Student literature review

In a literature review, the writer presents and discusses several texts, such as research articles, on a particular topic. The genre of literature reviews is sometimes referred to as synthesis writing, and this term clarifies that the function of the review is to bring different components (here, texts) together. The purpose of the literature review is to present an overview of research in the field and also show the writer’s understanding of the texts that are reviewed. This means a review is not only a summary of the texts you have read.

What follows below are tips and checklists for writers of literature reviews. If you have been asked to produce a literature review as a student assignment, you may have been given texts to review, or you might be expected to find articles and other texts that are suitable to include in the review yourself. In either case, it is important that you know what you are expected to do, and how the literature review is to be written and presented. Always follow instructions you have received from your teacher.

Note that if you are writing a literature review as part of your doctoral thesis or for a journal, for instance, there may be discipline-specific conventions you need to take into account.

    Planning for writing your literature review

    Literature reviews are often organised thematically or chronologically. In thematically organised reviews, writers focus on issues that are dealt with in all of the texts or similarities and differences concerning the kind of research presented in the texts. In reviews with a more chronological approach, the focus will often be on what differences can be traced and, for instance, the development you identify between the texts.

    Finding material

    If you have been asked to compile the literature for your review yourself, make sure you identify central texts of the area and that you read them carefully to discover whether they respond to previous research and to each other, or whether they cover separate, although related, issues. If you encounter problems locating relevant literature, contact your university library.

    Reading strategies

    The writing of literature reviews involves much reading. To read in an efficient way, consider using the predatory reading technique for your first perusal of the texts. If you decide to use the articles for your review, they will then need to be reread more closely. See

    Questions to consider when reading up and planning your literature review:

    • What are the articles about?
    • What similarities/differences between the contents/arguments/results have you identified in the texts?
    • What kinds of research do the texts present, e.g.
      • theoretical or applied research
      • quantitative or qualitative research

    At the planning stage, it may make sense to look at another common genre of student writing – the annotated bibliography. Although the purpose of an annotated bibliography differs from that of the literature review, the steps of writing bibliographic annotations can be of use for writers planning for their literature reviews:

    Structure of the literature review

    A literature review resembles the three-part essay in structure in that it usually has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion:


    The introduction introduces the focus of the literature review and also briefly presents the texts that are to be discussed. You may at this stage want to highlight the main trends, features, or issues you have noticed in your reading. The general features of introductions in essay/research writing can serve as guidelines for how to structure the literature review introduction:  


    For the body of the literature review, you need to decide whehter to use a choronological or thematic structure, or if you should base your discussion on some other organising principle. In either case, highlight issues that you have identified in the articles included in your review, and present the main points made in each text.

    In literature reviews, writers are often expected to compare the articles that have been read in a way that brings forth their respective strengths and potential weaknesses. Here, the concept of synthesis is central: in a literature review, you should not not only summarise, but you need to compare, discuss, and evaluate the texts that you review. For an overview of such instruction verbs, see:


    In the conclusion, you sum up your findings and restate your general conclusions.

    Writing the literature review

    Depending on your field, there will be disciplinary considerations to take into account, such as how to refer to the texts you review. For an overview of different kinds of interaction with sources, such as integral and non-integral citations, see

    The Manchester University Phrasebank is useful for writers of literature reviews, not least the section called

    Depending on how you have been asked to present your literature review, different aspects of writing may be relevant. Here are some suggested resources:

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