Literature Reviews

Planning how to write a literature review can be the most difficult part. This article describes how you can tackle this daunting task.

The first thing to do is to outline some dates for major milestones in the project.

For example, you may want to set dates for completing the stages of the thesis or dissertation, this includes:

  • Defining your research questions and dissertation topic(s)
  • Completing all the necessary background reading
  • Have first and final drafts of the review completed.

Make sure you've defined your research questions or topic before you start your review - it's very tempting to rush off and start reading, but you can waste a lot of time if you find that your research or dissertation topic changes.

You then need to identify the word limit for the various sections of the project including your literature review. Many students find it difficult to adhere to the word limits in their research projects. By setting an early target for the literature review, you’ll find the rest of the project easier to manage.

The next step would be to chat with your tutor to discuss a relevant search methodology and possible sources of research for your review. You should discuss with your tutor what kind of mark you are aiming for. This gives your tutor an idea of how much support you'll need throughout your project and whether your work is to the right standard.

Once this is done, you need to spend some time in your university’s library and use its online database resources to uncover the key literature you need. Making notes along the way and clear referencing of everything you find is of paramount importance. At this early stage it can be difficult to know what may or may not be useful for your finished review. Therefore don’t be too quick to dismiss research as irrelevant and ensure you record the necessary details and make notes, so you can find it should you discover a need for it. There is nothing worse than wasting time searching for a piece of work you’ve previously read.

The majority of your references should be academic publications; either journal (online or print) articles or books. It used to be thought that a lower weighting of importance is placed upon online references, yet it now makes very little difference as the majority of journals and articles can be accessed online. However, do remember to find and read some physical books to show that you've thoroughly explored all the options.

Aim to review around 20-30 references for an undergraduate degree as a benchmark (although this will vary from institution and subject topic). MSc can be upwards of 100 and a PhD will require at least 300 references and usually more.

Now document what you are going to do!

The next stage is to then map out a rough plan for how your literature review will flow and how the ideas and themes of the various research you have found, will come together.

Once you have written the plan you can start writing the review. Remember that at each stage you should be asking yourself two questions:

  1. Is what I am including relevant and supportive of the case I am trying to build?
  2. You need to ensure you’re being critical about the work that’s been carried out.

Check all your text and if it doesn’t add anything to your review you should remove it. Similarly, be critical - ask and write in your review if the research carried out over a long enough period of time, how was the research carried out, what were the limitations and so on.

On completing the first draft you should be speaking with your tutor to ensure that your review meets the required standard you established at the start of the project. They will then feedback to you any areas that you should be improving.

The literature review should grow and develop throughout the life of your research project. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve moved onto another part of the project and have therefore finished with the literature review.


Academic software designed to help you

Academic Software


How to write your literature review



Subscribe to our newsletter and receive essay, dissertation and writing advice.

Site map

Advice, software and review services for students and researchers:

  • Home
  • Software
  • Articles
  • Review Service
  • Contact Us
  • Contact us