Writing the literature review

The task of writing a literature review therefore is a means of learning about the literature; we write to learn about what we read. Initially, we write about materials that we do not know or understand very well. As our understanding develops we fill in gaps and take out errors. One of the key processes is identifying different methodologies and theoretically approaches. By writing regularly we can gradually become more comfortable writing about new knowledge in a knowledgeable way (Murray, 2003, p. 105).

Writing your literature review takes time. You will need to complete several drafts before your final copy.

 You need to end up with a logical ‘story’ in which all pieces have a place and are linked to each other.

A literature review can be:

  • a self-contained paper – an end in itself
  • a preface to and rationale for engaging in research
  • part of a grant or research proposal
  • an introductory chapter to a thesis
  • a series in the various chapters of a research paper/book/thesis

The common weakness to look out for (and discussed in this page) in a literature review are as follows 

  • Not critical – a mere series of descriptions of what the various texts say
  • Not synthesised (long, repetitive, descriptive)
  • Organised by author – voice given to authors (!)
  • Does not include crucial work
  • Outdated – no recent literature
  • Aim not clearly stated
  • Not related to research question
  • Incorrect interpretation of sources
  • Not discriminating between the relevant and irrelevant

Structuring your literature review

Organising the literature review can be a challenge:

  • There is no one size fits all rule
  • The most logical structure will only become apparent as you progress, and can even change. You need to work out which organisation/categorisation best fits your project. Some possibilities are:
    • From general to specific (or vice versa). Also called the inverted pyramid or funnel model – we refer to this model on the next page
    • According to themes/concepts
    • According to importance or relevance  – generally from most important to least important (as a rule always start with most important points in academic writing)
    • According to major findings
    • According to points of view/perspectives presented
    • According to theoretical approaches
    • According to settings/study areas (if setting crucial in the research)
    • According to methods used
    • Chronologically

You may even combine some of these possible structures – as you develop sub-structures (e.g. have a main structure presented according to themes and then substructure that is chronological).

Note also that you may have more than one literature review chapter in a thesis. You may need a series of literature reviews that come together somewhere.
watch video icon 3 ways to structure your Literature Review.mp4

The inverted pyramid or funnel model for structuring a literature review

RMIT pyramid lit rev(source:  RMIT Study and Learning Centre)

selanit-info-lightbulb-300pxIf you still feel unsure about how your literature review is supposed to work, why not try story-boarding: Story-boarding research: How to proactively plan projects, reports and articles from the outset. or   storyboarding techniques 

Other ways to visualize the review

  • Develop an outline
  • Develop a concept map

It is important to have a workable structure – but note that this structure needs to remain flexible to account for changes as the thesis progresses

Literature review needs to include

  • Information showing how the literature review is structured (introduction, headings, conclusion). You need to give the reader a sense of how the text is put together and where it is going.
    • The introduction should indicate the topic of the review and how it is organised.
    • The conclusions/recommendations/research question refer to what can be concluded from the review and what you will do next
  • Information on what is included in the review and why.
  • Information on how your work fits in (unless it is a standalone review).
  • If relevant, a discussion on definitions.

Once you have a good overall structure for your literature review, you need to ensure you have paragraphs that mirrors the structure and carry your story forwards. Check pages on clear writing: writing in paragraphs for more guidance on this.

Finally you will need at some stage to make sure that the literature review works with the rest of the thesis in terms of content and length. Check the pages on finalising the thesis to find more about this.

The review as critical piece of work

A literature review cannot be just descriptive, you will need to understand the material you have read and explain how it all relates together, how it relates to your research. You will need to develop a story about the literature. This will require you to

  • Select only what is relevant – don’t include things that are nice to know, but not really useful to your discussion
  • Identify, describe and summarise readings, theories and findings
    • compare information from different sources
    • look for patterns, compare and contrast theories, findings and methodologies
  • Recombine ideas, synthesise and evaluate information.
  • Identify the relationships between previous theories/studies AND to your work
  • Compare readings to how you think it could have been done, interpreted; and
  • Include literature you disagree with. Remember that as a researcher you have to set aside your preconceived ideas and approach your topic with an open mind.


Your own knowledge and experience will direct the process. But be careful, a literature review is a review of the literature not your experience!

As your knowledge increases, you may be able to more confidently critique some of the material. You will need to keep an eye out for similar or even dominant ways of telling a story, and for contradiction. This can be difficult as reports on similar topics are not always easy to compare. Different terminology can be used to refer to same thing. So you need to understand clearly what is meant, how terminology is used and what are assumptions made.

Identify the argument(s)

Theses, books and articles generally have one overall argument, which represents the author’s position. The overall argument is composed of a series of contributing arguments which together lead to the overall argument.

In critical thinking an argument refers to reasons to support a position or view. Thus an argument includes (Cottrell, 2011):

A point of view

  • An attempt to persuade others to accept the point of view; and
  • Reasons for supporting the point of view.

An argument is generally presented with

  • A series of propositions believed to be true or premises which built the argument, but some premises may not be true;
  • Underlying assumptions; and
  • A conclusion, generally a deduction.

As you write your own literature review make sure it is constructed as an argument. It may also contain descriptions, but these should be limited.

Pay attention to potential flaws in arguments and put forward in your readings. That could include:

  • Causal links that should not be made
  • Correlations and false correlations
  • Not meeting conditions for conclusion
  • False analogies
  • Unwarranted leaps
  • Using emotions rather than logic
  • Misrepresentations

How do you find the school of thought adhered to and theoretical position of an author?

  •  It may be stated explicitly at the beginning.
  • The research question or hypothesis may give an idea of the theoretical position. Often questions are based on a theoretical position.
  • Selection of literature is indicative of theoretical position.

As your understanding expands, at different stages you will be looking for different types of literature focusing on background, or theory, or methods………

Writing critically

Writing critically does not mean giving your personal opinion as such. It refers to your ability to show that you have analysed individual and combined readings, compared them summarised the comparisond and analyses and linked them to your research.  But you need to position yourself as an external objective observer who sets out what is known in the field, that is related to your own research question.


Cite sources as much as possible and avoid generalisations for example, ‘various researchers have explored the use of narcotics….’ – it is best to name and cite these researchers.

Ensure your writing reflects your voice 

This can be difficult if you are not yet confident about composing academic text. When a text is written with someone’s voice, you could almost hear her/him say the text. Writing is indeed about identity, about who we are and how we represent ourselves

“…there is a lack of recognition of the intensity of identity work involved at this site of text production. We would go so far as to say that literature reviews are the quintessential site of identity work, where the novice researcher enters what we call occupied territory – with all the immanent danger and quiet dread that this metaphor implies – including possible ambushes, barbed wire fences, and unknown academics who patrol the boundaries of already occupied territories.” (Kamler&Thomson, p 29)

A literature review is a critical summary of what is being said about a certain topic. You are expected to position yourself as an objective outsider who reports on and reviews what others have said about a topic. A literature review is therefore generally written in the third person. Even if what you write is in fact – can only be – your opinion – based on evidence and logic.

Common weaknesses when trying to be critical 

  • Writing ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’ and remind yourself that anything you write is your opinion, unless you attribute it to someone else.
  • Too many quotes. You can use quotes, but do not too often. Your paper cannot be a long list of quotes. Quotes are useful to illustrate a point you made. You make a point using your own words and eventually use a quote to illustrate what you say. Do not let the quote make the point for you.
  • Letting authors lead your discussion. Early on, your review may be a list of what various authors have said, but as you progress ideas need to lead the conversation, the flow of your text, not authors.

Example of text leading by author – don’t do this

Hymes (2004) defined communicative competence as the degree to which a speaker is successful in communicating. He also views communicative competence as the overall underlying linguistic knowledge and ability to use language. In addition, Owens, Jr. (1996) supports the view that the success of communication is able to be measured by appropriateness and effectiveness of conveying messages within a specific context. Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel (2000) explained that nonverbal communication is important because it has a strong link to culture. In other words, it can reflect the values, beliefs and attitudes of cultures to others. To sum up, nonverbal communication is concerned with variously unspoken symbols and behaviours that individual people used within communication settings. It occurs constantly every time a person interacts with another, and intentionally or unintentionally.

Use vocabulary to indicate your position

Look at the following excerpts and check how the vocabulary enables clarifying the position of the writer:

One inconclusive study (Lewins, 1998) suggests that smaller rats (those weighing less than 500g) are more easily taught to pull a lever. Indeed, Lewins’s research claims a 80% success rate for experiments with smaller rats, compared to 65% for rats weighing more than over 500g. However, these claims have been disputed as no-one has been able to replicate the experiment (Wilson & Collins, 1999).

This study adopts a qualitative approach to highlight some of the views expressed by postgraduates and staff. Evaluations of international and Asian students’ learning experiences carried out by Christison & Krahnke (1986), Chapman et al. (1988), Noble (1989), Nesdale & Todd (1993), Felix & Lawson (1994) are quantitative and raise issues selected by the researchers. These studies are illuminating but they do not include participants’ views….

This experiment was the object of a recent study by Dickens & Smit (2001), who allege that Lewins’ initial study did not use common rats, but ratus barbaricus, which are now extinct, making the experiment impossible to replicate (Wilson & Collins, 1999). In an inconclusive study (Lewins, 1998) had suggested that smaller rats (those weighing less than 500g) are more easily taught to pull a lever. Indeed, Lewins’s research claimed a 80% success rate for experiments with smaller rats, compared to 65% for rats weighing more than over 500g.

The ‘public’ is an important concept in research on, and the practice of public relations (e.g.,Chay-Nemeth, 2001; Grunig, 1997; Hallahan, 2000; Sha, 2006). Members of a public engage in collective resolution of some problem through discursive interactions such as argument and counterargument (Price, 1992, p. 30). A public is a rather fluid, amorphous group that has varying size and composition across problems, is motivated to create some action related to the problem, and eventually dissolves as the problem is solved (Blumer, 1946, 1948; Price & Roberts, 1987). The central concept ‘a public’ and its shared recognition among people  is ‘problematic’ (Blumer, 1946; Dewey, 1927).

Vocabulary that can be useful to indicate a position:

  • Advise: suggest, recommend, encourage
  • Argue: reason, discuss, debate
  • Believe: hold, profess
  • Claim: assert, allege, affirm, contend, maintain (connotation of all these tends to mean disagreement)
  • Disagree: dispute, refute, contradict, differ, object, dissent
  • Emphasise: stress, underscore, accentuate
  • Evaluate: assess, appraise
  • Examine: explore, investigate, scrutinise
  • Hypothesise: speculate, postulate
  • Persuade: assure, convince, satisfy
  • Propose: advance, propound, suggest
  • Reject: refute, repudiate, discard, dismiss, disclaim
  • Show: demonstrate, reveal
  • State: express, comment, remark, declare, articulate, report
  • Support: uphold, advocate

 Using verb tenses to show your position

In general, you are expected to:

  • Use the present tense when making general statements or claims
  • Use the past tense when referring to something that was done or found in a specific study
  • Use the present perfect tense to show that a process or research is still continuing, a finding still has relevance e.g. the study has shown that the use of toxics in ….

Verb tenses can be useful to show your position as generalising. Putting it in the present tense is a way of endorsing an idea.

Avoid plagiarism

Plagiarism is taken very seriously in academia. To avoid being accused of plagiarism you can:

  • Make sure you understand what it is
  • Scrupulously note what you copy is from other texts and what has been paraphrased
  • Understand paraphrasing
  • Use plagiarism detection software – such as Urkund – available from UC

For more information check following resources:


Your ability to correctly reference will be seen as a reflection of your understanding of your topic.

 Be rigorous and revise, revise, revise

  • Understand how to acknowledge sources
  • Check with your supervisor what style is in use in your field if you are unsure
  • If you have little understanding of what a reference and an in-text citation are check resources for referencing basic information

Guides to referencing http://www.canberra.edu.au/library/research-gateway/research_help/referencing-guides

Absolute rigour is required in the bibliography.

  • In text references need to be all in the same format/style and clearly refer to an item in the bibliography
  • The bibliography needs to follow one style only (use of ‘, italics, page numbers)

A sloppy bibliography will be seen as an indication that the rest (the research) is also sloppy and make any assessor very suspicious.

Resources for writing the literature review

Find models/exemplars of literature reviews in similar areas. Finding Dissertations & Theses to find theses in your area of research.

Literature review HQ discussion & tips site available from www.literaturereviewhq.com

Ollhof, Jim (n.d.), How to Write a Literature Review http://jimollhoff.com/education/how-to-write-a-literature-review/

Deakin University on literature review http://www.deakin.edu.au/library/findout/research/litrev.php

The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It (University of Toronto) http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

Monash University pages on Writing literature reviews http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/general/lit-reviews/index.xml

RMIT on literature reviews http://www.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=cdb4z3x5a44k


University of Wisconsin – Madison . Guidelines below to learn how to write a review of literature http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/ReviewofLiterature.html provided good information on how to write a stand alone literature review

University of Wisconsin – Madison (2014), The writer’s handbook. Using transitions.

Writing the literature review – online lecture offered by Walden university Writing Center (1h04′)


Bourner, T. 1996, ‘The research process: four steps to success,’ in Research methods: guidance for postgraduates, edited by T. Greenfield. Arnold: London,. 7-11.

Bryman, A. and Bell, E. (2011). Getting started: reviewing the literature. Chapter 4 in Business research methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cooksey, Ray and McDonald, Gael (2011), Surviving and thriving in postgraduate research, Tilde University Press” Prahran.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. London: Sage.

Craswell, Gail (2005), Writing for Academic Success, Sage Publications, London

Cronin P., Ryan F. & Coughlan M. (2008). ‘Undertaking a literature review: a step-by-step approach’. British Journal of Nursing Vol17/1, 38-43 (available from e-reading)

Murray, Rowena (2002), How to write a thesis, Open University Press McGraw Hill

Potter, Stephen (2002), Doing Postgraduate Research, Sage publications, London

RMIT (Study and Learning Centre). Writing the Literature Review / Using the Literature.

Webster J. & Watson R. (2002). ‘Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: writing a literature review’. MIS Quarterly Vol. 26 No. 2.