What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

If you’re doing an essay based subject you’re bound to ask this question at some point. Even if you’re not, you might have to write a literature review for a multitude of reasons, and so you may also ask this question: What on earth is a literature review?

A literature review, simply put, is a review of relevant literature. It is nothing more complicated than that.

What makes it so daunting is how to do it. But before we get to how to write a literature review [post linked here soon] let’s have a look at why literature reviews are useful and what to put in one.

Why write a Literature Review

So, you’re writing an essay. It’s about, say, the representation of women in the media. But before you can go on and write about this subject, you need to research and understand what has already been written. “Why?” I hear you say.

Well, firstly, it gives you an understanding of the conversation you’re entering. Academia is essentially a massive discussion. Academics and scientists do not create facts, they create theories, a.k.a. theses (pl. of thesis) or theorems. It is a way of someone going, “I’ve found this, and thus think this”. Then someone else going, “oooh, you said that, but I’ve just found evidence to suggest this other thing” and so on. Therefore, in writing an essay, you are joining this discussion. That means, you need to know what’s been said already, and you don’t just want to repeat something someone else has said.

Secondly, a lit. review (as they’re commonly shortened to) allows you to highlight areas which people have neglected. So to take our example, it may be that Rosalind Gill has analysed the way models are chosen to feature in magazine advertising; and that Meghan Lynch has written about how popular fashion blogs reinforce the advertising industry’s messages by celebrating similar looking bloggers; but that no-one has looked at the role that magazine endorsement of fashion bloggers plays in this? (By the way, Gill and Lynch haven’t written about those exact topics, though they do write in this field) So, by noticing this, and looking further afield, you can say that you have found a gap in the literature on the subject. This gives you a reason to fill it!

This means, thirdly, it shows how your essay/article relates to what’s already been written. If you’re joining a discussion, you need to be talking about the same topic. So showing your reader that you are doing that is essential to creating a convincing argument. Lit. reviews show how your paper relates to previous studies and to the wider literature. It also, therefore, avoids you starting from scratch. You’re building on the foundation of others’ work: you’re not reinventing the wheel to build a car; you’re building the windscreen wiper.

Finally, and most importantly, a good literature review defines and limits the problem you are exploring. We may be discussing the representation of women in the media, but that isn’t all we are looking at. We may be looking at how model agencies dictate to fashion magazines who is used in photo shoots. Or, we might be exploring the uneven racial representation of women in magazine fashion shoots. By selecting and discussing literature and articles a lit. review creates the lens through which it will look at a problem.

What to include in a good Literature Review

The types of texts you may want to include will be varied; it will depend on your discipline; the length of your paper; and the amount of work on the subject you are discussing, both academic and non. The below examples are taken from Hazel Hutchison’s book, Write Great Essays and Dissertations (2010). You may consider any combination of these:

  • a seminal text establishing the boundaries of the discipline (this is normally a book, but can be from an academic journal if a new subject)
  • a recent text on your topic by an eminent scholar in the field
  • a review criticising or praising the newer text (reviews are generally only for books)
  • a journal article exploring the topic from a different or interesting perspective
  • a journal article outlining a new project which promises to complete more research in the area, thus moving the debate forward
  • a theorised discussion of the terminology used in the discipline (looking at a reader is a great way to gauge what the main discussions of a subject is)

Finding the texts

What you choose is important. As mentioned above, it will dictate what you discuss in your essay. So when researching your field make sure to look at a wide range of areas.

The most efficient method I’ve found of find literature is to use the snowballing method. Once I’ve found one text I like, I look at the bibliography and/or footnotes and see what articles or books peak my interest. I then read a couple of these; and do the same with them until I have a good grounding.

Alternatively, I use a relevant reader on the subject, and look at the authors in that. They are most likely to be prominent writers in that field. Note down the most relevant scholars – this is after either reading their articles (most advised, but takes a bit longer) or looking at the headings (less time & less accurate). Then I search their work; normally one is cited over and over again. Once found, I look at the book’s description on amazon or something similar, and decide whether I should read it or not.

Another method I like it, which particularly works for discussing ‘seminal works’, is to look at published academic reviews of this book. An important book usually attracts a few reviews. For a subject like Anthropology this might come from a diverse set of areas: anthropology itself, philosophy, history, sociology. All of these disciplines may comment on a book’s worth. Reading through 3-5 of these really helps you understand how the book has impacted academia and what it means. You can incorporate this into your lit. review, citing both book and reviewers to show you’ve read around.


  • A literature review, reviews literature related to your discussed subject;
  • it shows the relevance of your work to broader academia;
  • it defines and limits the boundaries in which you are going to write.
  • A good literature review discusses important texts;
  • and it combines this with other work to help the reader understand the discussion at hand.
  • To find literature use the snowball technique using bibliographies;
  • look at the academics included in a good reader;
  • and check out book reviews to help you understand a book’s relevance.

For help on how to write a literature review, please hold fast for our post on writing a literature review. Until then check out the Royal Literary Fund’s advice.

Further reference: Birmingham City University

Photo credits: Dom Pates, Flickr