Genres in academic writing: Literature reviews
You may be asked to write a literature review. This may either be part of a larger piece of work such as an extended essay, report or dissertation. Or it may be a separate piece of work. If it is part of a report, it may be part of the introduction or it may be a section to itself. If so it usually comes after the introduction and before the methods.
Any study you carry out, whether it is laboratory or library based, cannot depend completely on your own data, but must be situated in a context of what is already known about the topic in question. This context is provided in the literature review.
- So firstly you need to read around to find the information and studies that are relevant to your topic.
- You will start your literature review with a broad summary of your research questions.
- You must then summarise the studies that you have identified and cite them correctly. You need to include: who found out what, when, and how this developed the study of the topic. Connect the studies to each other; do not just list them.
- Remember that the reader will want to know why you have included any particular piece of research here.
- It is not enough just to summarise what has been said in a particular study: you need to organise and evaluate it.
- You must also justify its inclusion.
- You also review here methods that have been used that are relevant to your own study.
- You will finish with a conclusion, explaining the gaps in knowledge that you have identified and how your research will fill these gaps left by previous research.
The main body of your literature review will need to be organised in some way. Exactly how your literature review is structured will depend very much on the content but common ways are:
- remote to near: start from the literature that is more generally associated with your study and move on to studies that are more specific.
- chronological: start with the oldest studies and progress to more recent ones
- thematic: organise your literature review thematically, probably as a result of breaking down your research question into precise objectives
You might want to combine them. For example, your main structure may be thematic, but each theme is then organised chronologically.
You are probably not going to organise your literature review by author so do not start a paragraph, or even a sentence, with a name.
The main purpose of the literature review is to justify your research. It is not simple to show how much you know about the topic. So do not simply create a laundry list (Rudestam & Newton, 2001, p. 56). You justify your research by by summarising the literature with the intention of showing that there is a gap in the knowledge, which you will fill.
A possible structure is:
Describe the context to the reader.
Explain why it is particularly important
Summarise the studies you have read
Justify their inclusion
Evaluate the studies
Support your evaluation
Identify a gap in knowledge
Justify your research
Come to a conclusion about what you have read, identifying gaps
Explain how you will fill the gap(s)
(See Ridley (2008) for more information)