The Writing Center

Writing a Review of Literature

The biggest challenge for most students in a review of literature is to make it tell a story. The best literature reviews read like a mystery, unraveling the ways that researchers have approached a particular problem or question. Ultimately, the mystery will end at the writer’s own solution or proposal regarding the matter.

The biggest temptation for graduate students is to behave as if they were students, and not the experts they are becoming. If a writer simply presents all the research that has been conducted on a topic, that is not graduate-level work.

Here are some questions to answer before you begin writing in order to guide you to the development of an excellent thesis or focus for your review of literature.

  • Can you discuss (in planning) the motivation of researchers you are studying?
  • Can you evaluate these motives?
  • Can you discuss the various methods used to investigate your subject?
  • Can you evaluate these methods?
  • Is there anything missing—motivation or methods—that needs to be explored?
  • Are any motivations or methods suspect?
  • What cultural issues might have influenced researchers?
  • If you could articulate a bottom line about the research on your topic, what would it be?

Strong and Weak Reviews of Literature

The best literature reviews do the following:

  • present a clear thesis or focus
  • let that focus lead the reader through much research
  • offer social significance (in benefits or sufferings) of the topic
  • do not shy away from complex, difficult, or confusing aspects of the topic
  • do not explain beginner concepts, but rather locate the topic within various types of research in the field
  • provide the connections among research studies
  • critique research in terms of the writer’s focus
  • create a space for the writer’s own viewpoints and research to come

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