How to write a literature review

It’s time to start your literature review! You have read what feels like, and actually may be, hundreds of articles, but you are sitting there and having a staring competition with a blank word doc, and the word doc is winning. Where do you start? It can definitely feel overwhelming to try and sum up a whole field of research in sometimes as little as a page. A great place I find to start is to think about who, or what, is the literature review for? For example, you may be writing it for your thesis, for a journal article or for a grant application. Who is your audience going to be in each of these scenarios? And what is the assumed knowledge that they have about your area of research?

I read something one time that really stuck with me. Your literature review is like a tea party: you get to decide who you invite. Meaning you don’t need to reference every paper that has ever been published on your topic, you can, and should be selective about what you reference. The way I like to think of a literature review is that it tells the reader what has been done so far in this field of research and why you did, or are proposing to do, the current research.  Think to yourself, what hole are you filling within your field of research? What is the motivation for this study? Depending on what you are writing your literature review for, the amount of detail you will go into will be very different. If you are writing it for your thesis the literature review will likely go far more in depth than when you are writing a grant proposal, or the introduction for a journal article, however all literature reviews share a similar structure: the inverted pyramid.

As the name suggested the inverted pyramid starts off wide at the top and tapers to a point at the end, and this is how your literature review should go too. Start off broad, i.e. what is your research topic? Then narrow in on what studies have already been done in this area and outline the gaps in our current knowledge. Then at the pointy end of the pyramid is the specifics of how you aim to fill this gap in knowledge with the current study.

So how does this work practically? There are as many ways to go about writing a literature review as there are academics; some people, myself included, like to start with an outline of dot points about what they want to write/convey in each paragraph. Some people like to draw mind maps, linking individual studies to specific questions or arguments to get a feeling of how they will approach their literature review. Others prefer to just write freely without such a formulaic set-up; it is really up to you and what works best for you and your style of writing. One very important thing to do though is to use a reference management software where you can store a library of your sources to easily cite while you write.

Keep in mind that, as with all writing, it doesn’t have to be perfect straight away! You are likely going to reread and edit, and reread and edit (and repeat ad nauseum), so don’t let fear of imperfection get in your way of getting something down! As with all things practice makes perfect, so get to it friends! Happy writing to you all!

Rebecca Keogh

Rebecca has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is into all things brain! Her current research investigates visual memory and imagery and what drives the large individual differences that exist in these areas. When she's not at the lab you can find her chasing ducks, playing basketball and drinking wine, not usually all at once.