your project may be bringing a new theoretical lens or interpretation to existing questions. The focus of your research project will determine the kind of material you need to include in your literature review. What are some approaches for organizing a Literature Review? In the first part of a literature review you typically establish several things. You should define or identify your project and briefly point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic – conflicts, gaps in research, foundational research or theory, etc. You should also establish your position – or argument - for the project and the organization of the review.

In the body of the literature review, consider organizing the research and theory according a particular approach. For example, you could discuss the research chronologically. Or you could organize the research thematically, around key ideas or terms or theoretical approaches. Your literature review may include definitions of key terms and the sources from which they are drawn, descriptions of relevant debates in the field, or a description of the most current thinking on your topic.

You will also want to provide clear transitions and strong organizing sentences at the start of sections or paragraphs. You may find it helpful to divide the body of the review up into individual sections with individual subheadings. As you summarize and evaluate studies or articles keep in mind that each article should not necessarily get the same amount of attention. Some scholarship will be more central to your project and will therefore have to be discussed at more length. There also may be some scholarship that you choose not to include, so you might need to explain those decisions. At every turn, you want to keep in mind how you are making the case for how your research will advance the ongoing scholarly conversation. What can the Writing Center do to help? It can sometimes be difficult, after reading pages and pages of research in your field, to step back from the work and decide how best to approach your literature review. Even before you begin to write you may find a consultation in the Writing Center will help you plan out your literature review. Consultants at the Writing Center are experienced in working with scholars to help them reflect on and organize their work in a literature review so it creates the argument for your project. Make an appointment to work with us on your focus and organization even before you begin to write. We are also able to help you by reading and responding to your drafts or to help with issues of documentation. We can help you understand the genre conventions of the literature review, work through revisions, and help you learn how to edit your own work.  We recommend that you come in early to give yourself enough time to work through any problems that may come up as you write.

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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes .

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, frequently asked questions, introduction.

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

Cite this Scribbr article

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McCombes, S. (2023, January 02). How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/

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Postgraduate study skills

Conducting a literature review.

You may be expected to gather evidence by making a review of the current literature, perhaps as a distinct section in an assignment or as a chapter of a dissertation. Or it may be part of your preparatory work for a project proposal.

A literature review usually takes the form of a critical discussion that shows insight into the theories being discussed in publications with a clear link to the purpose of your question or research.

The structure of the literature review depends on the aims and purpose of your work. Generally, you should group together your work in key themes, with each one explicitly linked to your research topic.

Beginning a literature review can be a bit overwhelming. The best place to start is with your textbooks and the key academics referred to within them. After you've identified the key relevant authors you can read more from them (books, articles etc.). This will then lead you on further, to other academics and theories.

You can use the  OU's online library  to source material that is available online. It has links to journals, articles, e-books and more.

Here are some key steps in conducting a literature review.

You now need to engage critically with the texts. Think about whether you agree with what's being said. Examine the methodology used: divide the articles into qualitative or quantitative categories, evaluate conclusions made based on the method used and evidence presented.

Once you start to collate your literature review, make sure to reference your sources correctly as you use them. Keep full details of the title of the paper or book chapter, the authors, the page numbers, the journal or book it was published in and year of publication, as it can be hard to track down these details later.

It is important that you keep up with your subject; people will be writing about it all the time, with new theories and literature produced. This means you should look over literature at other points too: certainly mid-way through a research project and again at the end.

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MSc In Management Research Guide

Conducting & Writing Literature Reviews

Literature reviews: online guides, writing a literature review section - video tutorial, writing a literature review paper - video tutorial, literature reviews: an overview (video tutorial, 9m 38s).

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Systematic Approaches

how to write a literature review masters level

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Open Access

The following videos from San Jose State University's King Library provide an in depth introduction to writing literature reviews. They distinguish between writing a literature review section (of a paper, or thesis), and writing a literature review paper (a standalone paper which synthesizes the literature on your topic).

This video tutorial, from North Carolina State University Libraries, is targeted specifically at graduate students, and explains how literature reviews fit in to the overall research process.

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Site search, sign in access, breadcrumbs, write a literature review: for researchers.

Literature reviewing at graduate level, or for any research, involves deciding on the type of review you need to do, searching the appropriate literature, and finding the right resources. You will find it helpful to read from the beginning of the page if you are new to literature reviewing.

Undergraduate students may find the page useful, but there is also a Write a Literature Review: for Undergraduates .

See also Write a Research Proposal .

Literature Reviews

The purpose of a literature review is to find out what is already known about your topic.

A literature review is the basis of a graduate essay, Dissertation, Masters or PhD thesis. The purpose of a literature review is to find out what is already known about your topic. It surveys and synthesizes scholarly articles, and other relevant sources on a topic of interest. It demonstrates your understanding of the literature.

Once you have read and critically reflected upon the relevant literature, you should be able to identify major themes as well as compare and contrast the various perspectives. If your literature review is part of a wider research project, you should aim to identify a "gap" in the literature and situate your research within it, demonstrating the value your research would bring to the field.

Booth et al. emphasize that literature reviews are used not just in theses and dissertations but in journals, book chapters, and in policy development/policy making. They are also included in reports resulting from a funded research project or other commissioned research or consultancy (Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D. (2016). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, p. 12). Call no.: LB2369.B66 2016

The stages of a literature review are to:

At postgraduate/thesis level you will normally do either a narrative or systematic literature review, depending on your topic.

Scoping Reviews

You may be asked to do a scoping review

You may be asked to do a scoping review .

Booth et al. say that a scoping review “Is characterised as a broad-brush approach to finding the most notable studies in the field, with minimal attempts to evaluate them for quality, a rudimentary attempts at synthesis (perhaps through listing, tabulation or mapping), and an analysis that caricatures the quantity and distribution of the literature” (p. 23). They define a scoping review as "A type of review that has as its primary objective the identification of the size and quality of research in a topic area in order to inform the subsequent conduct of a review" (Booth et al. (2016). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review, . p. 314.)

What is a Scoping Review?

See Finding Resources for your Literature Review .

Narrative (Traditional/Scholarly) Literature Reviews

A narrative review provides a synthesis or description of the literature review without using quantitative methods

A narrative review provides a synthesis or description of the literature review without using quantitative methods. Often the purpose of the review involves the evaluation of some set of investigations and involves theoretical statements and casts a wide range of topics and investigations. ( Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods ).

The Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods states that the strengths of a narrative review are: Unlike quantitative reviews, which have very narrowly defined parameters and precise inclusion and exclusion rules, a narrative review has more flexibility. The narrative review provides more potential for individual insight and opportunities for speculation than most quantitative review approaches. ( From Narrative Literature Review (Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods)).

Narrative Literature Review ( Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods ) describes the narrative review in much more detail and Literature Review: Traditional or Narrative Literature Reviews (Charles Sturt University) describes four different types of narrative review.

See the section Scholastic (traditional) Reviews in Chris Hart's Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination , pp. 95-99.

How-to Guides

This guide describes how to plan, conduct, organize, and present a systematic review of quantitative (meta-analysis) or qualitative (narrative review, meta-synthesis) information

Hints & Examples

Integrative Reviews

Integrative reviews are widely used in nursing

An integrative literature review (sometimes called an IR or a Systematic Integrative Review) is a “method that summarizes past empirical or theoretical literature to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a particular phenomenon or healthcare problem” (Broome 1993, as cited in Whittemore & Knafl, 2005, p. 546)

In the same way as a systematic literature view does, the write up of the integrative review literature search needs to explicitly state the search terms and databases used, as well as the criteria used for including and excluding sources.  The University of Waikato’s Library discovery layer software known as Library Search is great for getting a sense of the literature, but, as it is a search engine, not an individual database, when conducting the definitive searches, you need to go to individual databases.

Whittemore, R., & Knafl, K.  (2005). The integrative review: updated methodology. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 52(5), 546–553.   https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.waikato.ac.nz/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2005.03621.x

An example of an integrative review in a peer reviewed journal:

Pajakoski, E., Rannikko, S., Leino-Kilpi, H., & Numminen, O. (2021). Moral courage in nursing - An integrative literature review. Nursing & Health Sciences .   https://doi-org.ezproxy.waikato.ac.nz/10.1111/nhs.12805

This ebook is available through the library and shows how to conduct an integrative review:

Toronto, C. E., & Remington, R. (Eds.). (2020). A step-by-step guide to conducting an integrative review. Springer Nature. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-37504-1

Systematic (Interventional/Evidence-based Practice) Literature Reviews

Not simply a literature review conducted in a systematic manner, a systematic literature review is tightly structured and focuses on a topic with strict research parameters.

A systematic review is a tightly structured literature review that focuses on a topic with strict research parameters. The methodology used to collect research has to be consistent in order to reduce misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the data. See Systematic Reviews: What is a systematic review?

It is worth reading Chris Hart's thoughts on interventionist (systematic) reviews in Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination p. 99-105, before you start your review.

Further recommended readings include:

Systematic Reviews

Synthesising evidence: Systematic Reviews, Meta-analysis and Preference analysis

Contains methodological guidance for the preparation and maintenance of Cochrane intervention reviews. Many of the principles and methods described here are appropriate for systematic reviews applied to other types of research and to systematic reviews of interventions undertaken by others.

First Steps

What is PRISMA?

PRISMA is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. PRISMA focuses on the reporting of reviews evaluating randomized trials, but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews of other types of research, particularly evaluations of interventions. See the PRISMA flow diagram http://www.prisma-statement.org and the *PRISMA checklist (see Booth et al. Systematic approaches to a successful literature review, p. 124)

What is Meta-analysis?

Meta-analysis uses statistical methods to combine the results of a systematic literature review. It is considered original work. Booth et al. define meta-analysis as "the process of combining statistically quantitative studies that have measured the same effect using similar methods and a common outcome measure" . (Booth et al, Systematic approaches to a successful literature review, p. 309).

Ask your supervisors about the best software or see this web page 13 best free meta-analysis software to use or check examples of theses or articles using meta-analysis to see which software would be best for you.

Clarification of terminology

The term “Systematic Literature Review” is a specific type of review which involves, among other things, designing a specific search strategy, and then conducting it in one or several databases (not Library Search), applying specified inclusion and exclusion criteria to the items found, and reporting on it. If you have been advised to conduct a systematic review it would pay to clarify this, as it may be that you just need to perform a literature search in a systematic manner, rather than a full Systematic Literature Review.

Systematic vs. Scoping vs. Integrative Review

This guide briefly compares each type of review and so you can determine which type of review is best for your needs: https://guides.library.duq.edu/c.php?g=1055475&p=7725920

Dissertations, Theses and Essays

For a masters degree, you will include a dissertation equivalent to two papers, or a thesis equivalent to three papers, or a thesis equivalent to four papers

For a masters degree, you will include a dissertation equivalent to two papers, or a thesis equivalent to three papers, or a thesis equivalent to four papers.

Remember your Academic Liaison Librarian can help you do the best search on the best Library databases for your topic

Level 5 Dissertations

The literature review often appears near the start of your dissertation, and is a key part of your overall dissertation structure. It is a summary of the current writings in the field you are researching and into which your dissertation will eventually fit (Oxbridge Essays).

For tips and guidance on writing your literature review, the following resources are recommended by the Library to help you get started.

For a range of print books on dissertation writing, e.g. Your undergraduate dissertation: the essential guide for success

If you feel you need extra guidance, this is a great chapter on Doing your Undergraduate Project .

You can also book a Research Consultation with your Academic Liaison Librarian if you need further assistance.

Masters Theses

In addition to the resources listed in the Level 5 Dissertation section, see:

For a range of print books on thesis writing.

Writing up your research is a crucial stage of any research project. This stage in the Sage Research Methods Project Planner , explains how to write academically, providing tips for writing up reports, dissertations, and theses, and guidance on how to write up different sections of your research paper.

Literature Searches

A literature search is a systematic search of the accredited sources and resources

"A literature search is a systematic search of the accredited sources and resources. It involves identifying paper and electronic sources relevant to your topic and method(s)..." (Hart, C. (2018). Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, p. 3)

Scoping or Indicative Searches

Booth et al. define a Scoping search as "a type of literature search that seeks to determine rapidly and efficiently the scale of a predefined topic in order to inform subsequent review" (Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D.(2016). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review, Los Angeles, CA, Sage, p. 314).

From Booth et al. Systematic approaches to a successful literature review . For both narrative (pp.111 - 114) and complex intervention searches (p. 114 - 115).

In Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination p. 12.

In Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination, pp. 93-106

Which sort of review of the literature is most suitable for your thesis topic - Narrative or Systematic?

Finding Resources for your Literature Review

There are two main approaches to finding literature

A good literature review will contain mostly high-quality, peer reviewed academic material such as journal articles, books and theses.

There are two main approaches to finding literature:

Your Academic Liaison Librarian can help you do the best search on the best Library databases for your topic

Library Search is the key to the Library's resources. Check out our guide to Library Search . Limit to Books/Ebooks.

Although the Databases will mainly provide you with access to journal articles, there are also ebook collections (type ebooks into the search box) and Reference Collections.

Access to records for over 1.2 billion items, including theses, books and articles from all parts of the world. There are links to full-text where this is available.

Te Puna Search provides a view of New Zealand libraries' holdings and the holdings of other libraries around the world.

The Library has a number of searchable Ebook databases, the main collection being Ebook Central . You can search for these using the Databases list on the Library site.

For a list of the most recently recieved books, both online and print, see New books .

Journal Articles

Library Search is the key to the Library's resources. Check out our guide to Library Search . Limit to Journal Articles.

BrowZine is a web and tablet application that allows you to browse, read, and monitor thousands of scholarly journals available from the University of Waikato Library.

Our subject specific databases will be your main source for academic journal articles. They are listed by broad subject area. They allow you to search for recent material quickly.

This page is a guide to finding theses completed at the University of Waikato and other Universities, both New Zealand and worldwide.

Search for full-text versions of all theses completed at the university of Waikato from 2006 onwards.

New Zealand’s most comprehensive selection of research papers and related resources. You can limit your search to theses.

Peer-reviewed and other research from universities, polytechnics, and research organisations throughout New Zealand.

Grey Literature

Grey literature (or gray literature) are materials and research produced by organizations outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels ( Wikipedia ).

" Grey literature stands for manifold document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats that are protected by intellectual property rights, of sufficient quality to be collected and preserved by libraries and institutional repositories, but not controlled by commercial publishers; i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body . (The Twelfth International Conference on Grey Literature, Prague, 2010).

Examples of grey literature in the Health field for instance, includes: conference abstracts, presentations, proceedings; regulatory data; unpublished trial data; government publications; reports (such as white papers, working papers, internal documentation); dissertations/theses; patents; and policies & procedures.

Includes definitions and a list of document types

Government Documents

Which government department deals with your topic? See Govt.nz https://www.govt.nz/ . Another way to get the best out of government publications - go to Government A-Z. Find the Government Department you think will help. Click on the link, and at the next page, choose website from the list under Contact . Then you can use the search box to search for your topic.

Digital Collections

University of Waikato Digital Collections

The Literature Review: A Guide for Postgraduate Students

This guide provides postgraduate students with an overview of the literature review required for most research degrees. It will advise you on the common types of literature reviews across disciplines and will outline how the purpose and structure of each may differ slightly. Various approaches to effective content organisation and writing style are offered, along with some common strategies for effective writing and avoiding some common mistakes. This guide focuses mainly on the required elements of a standalone literature review, but the suggestions and advice apply to literature reviews incorporated into other chapters.

Please see the companion article ‘ The Literature Review: A Guide for Undergraduate Students ’ for an introduction to the basic elements of a literature review. This article focuses on aspects that are particular to postgraduate literature reviews, containing detailed advice and effective strategies for writing a successful literature review. It will address the following topics:

The Purpose of a Literature Review

After developing your research proposal and writing a research statement, your literature review is one of the most important early tasks you will undertake for your postgraduate research degree. Many faculties and departments require postgraduate research students to write an initial literature review as part of their research proposal, which forms part of the candidature confirmation process that occurs six months into the research degree for full-time students (12 months for part-time students).

For example, a postgraduate student in history would normally write a 10,000-word research proposal—including a literature review—in the first six months of their PhD. This would be assessed in order to confirm the ongoing candidature of the student.

The literature review is your opportunity you show your supervisor (and ultimately, your examiners) that you understand the most important debates in your field, can identify the texts and authors most relevant to your particular topic, and can examine and evaluate these debates and texts both critically and in depth. You will be expected to provide a comprehensive, detailed and relevant range of scholarly works in your literature review.

In general, a literature review has a specific and directed purpose: to focus the reader’s attention on the significance and necessity of your research. By identifying a ‘gap’ in the current scholarship, you convince your readers that your own research is vital.

As the author, you will achieve these objectives by displaying your in-depth knowledge and understanding of the relevant scholarship in your field, situating your own research within this wider body of work , while critically analysing the scholarship and highlighting your own arguments in relation to that scholarship.

A well-focused, well-developed and well-researched literature review operates as a linchpin for your thesis, provides the background to your research and demonstrates your proficiency in some requisite academic skills.

The Structure of Your Literature Review

Postgraduate degrees can be made up of a long thesis (Master’s and PhD by research) or a shorter thesis and coursework (Master’s by coursework; although some Australian universities now require PhD students to undertake coursework in the first year of their degree). Some disciplines involve creative work (such as a novel or artwork) and an exegesis (such as a creative writing research or fine arts degree). Others can comprise a series of published works in the form of a ‘thesis by publication’ (most common in the science and medical fields).

The structure of a literature review will thus vary according to the discipline and the type of thesis. Some of the most common discipline-based variations are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Humanities and Social Science Degrees

Many humanities and social science theses will include a standalone literature review chapter after the introduction and before any methodology (or theoretical approaches) chapters. In these theses, the literature review might make up around 15 to 30 per cent of the total thesis length, reflecting its purpose as a supporting chapter.

Here, the literature review chapter will have an introduction, an appropriate number of discussion paragraphs and a conclusion. As with a research essay, the introduction operates as a ‘road map’ to the chapter. The introduction should outline and clarify the argument you are making in your thesis (Australian National University 2017), as readers will then have a context for the discussion and critical analysis paragraphs that follow.

The main discussion section can be divided further with subheadings, and the material organised in several possible ways: chronologically, thematically or from the better- to the lesser-known issues and arguments. The conclusion should provide a summary of the chapter overall, and should re-state your thesis statement, linking this to the gap you have identified in the literature that confirms the necessity of your research.

For some humanities’ disciplines, such as literature or history (Premaratne 2013, 236–54), where primary sources are central, the literature review may be conducted chapter-by-chapter, with each chapter focusing on one theme and set of scholarly secondary sources relevant to the primary source material.

Science and Mathematics Degrees

For some science or mathematics research degrees, the literature review may be part of the introduction. The relevant literature here may be limited in number and scope, and if the research project is experiment-based, rather than theoretically based, a lengthy critical analysis of past research may be unnecessary (beyond establishing its weaknesses or failings and thus the necessity for the current research). The literature review section will normally appear after the paragraphs that outline the study’s research question, main findings and theoretical framework. Other science-based degrees may follow the standalone literature review chapter more common in the social sciences.

Strategies for Writing an Effective Literature Review

A research thesis—whether for a Master’s degree or Doctor of Philosophy—is a long project, and the literature review, usually written early on, will most likely be reviewed and refined over the life of the thesis. This section will detail some useful strategies to ensure you write a successful literature review that meets the expectations of your supervisor and examiners.

Using a Mind Map

Before planning or writing, it can be beneficial to undertake a brainstorm exercise to initiate ideas, especially in relation to the organisation of your literature review. A mind map is a very effective technique that can get your ideas flowing prior to a more formal planning process.

A mind map is best created in landscape orientation. Begin by writing a very brief version of your research topic in the middle of the page and then expanding this with themes and sub-themes, identified by keywords or phrases and linked by associations or oppositions. The University of Adelaide provides an excellent introduction to mind mapping.

Planning is as essential at the chapter level as it is for your thesis overall. If you have begun work on your literature review with a mind map or similar process, you can use the themes or organisational categories that emerged to begin organising your content. Plan your literature review as if it were a research essay with an introduction, main body and conclusion.

Create a detailed outline for each main paragraph or section and list the works you will discuss and analyse, along with keywords to identify important themes, arguments and relevant data. By creating a ‘planning document’ in this way, you can keep track of your ideas and refine the plan as you go.

Maintaining a Current Reference List or Annotated Bibliography

It is vital that you maintain detailed and up-to-date records of all scholarly works that you read in relation to your thesis. You will need to ensure that you remain aware of current and developing research, theoretical debates and data as your degree progresses; and review and update the literature review as you work through your own research and writing.

To do this most effectively and efficiently, you will need to record precisely the bibliographic details of each source you use. Decide on the referencing style you will be using at an early stage (this is often dictated by your department or discipline, or suggested by your supervisor). If you begin to construct your reference list as you write your thesis, ensure that you follow any formatting and stylistic requirements for your chosen referencing style from the start (nothing is more onerous than undertaking this task as you are finishing your research degree).

Insert references (also known as ‘citations’) into the text or footnote section as you write your literature review, and be aware of all instances where you need to use a reference . The literature review chapter or section may appear to be overwhelmed with references, but this is just a reflection of the source-based content and purpose.

The Drawbacks of Referencing Software

We don’t recommend the use of referencing software to help you with your references because using this software almost always leads to errors and inconsistencies. They simply can’t be trusted to produce references that will be complete and accurate, properly following your particular referencing style to the letter.

Further, relying on software to create your references for you usually means that you won’t learn how to reference correctly yourself, which is an absolutely vital skill, especially if you are hoping to continue in academia.

Writing Style

Similar to structural matters, your writing style will depend to some extent on your discipline and the expectations and advice of your supervisors. Humanities- and creative arts–based disciplines may be more open to a wider variety of authorial voices. Even if this is so, it remains preferable to establish an academic voice that is credible, engaging and clear.

Simple stylistic strategies such as using the active—instead of the passive—voice, providing variety in sentence structure and length and preferring (where appropriate) simple language over convoluted or overly obscure words can help to ensure your academic writing is both formal and highly readable.

Reviewing, Rewriting and Editing

Although an initial draft is essential (and in some departments it is a formal requirement) to establish the ground for your own research and its place within the wider body of scholarship, the literature review will evolve, develop and be modified as you continue to research, write, review and rewrite your thesis. It is likely that your literature review will not be completed until you have almost finished the thesis itself, and a final assessment and edit of this section is essential to ensure you have included the most important scholarship that is relevant and necessary to your research.

It has happened to many students that a crucial piece of literature is published just as they are about to finalise their thesis, and they must revise their literature review in light of it. Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided, lest your examiners think that you are not aware of this key piece of scholarship. You need to ensure your final literature review reflects how your research now fits into the new landscape in your field after any recent developments.

Mistakes to Avoid

Some common mistakes can result in an ineffective literature review that could then flow on to the rest of your thesis. These mistakes include:

Writing the literature review is often the first task of your research degree. It is a focused reading and research activity that situates your own research in the wider scholarship, establishing yourself as an active member of the academic community through dialogue and debate. By reading, analysing and synthesising the existing scholarship on your topic, you gain a comprehensive and in-depth understanding, ensuring a solid basis for your own arguments and contributions. If you need advice on referencing , academic writing , time management or other aspects of your degree, you may find Capstone Editing’s other resources and blog articles useful.

Australian National University. 2017. ‘Literature Reviews’. Last accessed 28 March. http://www.anu.edu.au/students/learning-development/research-writing/literature-reviews.

Premaratne, Dhilara Darshana. 2013. ‘Discipline Based Variations in the Literature Review in the PhD Thesis: A Perspective from the Discipline of History’. Education and Research Perspectives 40: 236–54.

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how to write a literature review masters level

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how to write a literature review masters level

Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.

Introduction:

Conclusion:

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

Grad Coach

How To Write An A-Grade Literature Review

3 straightforward steps (with examples) + free template.

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | October 2019

Quality research is about building onto the existing work of others , “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Newton put it. The literature review chapter of your dissertation, thesis or research project is where you synthesise this prior work and lay the theoretical foundation for your own research.

Long story short, this chapter is a pretty big deal, which is why you want to make sure you get it right . In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to write a literature review in three straightforward steps, so you can conquer this vital chapter (the smart way).

Overview: The Literature Review Process

But first, the “why”…

Before we unpack how to write the literature review chapter, we’ve got to look at the why . To put it bluntly, if you don’t understand the function and purpose of the literature review process, there’s no way you can pull it off well. So, what exactly is the purpose of the literature review?

Well, there are (at least) four core functions:

Most students understand the first point but don’t give any thought to the rest. To get the most from the literature review process, you must keep all four points front of mind as you review the literature (more on this shortly), or you’ll land up with a wonky foundation.

Okay – with the why out the way, let’s move on to the how . As mentioned above, writing your literature review is a process, which I’ll break down into three steps:

Importantly, you must complete steps one and two before you start writing up your chapter. I know it’s very tempting, but don’t try to kill two birds with one stone and write as you read. You’ll invariably end up wasting huge amounts of time re-writing and re-shaping, or you’ll just land up with a disjointed, hard-to-digest mess . Instead, you need to read first and distil the information, then plan and execute the writing.

Webinar - how to write a literature review

Step 1: Find the relevant literature

Naturally, the first step in the literature review journey is to hunt down the existing research that’s relevant to your topic. While you probably already have a decent base of this from your research proposal , you need to expand on this substantially in the dissertation or thesis itself.

Essentially, you need to be looking for any existing literature that potentially helps you answer your research question (or develop it, if that’s not yet pinned down). There are numerous ways to find relevant literature, but I’ll cover my top four tactics here. I’d suggest combining all four methods to ensure that nothing slips past you:

Method 1 – Google Scholar Scrubbing

Google’s academic search engine, Google Scholar , is a great starting point as it provides a good high-level view of the relevant journal articles for whatever keyword you throw at it. Most valuably, it tells you how many times each article has been cited, which gives you an idea of how credible (or at least, popular) it is. Some articles will be free to access, while others will require an account, which brings us to the next method.

Method 2 – University Database Scrounging

Generally, universities provide students with access to an online library, which provides access to many (but not all) of the major journals.

So, if you find an article using Google Scholar that requires paid access (which is quite likely), search for that article in your university’s database – if it’s listed there, you’ll have access. Note that, generally, the search engine capabilities of these databases are poor, so make sure you search for the exact article name, or you might not find it.

Method 3 – Journal Article Snowballing

At the end of every academic journal article, you’ll find a list of references. As with any academic writing, these references are the building blocks of the article, so if the article is relevant to your topic, there’s a good chance a portion of the referenced works will be too. Do a quick scan of the titles and see what seems relevant, then search for the relevant ones in your university’s database.

Method 4 – Dissertation Scavenging

Similar to Method 3 above, you can leverage other students’ dissertations. All you have to do is skim through literature review chapters of existing dissertations related to your topic and you’ll find a gold mine of potential literature. Usually, your university will provide you with access to previous students’ dissertations, but you can also find a much larger selection in the following databases:

Keep in mind that dissertations and theses are not as academically sound as published, peer-reviewed journal articles (because they’re written by students, not professionals), so be sure to check the credibility of any sources you find using this method. You can do this by assessing the citation count of any given article in Google Scholar. If you need help with assessing the credibility of any article, or with finding relevant research in general, you can chat with one of our Research Specialists .

Alright – with a good base of literature firmly under your belt, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Need a helping hand?

how to write a literature review masters level

Step 2: Log, catalogue and synthesise

Once you’ve built a little treasure trove of articles, it’s time to get reading and start digesting the information – what does it all mean?

While I present steps one and two (hunting and digesting) as sequential, in reality, it’s more of a back-and-forth tango – you’ll read a little , then have an idea, spot a new citation, or a new potential variable, and then go back to searching for articles. This is perfectly natural – through the reading process, your thoughts will develop , new avenues might crop up, and directional adjustments might arise. This is, after all, one of the main purposes of the literature review process (i.e. to familiarise yourself with the current state of research in your field).

As you’re working through your treasure chest, it’s essential that you simultaneously start organising the information. There are three aspects to this:

I’ll discuss each of these below:

2.1 – Log the reference information

As you read each article, you should add it to your reference management software. I usually recommend Mendeley for this purpose (see the Mendeley 101 video below), but you can use whichever software you’re comfortable with. Most importantly, make sure you load EVERY article you read into your reference manager, even if it doesn’t seem very relevant at the time.

2.2 – Build an organised catalogue

In the beginning, you might feel confident that you can remember who said what, where, and what their main arguments were. Trust me, you won’t. If you do a thorough review of the relevant literature (as you must!), you’re going to read many, many articles, and it’s simply impossible to remember who said what, when, and in what context . Also, without the bird’s eye view that a catalogue provides, you’ll miss connections between various articles, and have no view of how the research developed over time. Simply put, it’s essential to build your own catalogue of the literature.

I would suggest using Excel to build your catalogue, as it allows you to run filters, colour code and sort – all very useful when your list grows large (which it will). How you lay your spreadsheet out is up to you, but I’d suggest you have the following columns (at minimum):

If you’d like, you can try out our free catalog template here (see screenshot below).

Excel literature review template

2.3 – Digest and synthesise

Most importantly, as you work through the literature and build your catalogue, you need to synthesise all the information in your own mind – how does it all fit together? Look for links between the various articles and try to develop a bigger picture view of the state of the research. Some important questions to ask yourself are:

To help you develop a big-picture view and synthesise all the information, you might find mind mapping software such as Freemind useful. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of physical note-taking, investing in a large whiteboard might work for you.

Mind mapping is a useful way to plan your literature review.

Step 3: Outline and write it up!

Once you’re satisfied that you have digested and distilled all the relevant literature in your mind, it’s time to put pen to paper (or rather, fingers to keyboard). There are two steps here – outlining and writing:

3.1 – Draw up your outline

Having spent so much time reading, it might be tempting to just start writing up without a clear structure in mind. However, it’s critically important to decide on your structure and develop a detailed outline before you write anything. Your literature review chapter needs to present a clear, logical and an easy to follow narrative – and that requires some planning. Don’t try to wing it!

Naturally, you won’t always follow the plan to the letter, but without a detailed outline, you’re more than likely going to end up with a disjointed pile of waffle , and then you’re going to spend a far greater amount of time re-writing, hacking and patching. The adage, “measure twice, cut once” is very suitable here.

In terms of structure, the first decision you’ll have to make is whether you’ll lay out your review thematically (into themes) or chronologically (by date/period). The right choice depends on your topic, research objectives and research questions, which we discuss in this article .

Once that’s decided, you need to draw up an outline of your entire chapter in bullet point format. Try to get as detailed as possible, so that you know exactly what you’ll cover where, how each section will connect to the next, and how your entire argument will develop throughout the chapter. Also, at this stage, it’s a good idea to allocate rough word count limits for each section, so that you can identify word count problems before you’ve spent weeks or months writing!

PS – check out our free literature review chapter template…

3.2 – Get writing

With a detailed outline at your side, it’s time to start writing up (finally!). At this stage, it’s common to feel a bit of writer’s block and find yourself procrastinating under the pressure of finally having to put something on paper. To help with this, remember that the objective of the first draft is not perfection – it’s simply to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, after which you can refine them. The structure might change a little, the word count allocations might shift and shuffle, and you might add or remove a section – that’s all okay. Don’t worry about all this on your first draft – just get your thoughts down on paper.

start writing

Let’s Recap

In this post, we’ve covered how to research and write up a high-quality literature review chapter. Let’s do a quick recap of the key takeaways:

how to write a literature review masters level

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

You Might Also Like:

How To Read Journal Articles Quickly & Efficiently For Your Literature Review

33 Comments

Phindile Mpetshwa

Thank you very much. This page is an eye opener and easy to comprehend.

Yinka

This is awesome!

I wish I come across GradCoach earlier enough.

But all the same I’ll make use of this opportunity to the fullest.

Thank you for this good job.

Keep it up!

Derek Jansen

You’re welcome, Yinka. Thank you for the kind words. All the best writing your literature review.

Renee Buerger

Thank you for a very useful literature review session. Although I am doing most of the steps…it being my first masters an Mphil is a self study and one not sure you are on the right track. I have an amazing supervisor but one also knows they are super busy. So not wanting to bother on the minutae. Thank you.

You’re most welcome, Renee. Good luck with your literature review 🙂

Sheemal Prasad

This has been really helpful. Will make full use of it. 🙂

Thank you Gradcoach.

Tahir

Really agreed. Admirable effort

Faturoti Toyin

thank you for this beautiful well explained recap.

Tara

Thank you so much for your guide of video and other instructions for the dissertation writing.

It is instrumental. It encouraged me to write a dissertation now.

Lorraine Hall

Thank you the video was great – from someone that knows nothing thankyou

araz agha

an amazing and very constructive way of presetting a topic, very useful, thanks for the effort,

Suilabayuh Ngah

It is timely

It is very good video of guidance for writing a research proposal and a dissertation. Since I have been watching and reading instructions, I have started my research proposal to write. I appreciate to Mr Jansen hugely.

Nancy Geregl

I learn a lot from your videos. Very comprehensive and detailed.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. As a research student, you learn better with your learning tips in research

Uzma

I was really stuck in reading and gathering information but after watching these things are cleared thanks, it is so helpful.

Xaysukith thorxaitou

Really helpful, Thank you for the effort in showing such information

Sheila Jerome

This is super helpful thank you very much.

Mary

Thank you for this whole literature writing review.You have simplified the process.

Maithe

I’m so glad I found GradCoach. Excellent information, Clear explanation, and Easy to follow, Many thanks Derek!

You’re welcome, Maithe. Good luck writing your literature review 🙂

Anthony

Thank you Coach, you have greatly enriched and improved my knowledge

Eunice

Great piece, so enriching and it is going to help me a great lot in my project and thesis, thanks so much

Stephanie Louw

This is THE BEST site for ANYONE doing a masters or doctorate! Thank you for the sound advice and templates. You rock!

Thanks, Stephanie 🙂

oghenekaro Silas

This is mind blowing, the detailed explanation and simplicity is perfect.

I am doing two papers on my final year thesis, and I must stay I feel very confident to face both headlong after reading this article.

thank you so much.

if anyone is to get a paper done on time and in the best way possible, GRADCOACH is certainly the go to area!

tarandeep singh

This is very good video which is well explained with detailed explanation

uku igeny

Thank you excellent piece of work and great mentoring

Abdul Ahmad Zazay

Thanks, it was useful

Maserialong Dlamini

Thank you very much. the video and the information were very helpful.

Suleiman Abubakar

Good morning scholar. I’m delighted coming to know you even before the commencement of my dissertation which hopefully is expected in not more than six months from now. I would love to engage my study under your guidance from the beginning to the end. I love to know how to do good job

Mthuthuzeli Vongo

Thank you so much Derek for such useful information on writing up a good literature review. I am at a stage where I need to start writing my one. My proposal was accepted late last year but I honestly did not know where to start

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