Writing academically

Writing a Literature Review

The literature review must survey the existing research that is relevant to the question that is addressed by your research project. Your dissertation tutor may be able to give you some pointers but really it is down to you to go and find as much relevant information as possible.

It is not possible to give specific advice on writing a literature review simply because every literature review is different! However, some general guidance can be given:

Word Count

For a 10,000 word piece of primary research the literature review is typically around 4,000 words in length. A piece of secondary research is usually in the form of an extended literature review.


How do you decide what is relevant? This can be tricky, but the main thing is to make decisions as you clarify the focus of your project.

  • It may be relevant to address:
    • research that focuses on the same subject as your own;
    • research that uses the same methodology as yours;
    • research that does not focus on the same subject but on a related subject whose relevance you can state clearly;
    • government guidance or professional frameworks that have some relationship to the subject of your study;
    • definition of key terms in your study which help to clarify its purpose.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help you to proceed. A common problem is that no-one else has done research in your particular area. This is when it is particularly important to look into studies in related areas or with comparable methodologies.


There is no one correct way to present a literature review (unless your dissertation tutor expresses a preference for one type of structure). The most important thing to remember is that the literature review must be structured clearly.

This usually means that you will need to think about how you intend to group the information you have found. It is often useful to include a mini-introduction that explains how the information will be structured.

Some literature reviews include sub-headings and some do not. If you want to use them check with your dissertation tutor.  Be aware that imprecise or overly  frequent sub-headings can reduce the clarity and readability of your work.

Criticality and Literature Reviews

To some extent a literature review is simply a well-organised account of the literature that you have discovered that is relevant to your study. However, it is usually appropriate to include some evaluation of this literature. This might involve:

  • criticism of the methodology of other research which draws attention to its strengths and weaknesses, or similarities / differences when compared to your own study;
  • commentary on the agreement or disagreement between the different sources that are contained within your literature review;
  • discussion of underlying problems that are common to the different sources that you have found.

This is not an exhaustive list of the ways that you can demonstrate criticality in a literature review.

Remember that it is not normally good to anticipate your own findings in the literature review. You can refer back to the literature review in your findings section.

Conclusion in a Literature Review

It is usually good to include a brief conclusion to summarize the key points in your evaluation of the existing literature.

Useful Websites

  • This excellent guide from the Writing Centre has essentially been written for an American audience, but the advice is fairly generic.
  • This guide is directed specifically at Literature Reviews in Sport’s Science. 
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