Academic Writing

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 must then summarise these studies and cite them correctly. You need to include: who found out what, when, and how this developed the study of the topic.
  • 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: 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 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:

Literature Review



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 you have read, identifting gaps

Explain how you will fill the gap(s)

End matter

(See Ridley, 2008 for more information)

See: Writing Functions 1: DescribingWriting Functions 8: ExamplesWriting Functions 12: EvaluatingWriting Functions 2: ReportingWriting Functions 16: ReasonsWriting Functions 18: SupportingWriting: SummaryWriting Functions 13: ComparingWriting Functions 23: ConcludingWriting Functions 14: GeneralisingWriting Citation Introduction