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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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overview of literature meaning

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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McCombes, S. (2023, September 11). How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/

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Humanities LibreTexts

1.1: What is Literature?

  • Last updated
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  • Page ID 40366

  • Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap
  • City College of San Francisco via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative

Defining Literature

In order for us to study literature with any kind of depth, first we must decide what constitutes literature. While works like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are almost universally accepted as literature, other works are hotly debated, or included or excluded based on the context. For example, while most consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved literature, others debate whether more recent publications such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Rupi Kaur’s Instagram poetry constitute literature. And what about the stories told through tweets, like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” ? What about video games, like Skyrim , or memes, like Grumpy Cat?

Students often throw their hands up in the air over such distinctions, arguing literature is subjective. Isn't it up to individual opinion? Anything can be literature, such students argue. At first glance, it could seem such distinctions are, at best, arbitrary. At worst, such definitions function as a means of enforcing cultural erasure.

However, consider a story about Kim Kardashian’s plastic surgery in People Magazine . Can this be considered on the same level of literary achievement as Hamlet ? Most would concede there is a difference in quality between these two texts. A blurb about Kim Kardashian’s latest plastic surgery, most would agree, does not constitute literature. So how can we differentiate between such works?

Literature vs. literature

As illustrated in the somewhat silly example above, one way we can define what constitutes literature is by identifying what is definitely not literature. For our intents and purposes of defining most terms in this textbook, we will use the Oxford English Dictionary ’s definitions. Many professors who teach Literature use the concept of Big L Literature vs. little l literature (Rollison).

While the definition of little l literature is fairly easy to understand and apply, the definition of Big L Literature remains amorphous. What makes a work “artistic”? How do we define “superior” or “lasting”?

Let’s break down some of the defining qualities of literature in a bit more detail, starting with the word “artistic.”

Exercise 1.1.1

Consider the following works of art. Which of these images do you feel is higher quality or more “artistic”? Which is lower-quality or less artistic? Why? Justify your position by analyzing the elements of each artwork.

man in dark suit stands on mountain overlooking a sea of clouds

While there may be some debate, most students usually respond that Friedrich's painting is more artistic. This is due to several composition differences between the two works:

  • Artist’s skill: it certainly appears as if the first image was produced by an artist with superior skill
  • Fame: for anyone who knows art history, the first image is famous while the other is not
  • Lasting quality: the first image has survived the test of time, remaining popular over two hundred years!
  • Meaning: the first image likely conjures deeper feelings, themes, or ideas, such as isolation and the primacy of nature. This is why this image has become the face of Romanticism.

But what about the images demonstrate the artists’ superior skills? While the second image appears to be produced with a simple doodle, and quickly composed, the first indicates more complexity, attention-to-detail, and craft. Freidrich leverages different colors, textures, shapes, and symbols to evoke a feeling in the viewer. Skilled artists will use different techniques, like the way they move the paintbrush, the pressure they exert or the direction of the brush. They will use textured paintbrushes for a specific effect, such as the difference between the light fluffy clouds and dark mountain rocks. They will use different color pallets to project, as accurately as possible, the feelings they are trying to evoke. In short, while anyone can paint, true artists leverage many different skills, techniques, and materials to render what is in their imagination into a real-life product.

So how does this relate to our attempts to define literature?

Literature is art, but with words.

While the artist uses different colors, paintbrushes, mediums, canvases, and techniques, the writer uses different genres and literary techniques called literary devices . Just like different types of paint, paintbrushes, and artistic tools, there are literally hundreds of literary devices, but some of the most common are metaphor, simile, personification, and imagery. Genre is the type or style of literature. Each genre has its own conventions. Literary genres include creative nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry . Works that are literary tend to masterfully use genre conventions and literary devices to create a world in the mind of the reader. Works that are less literary tend to be for practical and/or entertainment purposes, and the writer dedicates less focused energy towards artfully employing literary devices.

However, just because a work is not as literary as another does not mean it cannot be enjoyed. Just like a stick figure or cartoon character might be perfectly fine if intended for a particular audience or purpose, readers can still enjoy People Magazine even though it is not of the same literary quality as Hamlet .

So, to use an example from earlier:

While some literature falls into clear designations of literature or not literature, most works are open to debate. Given the sometimes difficult task of determining whether a work falls into one camp or the other, it may be more helpful to think of Literature less as a dichotomy than a spectrum, with popular magazines on one end and works like Hamlet and Beloved on the other, and most written works falling somewhere between the two extremes.

The Literary Spectrum

This spectrum can be a helpful way to think about literature because it provides a more open-ended way to discuss writing as art than simply labeling works as literary or not. After viewing the above chart, why do you think popular magazines and a Calculus textbook are considered "less literary"? In terms of popular magazines, they do not fit the definition of literature as "lasting" in the sense that they usually fade from relevancy quickly after publication. Additionally, the authors of such magazines are striving for quick entertainment rather than leaving a meaningful impression on the reader. They tend not to use literary devices, such as metaphor, in a masterful way. On the other end, Shakespeare's Hamlet definitely fits the definition of "lasting," in that it has survived hundreds of years. It is full of literary devices used for rhetorical effect and, one would argue, it touches upon deep themes such as death, the afterlife, murder, vengeance, and love, rather than trifling issues such as a starlet's most recent plastic surgery.

Certainly, works of literature are up for debate: that is the quintessential question literary scholars might ask. What makes certain literary works survive the test of time? What makes a story, poem, or drama "good"? While literary scholars are less interested in proving a certain work is "good" or not -- and more focused on analyzing the ways to illuminate a given work -- it can be helpful for you to consider what kinds of literature you like and why you like it. What about the way it was written causes you to feel the way you do about it?

Who Decides What is Literature?

Now that we have at least somewhat clarified the definition of literature, who decides what works are or are not literature? Historically speaking, kings, queens, publishers, literary critics, professors, colleges, and readers (like you!) have decided which works survive and which works do not.

Aristotle was one of the first writers to attempt to decide what works fall into the category of literature, and what works do not. While Aristotle was most famous for his contributions to science and philosophy, he is also considered one of the first literary critics. A literary critic is a person who studies and analyzes literature. A literary critic produces scholarship called literary criticism . An example of this would be Aristotle’s Poetics , in which he identifies the defining qualities of a “good” Tragedy. Aristotle’s analysis of Tragedy was so influential that it is still used today, over two thousand years later!

When a work is officially decided to constitute literature, it enters something called the Canon. Not to be confused with the large metal tube that shoots bombs popular in the 16th through the 19th centuries (cannon), the Literary Canon is a collection of works that are considered by the powers that be to constitute literature. A work that falls into this designation is called canonical. So, to use an example from Aristotle’s Poetics , Aristotle defined Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy as the pinnacle of the Tragic Genre. From there, in part due to Aristotle's influence, Greek society valued Oedipus so much that they kept discussing, reading, referencing, and teaching it. Thus, it became a kind of shining example of the Tragic Canon, one which has lasted thousands of years and continues to be read and lauded to this day. Other tragedies, fairly or not, are often judged on their quality in comparison to Sophocles' works. Wild to think that someone who died thousands of years ago still influences what we consider literature today!

Memes and Video Games: Today's Literature?

All this talk of thousands-of-years-old texts might seem out of touch. A lot of people think "old and boring" and literature are synonymous. Students are often surprised to hear that comic books and video games can arguably be considered literature, too. There are plenty of arguments to be made that comic books, such as Maus by Art Spiegalman (1991) or Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006) are literature. Cutting edge literary scholars argue video games like Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer (2015) can be considered literary. There is also literature that is published in tweets, like Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" (2012). Some might even consider memes literature!

Generative question: do you think memes can be literary?

chihuahua makes a dramatic face with superimposed text: "me, a writing professor: *assigns 500 word essay*; students: *dramatic chihuahua face*"

A meme is an image or video containing cultural values or ideas, often represented through allusion (implied reference to another work, without naming that work or its author). Memes can spread rapidly spreads through social media. Why? Because the best ones are #relatable; that is, they speak to a common human experience.

Usually memes take the form of text superimposed on an image. For example, the meme above conveys the dramatic reaction students sometimes give when I assign an essay. This is done primarily through a literary device called hyperbole , or exaggeration for rhetorical effect. It conveys its message comically through certain conventions that come along with the meme genre, such as the syntactic structure "me, a [insert noun]" and asterisks, which convey action. Just like in the Shakespearean drama, the colon indicates what each character (me and the students, in this case) is saying or doing. My chihuahua's face looks silly and very dramatic. Through this use of image, text, format, and convention, the meaning I intended to convey was that I was making fun of my students for being over-dramatic about what to me seems like a fairly simple assignment. While some might dismiss memes as shallow, when you start to unravel the layers of meaning, they can actually be very complex and even, dare I say, literary!

Think about a recent meme you have seen, or your favorite meme of all time. Imagine explaining this meme to someone who has no idea what it means. What is the message or idea behind the meme? What cultural reference points does it use to convey its message? In what ways might this meme be considered literature? How might this compare to a short poem, like a haiku?

Not Literature

Let's say you come to the conclusion that a meme, a gossip magazine, or the Twilight Series is not literary. Does that mean you have to feel guilty and give up reading it forever? Or that it is not "good"?

Just because a work is not literary does not mean it is "bad," that it does not have value, or that one cannot enjoy it. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of written works that are on the less literary side of the spectrum but are still fun and enriching to read. Joe Dirt i s not on the same artistic level of cinema as Schindler's List , but my husband still loves watching it. Nothing Taylor Swift has produced is as deep as Tupac Shakur's "Changes" (1992) or Mitski's "Last Words of a Shooting Star" (2014), but listening to Taylor Swift is my guilty pleasure. This is all to say that whether a text is literary or not is not as important as the methods of analyzing texts. In fact, texts which were excluded from literature are often argued into the literary canon through such analysis. Part of what makes analyzing literature so fun is that it means the definition of literature is always up for debate! This is especially important given the history of the canon.

The Problem with the Canon

In an ideal world, literature would be celebrated purely based on its artistic merit. Well-written works would last, poorly-written works would wither from public memory. However, that is not always the case. Works often achieve public prominence or survive based on qualities unrelated to skill or aesthetics, such as an author's fame, wealth, connections, or acceptance by the dominant culture. William Wordsworth, for example, was named Poet Laureate of England and has been taught as one of the "Big Six" major Romantic-era authors ever since. Indeed, he is accepted as part of the Romanticism literary canon. One would be hard-pressed to find a Literature anthology that does not feature William Wordsworth . However, how many people have read or heard of Dorothy Wordsworth , William Wordsworth's sister, who arguably depicted Romantic themes with equal skill and beauty? Or James Hogg, a Scottish contemporary of Wordsworth who was a lower-class shepherd? Similarly, while most readers have encountered F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edgar Allen Poe in their high school literature classes, how many have read Frederick Douglass in these same classes? In short, all artistic skill (arguably) considered equal, why do some authors predominantly feature in the Canon while others do not?

Let’s perform an experimental activity.

  • Find a piece of paper or a whiteboard. On this piece of paper or whiteboard, write down as many works of literature that you feel constitute “Big L Literature.” Perhaps they are works you read in high school, works which have been made into films, or works you have been taught or told are literary masterworks. Don’t turn the page until you have written them down. Try to think of at least 10, but a larger sample size is better. Once you are finished, continue to the next paragraph.
  • Alright, now look at your list. If you know the author of the literary texts you named, write their name next to the work. If you do not know the author, Google the information and write it down. Continue doing this until you have named the author of each work. Once you are finished, read on to the next paragraph.
  • Now, as uncomfortable as it seems, label the gender/race/age/presumed sexual orientation of the authors you listed. After you have categorized them to the best of your ability, consider the following questions:
  • What percentage of the authors are male?
  • What percentage of the authors are white?
  • What percentage of the authors are old/dead?
  • What patterns do you notice? Why do you think this is?

I have replicated this experiment dozens of times in the classroom, and, in most classes, the vast majority of what students have been taught are “Literary Masterworks” are written by (pardon my colloquialism) dead white males. Although, as time progresses, it seems there is increasing but not proportionate representation on average. For example, while women make up about half of the population, over 80% of the most popular novels were written by men ("Battle"). While there are many possible reasons for this discrepancy in representation (which could be the focus of an entire textbook), what does this mean for scholars of literature? For students? For instructors? For society?

As a cultural relic, similar to art, many scholars suggest literature is a reflection of the society which produces it. This includes positive aspects of society (championing values such as love, justice, and good triumphing over evil), but it can also reflect negative aspects of society (such as discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, historical lack of opportunity for marginalized authors).

For example, enslaved Africans were often prevented from learning to read and write as a form of control. When Phillis Wheatley published her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) she had to defend the fact that she wrote it, due to popularly held racist views that slaves were incapable of writing poetry. Later, Frederick Douglass wrote about how his enslavers banned him from reading and writing, as they realized "education and slavery were incompatible with each other" (Douglass). He later championed his learning to read and write as the means which conveyed him to freedom. However, even when trying to publish The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass ( 1845) his publishers were forced to prove that it was, in fact, an enslaved person who wrote the story and not a white man who wrote it for him. Slave owners actively attempted to keep this book from circulation as it threatened the institution of slavery upon which they depended. Indeed, to this day, Douglass' book continues to be banned in some prisons for its potential to incite revolution (Darby, Gilroy).

How could Black writers enter the canon en masse if they were not allowed to read or write? Or if they were forced to spend all of their waking hours working? And if those who had the means to read and write had to jump through absurd hoops just to have their works published? And if even those texts which were published were banned?

Similarly, throughout much of Western history, women have been discouraged from pursuing reading and writing, as it distracted from society's expectations for women to focus on motherly and household duties. Until the 1700s, women were not allowed to go to college. Even then, very few went: only the extremely wealthy. It was not until the 19th century that women attended college in representative numbers. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own that if there are fewer works of literature written by women, it is only because society, historically, has not given women the time, education, funding, or space to do so. In this extended essay, she describes an imaginary sister of William Shakespeare who could have been just as great of a writer had she the same opportunities as her brother.

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.

Woolf argues that in our time those who have been excluded from literature can now join the canon by adding their voices. The inequity of representation in literature -- which has arguably improved, but in many ways persists today -- can be remedied if more people from a wide array of backgrounds and walks of life are empowered to study and create Literature. That is one reason why the current study of literature is so exciting. As a student and budding literary scholar, you have the power to influence culture through your reading and analysis of literature! For one author and scholar's perspective on this topic, please watch this the following TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to see the ways in which such misrepresentations are harmful, and why it is important to veer away from the historically parochial Canon into what Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories" (qtd. Bacon).

screen capture of a TED Talk video of "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Link to transcript and video.

  • Original video available on TED Talk website
  • Transcript of video

What "single stories" do you know? What are the "single stories" people have told about you? What story would you tell if you could? What kinds of stories do you want to read? Throughout this class, you will get the opportunity to encounter many different voices and stories from all over the world. While we faced hurdles of copyright permissions, the authors of this textbook attempted to embody the values espoused in this TED Talk & Chinua Achebe's conception of the "balance of stories." As you read the textbook, consider the stories which were omitted, why they were omitted, and what works of Literature you would include in this class if you could.

Works Cited

Bacon, Katie. "An African Voice." The Atlantic , 2000.

"Battle of the Authors: Are The Most Popular Rated Fiction Books Written by Men or Women?" Wordery , 1 Mar. 2019.

Darby, Luke. "Illinois Prison Bans Frederick Douglass's Memoir and Other "Racial" Books." GQ , 20 August 2019.

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845.

Friedrich, Caspar David. "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog." Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum , 1818.

Gilroy, Paul. "Banned Books of Guantánamo: 'An American Slave' by Frederick Douglass." Vice , 14 Nov. 2014.

"literature, n.; 3b & 5" OED Online , Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/109080. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Rollison, David. "Big L vs Little L Literature." Survey of World Literature I. College of Marin, 2008. Lecture.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral . 1773.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1929.

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What is Literature? || Definition & Examples

"what is literature": a literary guide for english students and teachers.

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

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What is Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video; Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Evan Gottlieb & Paige Thomas

The question of what makes something literary is an enduring one, and I don’t expect that we’ll answer it fully in this short video. Instead, I want to show you a few different ways that literary critics approach this question and then offer a short summary of the 3 big factors that we must consider when we ask the question ourselves.

Let’s begin by making a distinction between “Literature with a capital L” and “literature with a small l.”

“Literature with a small l” designates any written text: we can talk about “the literature” on any given subject without much difficulty.

“Literature with a capital L”, by contrast, designates a much smaller set of texts – a subset of all the texts that have been written.

what_is_literature_little_l.png

speaker gesturing to literature with a small "l" rather than with a big "L"

So what makes a text literary or what makes a text “Literature with a capital L”?

Let’s start with the word itself.  “Literature” comes from Latin, and it originally meant “the use of letters” or “writing.” But when the word entered the Romance languages that derived from Latin, it took on the additional meaning of “knowledge acquired from reading or studying books.” So we might use this definition to understand “Literature with a Capital L” as writing that gives us knowledge--writing that should be studied.

But this begs the further question: what books or texts are worth studying or close reading ?

For some critics, answering this question is a matter of establishing canonicity.  A work of literature becomes “canonical” when cultural institutions like schools or universities or prize committees classify it as a work of lasting artistic or cultural merit.

The canon, however, has proved problematic as a measure of what “Literature with a capital L” is because the gatekeepers of the Western canon have traditionally been White and male. It was only in the closing decades of the twentieth century that the canon of Literature was opened to a greater inclusion of diverse authors.

And here’s another problem with that definition: if inclusion in the canon were our only definition of Literature, then there could be no such thing as contemporary Literature, which, of course, has not yet stood the test of time.

And here’s an even bigger problem: not every book that receives good reviews or a wins a prize turns out to be of lasting value in the eyes of later readers.

On the other hand, a novel like Herman Melville’s Moby-Di ck, which was NOT received well by critics or readers when it was first published in 1851, has since gone on to become a mainstay of the American literary canon.

moby_dick_with_quote.png

graphic with cover of Melville's "Moby Dick" and quote

As you can see, canonicity is obviously a problematic index of literariness.

So… what’s the alternative?  Well, we could just go with a descriptive definition: “if you love it, then it’s Literature!”

But that’s a little too subjective.  For example, no matter how much you may love a certain book from your childhood (I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar ) that doesn’t automatically make it literary, no matter how many times you’ve re-read it.

Furthermore, the very idea that we should have an emotional attachment to the books we read has its own history that cannot be detached from the rise of the middle class and its politics of telling people how to behave.

Ok, so “literature with a capital L” cannot always by defined by its inclusion in the canon or the fact that it has been well-received so…what is it then? Well, for other critics, what makes something Literature would seem to be qualities within the text itself.

According to the critic Derek Attridge, there are three qualities that define modern Western Literature:

1. a quality of invention or inventiveness in the text itself;

2.  the reader’s sense that what they are reading is singular. In other words, the unique vision of the writer herself.

3. a sense of ‘otherness’ that pushes the reader to see the world around them in a new way

Notice that nowhere in this three-part definition is there any limitation on the content of Literature. Instead, we call something Literature when it affects the reader at the level of style and construction rather than substance.

In other words, Literature can be about anything!

what_is_literature_caterpillar.png

speaker telling a secret with photo of Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in the background

The idea that a truly literary text can change a reader is of course older than this modern definition. In the English tradition, poetry was preferred over novels because it was thought to create mature and sympathetic reader-citizens.

Likewise, in the Victorian era, it was argued that reading so-called “great” works of literature was the best way for readers to realize their full spiritual potentials in an increasingly secular world.

But these never tell us precisely what “the best” is.  To make matters worse, as I mentioned already, “the best” in these older definitions was often determined by White men in positions of cultural and economic power.

So we are still faced with the question of whether there is something inherent in a text that makes it literary.

Some critics have suggested that a sense of irony – or, more broadly, a sense that there is more than one meaning to a given set of words – is essential to “Literature with a capital L.”

Reading for irony means reading slowly or at least attentively.  It demands a certain attention to the complexity of the language on the page, whether that language is objectively difficult or not.

In a similar vein, other critics have claimed that the overall effect of a literary text should be one of “defamiliarization,” meaning that the text asks or even forces readers to see the world differently than they did before reading it.

Along these lines, literary theorist Roland Barthes maintained that there were two kinds of texts: the text of pleasure, which we can align with everyday Literature with a small l” and the text of jouissance , (yes, I said jouissance) which we can align with Literature. Jouissance makes more demands on the reader and raises feelings of strangeness and wonder that surpass the everyday and even border on the painful or disorienting.

Barthes’ definition straddles the line between objectivity and subjectivity. Literature differs from the mass of writing by offering more and different kinds of experiences than the ordinary, non-literary text.

Literature for Barthes is thus neither entirely in the eye of the beholder, nor something that can be reduced to set of repeatable, purely intrinsic characteristics.

This negative definition has its own problems, though. If the literary text is always supposed to be innovative and unconventional, then genre fiction, which IS conventional, can never be literary.

So it seems that whatever hard and fast definition we attempt to apply to Literature, we find that we run up against inevitable exceptions to the rules.

As we examine the many problematic ways that people have defined literature, one thing does become clear. In each of the above examples, what counts as Literature depends upon three interrelated factors: the world, the text, and the critic or reader.

You see, when we encounter a literary text, we usually do so through a field of expectations that includes what we’ve heard about the text or author in question [the world], the way the text is presented to us [the text], and how receptive we as readers are to the text’s demands [the reader].

With this in mind, let’s return to where we started. There is probably still something to be said in favor of the “test of time” theory of Literature.

After all, only a small percentage of what is published today will continue to be read 10, 20, or even 100 years from now; and while the mechanisms that determine the longevity of a text are hardly neutral, one can still hope that individual readers have at least some power to decide what will stay in print and develop broader cultural relevance.

The only way to experience what Literature is, then, is to keep reading: as long as there are avid readers, there will be literary texts – past, present, and future – that challenge, excite, and inspire us.

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

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Research Method

Home » What is Literature – Definition, Types, Examples

What is Literature – Definition, Types, Examples

Table of Contents

What is Literature

Definition:

Literature refers to written works of imaginative, artistic, or intellectual value, typically characterized by the use of language to convey ideas, emotions, and experiences. It encompasses various forms of written expression, such as novels, poems, plays, essays, short stories, and other literary works.

History of Literature

The history of literature spans thousands of years and includes works from many different cultures and languages. Here is a brief overview of some of the major periods and movements in the history of literature:

Ancient Literature (3000 BCE – 500 CE)

  • Ancient Mesopotamian Literature (3000 BCE – 2000 BCE): This period includes the earliest known writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem that explores themes of friendship, mortality, and the search for immortality.
  • Ancient Greek Literature (800 BCE – 200 BCE): This era produced works by legendary writers such as Homer, known for the Iliad and the Odyssey, and playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, who wrote tragic plays exploring human nature and the conflicts between gods and mortals.
  • Ancient Roman Literature (200 BCE – 500 CE): Roman literature included works by poets like Virgil (known for the Aeneid) and historians like Livy and Tacitus, who chronicled the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

Medieval Literature (500 CE – 1500 CE)

  • Early Medieval Literature (500 CE – 1000 CE): During this period, literature was mainly religious and included works such as Beowulf, an Old English epic poem, and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, an Italian epic poem that describes the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
  • High Medieval Literature (1000 CE – 1300 CE): This era saw the emergence of troubadour poetry in Provence, France, which celebrated courtly love, as well as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, such as The Canterbury Tales, which combined diverse stories and social commentary.
  • Late Medieval Literature (1300 CE – 1500 CE): Notable works from this period include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s sonnets, and the works of Christine de Pizan, an early feminist writer.

Renaissance Literature (14th – 17th centuries)

  • Italian Renaissance Literature (14th – 16th centuries): This period witnessed the flourishing of humanism and produced works by authors such as Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio, who emphasized the individual, the secular, and the revival of classical themes and styles.
  • English Renaissance Literature (16th – 17th centuries): This era saw the works of William Shakespeare, including his plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth, which explored complex human emotions and the human condition. Other notable writers include Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser.

Enlightenment Literature (17th – 18th centuries)

  • This period marked a shift towards reason, rationality, and the questioning of established beliefs and systems. Influential writers during this time included René Descartes, John Locke, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot.

Romanticism (late 18th – mid-19th centuries)

  • Romantic literature emphasized individual emotion, imagination, and nature. Key figures include William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.

Victorian Literature (19th century)

  • This era was characterized by the reign of Queen Victoria and featured writers such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Oscar Wilde.

Modernist Literature (late 19th – early 20th centuries)

  • Modernist literature emerged as a response to the social, political, and technological changes of the time. It is characterized by experimentation with narrative structure, language, and perspective. Notable modernist writers include T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.

Postmodern Literature (mid-20th century – present)

  • Postmodern literature challenges traditional notions of narrative and reality. It often incorporates elements of metafiction, intertextuality, and fragmented narratives. Prominent postmodern authors include Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood.

Contemporary Literature (late 20th century – present)

  • Contemporary literature encompasses a wide range of diverse voices and styles. It explores various themes and addresses contemporary issues, reflecting the cultural, social, and political contexts of the present time. Notable contemporary authors include Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith.

Types of Literature

Types of Literature are as follows:

Short story

Graphic novel, electronic literature.

Poetry is a form of literature that uses language to convey emotions or ideas in a concise and often rhythmic manner. Poetry has been around for centuries, with many different cultures creating their own unique styles. While some people may view poetry as difficult to understand, there is often great beauty in its simplicity. Whether you are looking to read poems for enjoyment or to better analyze literary works, understanding the basics of poetry can be very helpful.

Examples of Poetry in Literature

There are countless examples of poetry in literature, ranging from ancient works to contemporary masterpieces. Here are just a few examples:

  • “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ” by T.S. Eliot (1915): This modernist poem explores themes of alienation, identity, and the human condition.
  • “ Do not go gentle into that good night ” by Dylan Thomas (1951): This villanelle is a powerful meditation on death and the struggle for survival.
  • “ The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot (1922) : This epic poem is a complex and multi-layered exploration of the modern world and its spiritual emptiness.
  • “ The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe (1845) : This famous poem is a haunting and macabre exploration of grief, loss, and the supernatural.
  • “ Sonnet 18″ by William Shakespeare (1609) : This classic sonnet is a beautiful and romantic tribute to the beauty of the beloved.
  • “ Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats (1819) : This ode is a sublime exploration of the power of beauty and the transcendent experience of art.
  • “ The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1916) : This famous poem is a contemplative meditation on choices, regrets, and the uncertainties of life.

These are just a few examples of the many works of poetry that exist in literature. Poetry can explore a wide range of themes and emotions, using language and imagery to create powerful and moving works of art.

Prose is a type of written language that typically contains dialogue and narration. In literature, prose is the most common form of writing. Prose can be found in novels, short stories, plays, and essays.

Examples of Prose in Literature

“ The Essays” by Michel de Montaigne (1580) – This collection of prose is a seminal work of the French Renaissance and is credited with popularizing the use of personal reflections in prose literature. Montaigne’s writing style in these works is informal and conversational, and covers a vast range of topics including morality, philosophy, religion, and politics. The prose is notable for its intimacy and personal nature, as Montaigne often uses his own experiences and thoughts to illustrate his ideas.

A novel is a fictional book that is typically longer than 300 pages. It tells a story, usually in chronological order, and has characters and settings that are developed over the course of the story. Novels are often divided into chapters, which help to break up the story and make it easier to read.

Novels are one of the most popular genres of literature, and there are many different types of novels that you can read. Whether you’re looking for a romance novel, a mystery novel, or a historical fiction novel, there’s sure to be a book out there that you’ll love.

Examples of Novels in Literature

  • “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes (1605) – This novel is considered one of the greatest works of Spanish literature and is a satirical take on chivalric romance. It follows the adventures of a delusional knight, Don Quixote, and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza.
  • “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe (1719) – This novel is considered one of the earliest examples of the English novel and is a tale of survival and self-reliance. It follows the story of a man named Robinson Crusoe, who is stranded on a deserted island for 28 years.
  • “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813) – This novel is considered one of the greatest works of English literature and is a romantic comedy of manners. It follows the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her complicated relationship with Mr. Darcy, a wealthy landowner.
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960) – This novel is a classic of American literature and deals with issues of race, class, and justice in the American South during the 1930s. It follows the story of a young girl named Scout and her experiences with racism and prejudice.
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – This novel is considered a masterpiece of American literature and is a social commentary on the decadence and excess of the Roaring Twenties. It follows the story of Jay Gatsby, a wealthy and mysterious man, and his obsession with a woman named Daisy Buchanan.

A novella is a work of fiction that is shorter than a novel but longer than a short story. The word “novella” comes from the Italian word for “new”, which is fitting because this type of story is often seen as being between the old and the new. In terms of length, a novella typically has about 20,000 to 40,000 words.

While novels are usually about one main plot with several subplots, novellas are usually focused on one central conflict. This conflict is usually resolved by the end of the story. However, because novellas are longer than short stories, there is more room to develop characters and explore themes in depth.

Examples of Novella in Literature

  • “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad (1899) – This novella is a powerful and haunting portrayal of European imperialism in Africa. It follows the journey of a steamboat captain named Marlow, who is sent to find a man named Kurtz deep in the Congo.
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway (1952) – This novella is a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of an aging Cuban fisherman named Santiago and his epic struggle to catch a giant marlin. It is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.
  • “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka (1915) – This novella is a surreal and disturbing tale of a man named Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. It explores themes of isolation, identity, and the human condition.
  • “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (1937) – This novella is a tragic story of two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who dream of owning their own farm but are thwarted by their own limitations and the harsh realities of the Great Depression. It is a powerful commentary on the American Dream and the plight of the working class.
  • “Animal Farm” by George Orwell (1945) – This novella is a satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. It follows the story of a group of farm animals who overthrow their human owner and create their own society, only to be corrupted by their own leaders. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism and propaganda.

A short story is a work of fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents.

The short story is one of the oldest forms of literature and has been found in oral cultures as well as in written form. In terms of length, it is much shorter than the novel, typically ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 words.

The short story has often been described as a “perfect form” because it allows for greater compression and variety than either the novel or poem. It also allows writers to experiment with different styles and genres.

Examples of Short Story in Literature

  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843) – This classic horror story is a chilling portrayal of a murderer who is haunted by the sound of his victim’s heartbeat. It is a masterful example of Poe’s psychological and suspenseful writing style.
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948) – This controversial short story is a commentary on the dark side of human nature and the dangers of blind adherence to tradition. It follows the annual tradition of a small town that holds a lottery, with a surprising and shocking ending.
  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1905) – This heartwarming story is a classic example of a holiday tale of selflessness and sacrifice. It follows the story of a young couple who each give up their most prized possession to buy a gift for the other.
  • “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway (1933) – This minimalist story is a reflection on the existential angst and loneliness of modern life. It takes place in a cafe late at night and explores the relationships between the patrons and the waiter.
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) – This feminist short story is a powerful critique of the medical establishment and the treatment of women’s mental health. It follows the story of a woman who is confined to her bedroom and becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper on the walls.

A graphic novel is a book that tells a story through the use of illustrations and text. Graphic novels can be based on true stories, or they can be fictional. They are usually longer than traditional books, and they often have more complex plots.

Graphic novels first gained popularity in the 1970s, when publishers began releasing collections of comics that had been previously published in magazines. Since then, the genre has grown to include original works, as well as adaptations ofexisting stories.

Graphic novels are now widely respected as a form of literature, and they have been adapted into many different mediums, including movies, television shows, and stage plays.

Examples of Graphic Novels in Literature

  • “ Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-1987) – This graphic novel is considered one of the greatest works of the medium and is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. It follows a group of retired superheroes who come out of retirement to investigate the murder of one of their own.
  • “ Maus” by Art Spiegelman (1980-1991) – This Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel is a harrowing and poignant account of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and his strained relationship with his son. The characters are depicted as animals, with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.
  • “ Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003) – This autobiographical graphic novel is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. It follows the author’s experiences growing up in Iran and then moving to Europe as a teenager.
  • “Sandman” by Neil Gaiman (1989-1996) – This epic fantasy series is a masterful exploration of mythology, literature, and human nature. It follows the story of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, as he navigates through the world of dreams and interacts with characters from across time and space.
  • “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller (1986) – This influential graphic novel is a gritty and realistic portrayal of an aging Batman who comes out of retirement to fight crime in a dystopian future. It is credited with revolutionizing the Batman character and inspiring a new era of darker and more mature superhero stories.

Electronic literature, also known as e-literature, is a genre of writing that uses electronic media to create works of art. This type of literature often includes elements of interactivity, hypertextuality, and multimedia.

E-literature has its roots in early computer games and interactive fiction. These early works were created using simple text-based programming languages like BASIC and HTML. Today, e-literature has evolved into a complex form of art that incorporates multimedia elements such as audio and video.

Examples of Electronic Literature in Literature

  • “ Afternoon: A Story” by Michael Joyce (1987) – This hypertext fiction is considered one of the earliest examples of electronic literature. It is a nonlinear narrative that can be read in multiple paths and contains multimedia elements like images and sound.
  • “ Patchwork Girl” by Shelley Jackson (1995) – This hypertext novel is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” that uses digital media to explore the themes of identity, gender, and creation. It contains animated graphics, video, and sound.
  • “ The Dreamlife of Letters” by Brian Kim Stefans (2000) – This work of interactive poetry uses computer algorithms to generate new poems based on the user’s input. It combines traditional poetic forms with digital technologies to create a unique reading experience.
  • “ Flight Paths” by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph (2007) – This work of electronic literature is a collaborative multimedia project that explores the lives of immigrants and refugees. It combines text, video, and audio to create an immersive and interactive experience.
  • “Inanimate Alice” by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph (2005-2016) – This interactive digital novel follows the story of a young girl named Alice as she grows up in a world of technology and media. It uses a combination of text, video, animation, and sound to create a unique and engaging narrative.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction in literature is defined as prose writings that are based on real events, people, or places. Non-fiction is often divided into categories such as biography, history, and essay.

Examples of Non-fiction in Literature

  • “ The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (1859) – This landmark book is one of the most influential works in the history of science. It lays out Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and provides evidence for the descent of all living things from a common ancestor.
  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965) – This autobiography is a candid and powerful account of Malcolm X’s life as an African American civil rights leader. It explores his journey from a troubled youth to a powerful orator and activist, and provides insights into the social and political climate of the time.
  • “ The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan (1963) – This groundbreaking book is a seminal work of feminist literature. It critiques the idea of the “happy housewife” and argues that women’s social roles and expectations are limiting and oppressive.
  • “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander (2010) – This book is a powerful critique of the criminal justice system and its impact on communities of color. It argues that the system perpetuates racial inequality and provides a call to action for reform.

Drama is a genre of literature that tells a story through the use of dialogue and action. It often has a strong plot and characters who undergo change or development over the course of the story. Drama can be divided into several subgenres, such as tragedy, comedy, and farce.

Examples of Drama in Literature

  • “ Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (1603) – This tragedy is considered one of the greatest plays ever written. It tells the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark and his quest for revenge against his uncle, who murdered his father and married his mother.
  • “ A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen (1879) – This play is a landmark work of modern drama. It explores themes of gender roles, marriage, and personal identity through the story of a married woman who decides to leave her husband and children in order to discover herself.
  • “ Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller (1949) – This play is a powerful critique of the American Dream and the pressures of modern society. It tells the story of a salesman named Willy Loman and his family, as they struggle to come to terms with the realities of their lives.
  • “ Fences” by August Wilson (1985) – This play is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of ten plays that explore the African American experience in the 20th century. It tells the story of a former Negro League baseball player named Troy Maxson and his relationship with his family.

Also see Literature Review

Examples of Literature

Examples of Literature are as follows:

  • “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides
  • “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
  • “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
  • “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
  • “The Ferryman” by Jez Butterworth
  • “The Inheritance” by Matthew Lopez
  • “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage
  • “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman (inaugural poem at the 2021 U.S. presidential inauguration)
  • “The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
  • “Homie” by Danez Smith
  • “The Carrying” by Ada Limón
  • “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnino (based on the novel by André Aciman)
  • “The Great Gatsby” (2013) directed by Baz Luhrmann (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003) directed by Peter Jackson (based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • “The Handmaiden” (2016) directed by Park Chan-wook (based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters)
  • “Lemonade” (2016) by Beyoncé (visual album with accompanying poetry and prose)
  • “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) by Kendrick Lamar (rap album with dense lyrical storytelling)
  • “I See You” (2017) by The xx (album inspired by themes of love and connection)
  • “Carrie & Lowell” (2015) by Sufjan Stevens (folk album exploring personal and familial themes)
  • Blogs and online articles that discuss literary analysis, book reviews, and creative writing
  • Online literary magazines and journals publishing contemporary works of fiction, poetry, and essays
  • E-books and audiobooks available on platforms like Kindle, Audible, and Scribd
  • Social media platforms where writers share their works and engage with readers, such as Twitter and Instagram

Purpose of Literature

The purpose of literature is multifaceted and can vary depending on the author, genre, and intended audience. However, some common purposes of literature include:

Entertainment

Literature can provide enjoyment and pleasure to readers through engaging stories, complex characters, and beautiful language.

Literature can teach readers about different cultures, time periods, and perspectives, expanding their knowledge and understanding of the world.

Reflection and introspection

Literature can encourage readers to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs, prompting self-discovery and personal growth.

Social commentary

Literature can serve as a medium for social criticism, addressing issues such as inequality, injustice, and oppression.

Historical and cultural preservation

Literature can document and preserve the history, traditions, and values of different cultures and societies, providing insight into the past.

Aesthetic appreciation:

literature can be appreciated for its beauty and artistic value, inspiring readers with its language, imagery, and symbolism.

The Significance of Literature

Literature holds immense significance in various aspects of human life and society. It serves as a powerful tool for communication, expression, and exploration of ideas. Here are some of the key significances of literature:

Communication and Expression

Literature allows individuals to communicate their thoughts, emotions, and experiences across time and space. Through various literary forms such as novels, poems, plays, and essays, writers can convey their ideas and perspectives to readers, fostering understanding and empathy.

Cultural Reflection

Literature often reflects the values, beliefs, and experiences of a particular culture or society. It provides insights into different historical periods, social structures, and cultural practices, offering a glimpse into the diversity and richness of human experiences.

Knowledge and Education

Literature is a valuable source of knowledge, as it presents ideas, concepts, and information in an engaging and accessible manner. It introduces readers to different subjects, such as history, science, philosophy, psychology, and more, allowing them to expand their understanding and broaden their intellectual horizons.

Emotional and Intellectual Development

Literature has the power to evoke emotions and provoke critical thinking. By immersing oneself in literary works, readers can develop a deeper understanding of complex emotions, empathy for diverse perspectives, and the ability to think critically and analytically.

Preservation of Cultural Heritage

Literature acts as a repository of a society’s cultural heritage. It preserves the history, traditions, myths, and folklore of a particular community, ensuring that future generations can connect with their roots and learn from the experiences of the past.

Social Commentary and Critique

Literature often serves as a platform for social commentary and critique. Writers use their works to shed light on social issues, challenge societal norms, and promote positive change. By addressing controversial topics and presenting alternative viewpoints, literature can spark discussions and inspire activism.

Entertainment and Escapism

Literature offers a means of entertainment and escapism from the realities of everyday life. Engaging narratives, compelling characters, and vivid descriptions transport readers to different worlds, allowing them to experience joy, excitement, and adventure through the pages of a book.

Imagination and Creativity

Literature fuels the human imagination and nurtures creativity. It encourages readers to think beyond the boundaries of their own experiences, envision new possibilities, and explore alternative realities. Literature inspires writers to craft unique stories and ideas, contributing to the expansion of artistic expression.

Personal Growth and Self-Reflection

Reading literature can have a profound impact on personal growth and self-reflection. It provides opportunities for introspection, introspection, and self-discovery, as readers identify with characters, grapple with moral dilemmas, and contemplate the deeper meaning of life and existence.

The Enduring Impact of Literature

Literature has an enduring impact that transcends time and continues to influence individuals and societies long after it is written. Here are some ways in which literature leaves a lasting impression:

Cultural Legacy:

Literary works become part of a society’s cultural legacy. They shape and reflect the values, beliefs, and traditions of a particular era or community. Classic works of literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays or the novels of Jane Austen, continue to be studied, performed, and celebrated, preserving their impact across generations.

Influence on Other Art Forms:

Literature has a profound influence on other art forms, such as film, theater, music, and visual arts. Many famous literary works have been adapted into films or stage productions, reaching new audiences and extending their influence beyond the written word. Artists and musicians often draw inspiration from literary themes, characters, and narratives, further amplifying their impact.

Shaping Worldviews:

Literature has the power to shape and challenge worldviews. Through stories, ideas, and perspectives presented in literary works, readers are exposed to different cultures, experiences, and ideologies. This exposure fosters empathy, broadens perspectives, and encourages critical thinking, ultimately influencing how individuals perceive and understand the world around them.

Inspirational Source:

Literature serves as an inspirational source for individuals in various fields. Writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers often draw inspiration from the works of literary giants who have explored the depths of human emotions, grappled with existential questions, or challenged societal norms. Literature provides a wellspring of ideas and creativity that continues to fuel innovation and intellectual discourse.

Social and Political Change:

Literature has played a significant role in driving social and political change throughout history. Many literary works have addressed pressing social issues, advocated for human rights, and challenged oppressive systems. By shedding light on societal injustices and encouraging readers to question the status quo, literature has been instrumental in inspiring activism and fostering social progress.

Universal Themes and Human Experience:

Literature explores universal themes and the complexities of the human experience. Whether it’s love, loss, identity, or the pursuit of meaning, these themes resonate with readers across time and cultures. Literary works offer insights into the depths of human emotions, dilemmas, and aspirations, creating a shared understanding and connecting individuals across generations.

Intellectual and Personal Development:

Reading literature stimulates intellectual growth and personal development. It encourages critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to empathize with diverse perspectives. Literary works challenge readers to reflect on their own lives, values, and beliefs, promoting self-discovery and personal growth.

Enduring Literary Characters:

Iconic literary characters have a lasting impact on popular culture and the collective imagination. Characters like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, or Elizabeth Bennet have become archetypes, influencing the portrayal of similar characters in other works and becoming a part of our cultural lexicon.

Preservation of History and Memory:

Literature plays a crucial role in preserving historical events, experiences, and cultural memories. Historical novels, memoirs, and eyewitness accounts provide valuable insights into past eras, allowing future generations to learn from and connect with the past.

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What Literature Can Teach Us

Communication and research skills—and how to be a better human being

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Literature is a term used to describe written and sometimes spoken material. Derived from the Latin word  literature  meaning "writing formed with letters," literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination, including poetry, drama , fiction , nonfiction , and in some instances, journalism , and song. 

What Is Literature?

Simply put, literature represents the culture and tradition of a language or a people. The concept is difficult to precisely define, though many have tried; it's clear that the accepted definition of literature is constantly changing and evolving.

For many, the word literature suggests a higher art form; merely putting words on a page doesn't necessarily equate to creating literature. A canon is the accepted body of works for a given author. Some works of literature are considered canonical, that is, culturally representative of a particular genre (poetry, prose, or drama).

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

Some definitions also separate literary fiction from so-called "genre fiction," which includes types such as mystery, science fiction, western, romance, thriller, and horror. Think mass-market paperback.

Genre fiction typically does not have as much character development as literary fiction and is read for entertainment, escapism, and plot, whereas literary fiction explores themes common to the human condition and uses symbolism and other literary devices to convey the author's viewpoint on his or her chosen themes. Literary fiction involves getting into the minds of the characters (or at least the protagonist) and experiencing their relationships with others. The protagonist typically comes to a realization or changes in some way during the course of a literary novel.

(The difference in type does not mean that literary writers are better than genre fiction writers, just that they operate differently.)

Why Is Literature Important?

Works of literature, at their best, provide a kind of blueprint of human society. From the writings of ancient civilizations such as Egypt and China to Greek philosophy and poetry, from the epics of Homer to the plays of William Shakespeare, from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to Maya Angelou , works of literature give insight and context to all the world's societies. In this way, literature is more than just a historical or cultural artifact; it can serve as an introduction to a new world of experience.

But what we consider to be literature can vary from one generation to the next. For instance, Herman Melville's 1851 novel " Moby Dick "   was considered a failure by contemporary reviewers. However, it has since been recognized as a masterpiece and is frequently cited as one of the best works of Western literature for its thematic complexity and use of symbolism. By reading "Moby Dick" in the present day, we can gain a fuller understanding of literary traditions in Melville's time. 

Debating Literature 

Ultimately, we may discover meaning in literature by looking at what the author writes or says and how he or she says it. We may interpret and debate an author's message by examining the words he or she chooses in a given novel or work or observing which character or voice serves as the connection to the reader.

In academia, this decoding of the text is often carried out through the use of  literary theory using a mythological, sociological, psychological, historical, or other approaches to better understand the context and depth of a work.

Whatever critical paradigm we use to discuss and analyze it, literature is important to us because it speaks to us, it is universal, and it affects us on a deeply personal level. 

School Skills

Students who study literature and read for pleasure have a higher vocabulary, better reading comprehension, and better communication skills, such as writing ability. Communication skills affect people in every area of their lives, from navigating interpersonal relationships to participating in meetings in the workplace to drafting intraoffice memos or reports.

When students analyze literature, they learn to identify cause and effect and are applying critical thinking skills. Without realizing it, they examine the characters psychologically or sociologically. They identify the characters' motivations for their actions and see through those actions to any ulterior motives.

When planning an essay on a work of literature, students use problem-solving skills to come up with a thesis and follow through on compiling their paper. It takes research skills to dig up evidence for their thesis from the text and scholarly criticism, and it takes organizational skills to present their argument in a coherent, cohesive manner.

Empathy and Other Emotions

Some studies say that people who read literature have more empathy for others, as literature puts the reader into another person's shoes. Having empathy for others leads people to socialize more effectively, solve conflicts peacefully, collaborate better in the workplace, behave morally, and possibly even become involved in making their community a better place.

Other studies note a correlation between readers and empathy but do not find causation . Either way, studies back the need for strong English programs in schools, especially as people spend more and more time looking at screens rather than books.

Along with empathy for others, readers can feel a greater connection to humanity and less isolated. Students who read literature can find solace as they realize that others have gone through the same things that they are experiencing or have experienced. This can be a catharsis and relief to them if they feel burdened or alone in their troubles.

Quotes About Literature

Here are some quotes about literature from literature giants themselves.

  • Robert Louis Stevenson : "The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish."
  • Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey" : "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."
  • William Shakespeare, "Henry VI" : “I’ll call for pen and ink and write my mind.”
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Definition of literature

Examples of literature in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'literature.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin litteratura writing, grammar, learning, from litteratus

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 4

Phrases Containing literature

  • gray literature

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We know how the Nobel Prize committee defines literature, but how does the dictionary?

Dictionary Entries Near literature

literature search

Cite this Entry

“Literature.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literature. Accessed 20 Feb. 2024.

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Kids definition of literature, more from merriam-webster on literature.

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Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about literature

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Introduction

OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

  • Roughly how many sources should you include?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  • Should you evaluate your sources?
  • Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

  • Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

  • Chronological: If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
  • By publication: Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
  • By trend: A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed. Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

  • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

Published on 22 February 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 7 June 2022.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

Why write a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1: search for relevant literature, step 2: evaluate and select sources, step 3: identify themes, debates and gaps, step 4: outline your literature review’s structure, step 5: write your literature review, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a dissertation or thesis, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your dissertation addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions .

If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

Remember that you can use our template to summarise and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using!

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

You can use our free APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

Prevent plagiarism, run a free check.

To begin organising your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly-visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organising the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organise your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasise the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole.
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources.
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarise yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your  dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.

Introduction:

  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.

Conclusion:

  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

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Literature Reviews

  • What is a literature review?
  • Steps in the Literature Review Process
  • Define your research question
  • Determine inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Choose databases and search
  • Review Results
  • Synthesize Results
  • Analyze Results
  • Librarian Support

What is a Literature Review?

A literature or narrative review is a comprehensive review and analysis of the published literature on a specific topic or research question. The literature that is reviewed contains: books, articles, academic articles, conference proceedings, association papers, and dissertations. It contains the most pertinent studies and points to important past and current research and practices. It provides background and context, and shows how your research will contribute to the field. 

A literature review should: 

  • Provide a comprehensive and updated review of the literature;
  • Explain why this review has taken place;
  • Articulate a position or hypothesis;
  • Acknowledge and account for conflicting and corroborating points of view

From  S age Research Methods

Purpose of a Literature Review

A literature review can be written as an introduction to a study to:

  • Demonstrate how a study fills a gap in research
  • Compare a study with other research that's been done

Or it can be a separate work (a research article on its own) which:

  • Organizes or describes a topic
  • Describes variables within a particular issue/problem

Limitations of a Literature Review

Some of the limitations of a literature review are:

  • It's a snapshot in time. Unlike other reviews, this one has beginning, a middle and an end. There may be future developments that could make your work less relevant.
  • It may be too focused. Some niche studies may miss the bigger picture.
  • It can be difficult to be comprehensive. There is no way to make sure all the literature on a topic was considered.
  • It is easy to be biased if you stick to top tier journals. There may be other places where people are publishing exemplary research. Look to open access publications and conferences to reflect a more inclusive collection. Also, make sure to include opposing views (and not just supporting evidence).

Source: Grant, Maria J., and Andrew Booth. “A Typology of Reviews: An Analysis of 14 Review Types and Associated Methodologies.” Health Information & Libraries Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 91–108. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x.

Meryl Brodsky : Communication and Information Studies

Hannah Chapman Tripp : Biology, Neuroscience

Carolyn Cunningham : Human Development & Family Sciences, Psychology, Sociology

Larayne Dallas : Engineering

Janelle Hedstrom : Special Education, Curriculum & Instruction, Ed Leadership & Policy ​

Susan Macicak : Linguistics

Imelda Vetter : Dell Medical School

For help in other subject areas, please see the guide to library specialists by subject .

Periodically, UT Libraries runs a workshop covering the basics and library support for literature reviews. While we try to offer these once per academic year, we find providing the recording to be helpful to community members who have missed the session. Following is the most recent recording of the workshop, Conducting a Literature Review. To view the recording, a UT login is required.

  • October 26, 2022 recording
  • Last Updated: Oct 26, 2022 2:49 PM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/literaturereviews

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  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Introduction

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Introduction

  • Getting Started
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

What are Literature Reviews?

So, what is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." Taylor, D.  The literature review: A few tips on conducting it . University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.

Goals of Literature Reviews

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?  A literature could be written to accomplish different aims:

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews .  Review of General Psychology , 1 (3), 311-320.

What kinds of sources require a Literature Review?

  • A research paper assigned in a course
  • A thesis or dissertation
  • A grant proposal
  • An article intended for publication in a journal

All these instances require you to collect what has been written about your research topic so that you can demonstrate how your own research sheds new light on the topic.

Types of Literature Reviews

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.

  • Example : Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework:  10.1177/08948453211037398  

Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L. K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . Plural Publishing.

  • Example : The effect of leave policies on increasing fertility: a systematic review:  10.1057/s41599-022-01270-w

Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M. C., & Ilardi, S. S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Blackwell Publishing.

  • Example : Employment Instability and Fertility in Europe: A Meta-Analysis:  10.1215/00703370-9164737

Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts .  Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53 (3), 311-318.

  • Example : Women’s perspectives on career successes and barriers: A qualitative meta-synthesis:  10.1177/05390184221113735

Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences

  • UConn Health subject guide on systematic reviews Explanation of the different review types used in health sciences literature as well as tools to help you find the right review type
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Literature reviews, what is a literature review, learning more about how to do a literature review.

  • Planning the Review
  • The Research Question
  • Choosing Where to Search
  • Organizing the Review
  • Writing the Review

A literature review is a review and synthesis of existing research on a topic or research question. A literature review is meant to analyze the scholarly literature, make connections across writings and identify strengths, weaknesses, trends, and missing conversations. A literature review should address different aspects of a topic as it relates to your research question. A literature review goes beyond a description or summary of the literature you have read. 

  • Sage Research Methods Core Collection This link opens in a new window SAGE Research Methods supports research at all levels by providing material to guide users through every step of the research process. SAGE Research Methods is the ultimate methods library with more than 1000 books, reference works, journal articles, and instructional videos by world-leading academics from across the social sciences, including the largest collection of qualitative methods books available online from any scholarly publisher. – Publisher

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How to Write a Literature Review

What is a literature review.

  • What Is the Literature
  • Writing the Review

A literature review is much more than an annotated bibliography or a list of separate reviews of articles and books. It is a critical, analytical summary and synthesis of the current knowledge of a topic. Thus it should compare and relate different theories, findings, etc, rather than just summarize them individually. In addition, it should have a particular focus or theme to organize the review. It does not have to be an exhaustive account of everything published on the topic, but it should discuss all the significant academic literature and other relevant sources important for that focus.

This is meant to be a general guide to writing a literature review: ways to structure one, what to include, how it supplements other research. For more specific help on writing a review, and especially for help on finding the literature to review, sign up for a Personal Research Session .

The specific organization of a literature review depends on the type and purpose of the review, as well as on the specific field or topic being reviewed. But in general, it is a relatively brief but thorough exploration of past and current work on a topic. Rather than a chronological listing of previous work, though, literature reviews are usually organized thematically, such as different theoretical approaches, methodologies, or specific issues or concepts involved in the topic. A thematic organization makes it much easier to examine contrasting perspectives, theoretical approaches, methodologies, findings, etc, and to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of, and point out any gaps in, previous research. And this is the heart of what a literature review is about. A literature review may offer new interpretations, theoretical approaches, or other ideas; if it is part of a research proposal or report it should demonstrate the relationship of the proposed or reported research to others' work; but whatever else it does, it must provide a critical overview of the current state of research efforts. 

Literature reviews are common and very important in the sciences and social sciences. They are less common and have a less important role in the humanities, but they do have a place, especially stand-alone reviews.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are different types of literature reviews, and different purposes for writing a review, but the most common are:

  • Stand-alone literature review articles . These provide an overview and analysis of the current state of research on a topic or question. The goal is to evaluate and compare previous research on a topic to provide an analysis of what is currently known, and also to reveal controversies, weaknesses, and gaps in current work, thus pointing to directions for future research. You can find examples published in any number of academic journals, but there is a series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles. Writing a stand-alone review is often an effective way to get a good handle on a topic and to develop ideas for your own research program. For example, contrasting theoretical approaches or conflicting interpretations of findings can be the basis of your research project: can you find evidence supporting one interpretation against another, or can you propose an alternative interpretation that overcomes their limitations?
  • Part of a research proposal . This could be a proposal for a PhD dissertation, a senior thesis, or a class project. It could also be a submission for a grant. The literature review, by pointing out the current issues and questions concerning a topic, is a crucial part of demonstrating how your proposed research will contribute to the field, and thus of convincing your thesis committee to allow you to pursue the topic of your interest or a funding agency to pay for your research efforts.
  • Part of a research report . When you finish your research and write your thesis or paper to present your findings, it should include a literature review to provide the context to which your work is a contribution. Your report, in addition to detailing the methods, results, etc. of your research, should show how your work relates to others' work.

A literature review for a research report is often a revision of the review for a research proposal, which can be a revision of a stand-alone review. Each revision should be a fairly extensive revision. With the increased knowledge of and experience in the topic as you proceed, your understanding of the topic will increase. Thus, you will be in a better position to analyze and critique the literature. In addition, your focus will change as you proceed in your research. Some areas of the literature you initially reviewed will be marginal or irrelevant for your eventual research, and you will need to explore other areas more thoroughly. 

Examples of Literature Reviews

See the series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles to find many examples of stand-alone literature reviews in the biomedical, physical, and social sciences. 

Research report articles vary in how they are organized, but a common general structure is to have sections such as:

  • Abstract - Brief summary of the contents of the article
  • Introduction - A explanation of the purpose of the study, a statement of the research question(s) the study intends to address
  • Literature review - A critical assessment of the work done so far on this topic, to show how the current study relates to what has already been done
  • Methods - How the study was carried out (e.g. instruments or equipment, procedures, methods to gather and analyze data)
  • Results - What was found in the course of the study
  • Discussion - What do the results mean
  • Conclusion - State the conclusions and implications of the results, and discuss how it relates to the work reviewed in the literature review; also, point to directions for further work in the area

Here are some articles that illustrate variations on this theme. There is no need to read the entire articles (unless the contents interest you); just quickly browse through to see the sections, and see how each section is introduced and what is contained in them.

The Determinants of Undergraduate Grade Point Average: The Relative Importance of Family Background, High School Resources, and Peer Group Effects , in The Journal of Human Resources , v. 34 no. 2 (Spring 1999), p. 268-293.

This article has a standard breakdown of sections:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Some discussion sections

First Encounters of the Bureaucratic Kind: Early Freshman Experiences with a Campus Bureaucracy , in The Journal of Higher Education , v. 67 no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1996), p. 660-691.

This one does not have a section specifically labeled as a "literature review" or "review of the literature," but the first few sections cite a long list of other sources discussing previous research in the area before the authors present their own study they are reporting.

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Book cover

Consumption Behaviour and Social Responsibility pp 47–113 Cite as

An Overview of Literature

  • Karnika Gupta 6 &
  • Narendra Singh 7  
  • First Online: 24 May 2020

986 Accesses

Part of the Approaches to Global Sustainability, Markets, and Governance book series (AGSMG)

This chapter organizes two Sects. 2.1 and 2.2 which draw together the literature spread of over five decades, and synthesize that on the grounds of purpose/objectives, design/methods, statistical approach, and findings/conclusion. Second Sect. 2.2 obtains that literature is fragmented and is much cumbersome due to copious terminologies and results. So, this section pulls out research gaps which became evident from literature review in Sect. 2.1 . The presentation of work in this chapter performs many important functions to further develop the conceptual framework, constructs, objectives and hypotheses of this study, and in carrying out the empirical part of it.

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Webster ( 1975 ) developed propositions from the literature review to guide research into the characteristics of the socially conscious consumer and called it social involvement model, a hypothesis for his study. According to this model, the socially conscious consumer was defined as a person who was in a good position in terms of income, education, and occupation to contribute to the community and his/her self concept allows him to take an active role. He/she acts in a manner consistent with his/her attitudes and plays an active role not only in organized activities but also in his individual behaviour as a consumer.

DDB Needham is an advertising agency and conducts a proprietary life study annually.

The ISSP Surveys are administered by leading academic institutions in each of the member countries and involve annual surveys of economic and social policy issues with the specific topics varying in a five-year cycle, and the survey data become freely available to ISSP participants. The main topic of 1993 survey was environment, totaling 26,552 respondents across countries.

According to Clark et al. ( 2003 ), green electricity refers to electricity that is generated from solar, wind, or other renewable energy sources. Throughout the United States, green electricity is offered to households as a supplement to electricity derived from fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Activism referred to specific movement-supporting activities that are promoted by environmental organizations (Tindall et al. 2003 ).

Biographical unavailability means personal constraints that present barriers to participation as entailed in demands of the ‘double-day’ of paid and domestic work (Tindall et al. 2003 ).

Civic voluntarism model was developed by Verba and associates, meant to apply it on electoral participation. Barken ( 2004 ) argued that it should also apply to social movement participation because of similar findings that socio-demographic variables predict both electoral and movement participation. The model has four components: resources, psychological engagement, recruitment, and issue engagements. Resources include time, money, communication, and organizational skills that provide the means to be active for a particular issue. Psychological engagements mean interest, efficacy, belief, feelings, and trust. Recruitment shows that people may have resources and psychological engagement for political activity but still remain inactive unless asked by their network members to take part. Thus, common network places of worship, voluntary organizations, and work settings come under this final component as issue engagement shows people engagement that may be based upon the view that it affects them personally or because it bears on moral and political values.

The GSS is a survey of adults, no institutionalized population of the United States. It is conducted regularly since 1972. A total of 2817 respondents were included in 2000 GSS (Barken 2004 ).

The inventory identifies tendencies towards a hedonistic present (living present life in enjoyment), a fatalistic present (perceiving own life under the control of eternal events), a positive past (an orientation towards pleasant past memories), a negative past (Living a past of unpleasant and painful events), and future orientation (the tendency to planning and anticipating events). Future orientation compels individuals to anticipate consequence of their own behaviour. Present orientation makes people prone to enjoying the immediate use of natural resources and past orientation was based on painful or funful past.

ROSE questionnaire is a Likert-type scale and included what I want to learn about, my future job, me and the environmental challenges, my science classes, my opinion about science and technology, my out-of-school experience, and me as a scientist requires students sections and various information on them.

Interpretive inquiry is described as a systematic search for deep understanding of the ways in which persons subjectively experience the social world. In-depth interview and observation were primary tools to obtain data within interpretive framework.

Individual variables referred to items that were controlled to a great extent by the individual. There might be outside influences also such as the role of parents and friends in shaping values which are highlighted by next two. Household variables included those influences that existed at the household level and social variables reflected social context and factors which measured it.

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Gupta, K., Singh, N. (2020). An Overview of Literature. In: Consumption Behaviour and Social Responsibility. Approaches to Global Sustainability, Markets, and Governance. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-3005-0_2

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Introduction to Literature Review

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What is a Literature Review

  The purpose of an academic research paper is to express and document an original idea. Literature Review is one part of that process of writing a research paper. In a research paper, you use the literature as a starting point, a building block and as evidence of a new insight. The goal of the literature review is only to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. You should not present your original idea.

The reading that you do as part of a literature review will answer one of two questions:

“What do we know about the subject of our study?” “Based on what we know, what conclusions can we draw about the research question?”

Notice that the conclusions to be drawn are about the research question , as opposed to a novel theory. 

The types of conclusions about your research question that you want to discover are: ❖ gaps in the knowledge on a subject area ❖ questions about your topic that remain unanswered ❖ areas of disagreement in your subject area that need to be settled.

Purpose of Literature Review?

There are a number of differing descriptions of the purpose of a literature review. Primarily it is a tool for

❖ researching the history of scholarly publication on a topic

❖ becoming aware of the scholarly debate within a topic

❖  a summary or restatement of conclusions from research which has been published

❖ synthesis or recombining, comparing and contrasting, the ideas of others.

❖ evaluate sources

❖ search for gaps

A literature review provides a comprehensive overview of a topic , supporting the fundamental purpose of a research paper, which is to present a new point of view or insight on a topic. The literature review supports the new insight. It does not present or argue for it.

Structure of Literature Review

  • Choose a topic
  • Find research
  • Organize sources/notetaking
  • Evaluate Sources
  • Synthesize: think of this phase as a narrative . 

There are various ways of organizing the literature review process- if one of these seems closer to your purpose, try it out.

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overview of literature meaning

Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject.

Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field.

Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in academic literature.

Identifying Gaps: Aims to pinpoint areas where there is a lack of research or unresolved questions, highlighting opportunities for further investigation.

Contextualization: Enables researchers to understand how their work fits into the broader academic conversation and contributes to the existing body of knowledge.

overview of literature meaning

tl;dr  A literature review critically examines and synthesizes existing scholarly research and publications on a specific topic to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field.

What is a literature review NOT?

❌ An annotated bibliography

❌ Original research

❌ A summary

❌ Something to be conducted at the end of your research

❌ An opinion piece

❌ A chronological compilation of studies

The reason for conducting a literature review is to:

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  1. Literature

    literature, a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical ...

  2. How to Write a Literature Review

    A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic. There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  3. 1.1: What is Literature?

    Literature is art, but with words. While the artist uses different colors, paintbrushes, mediums, canvases, and techniques, the writer uses different genres and literary techniques called literary devices. Just like different types of paint, paintbrushes, and artistic tools, there are literally hundreds of literary devices, but some of the most ...

  4. What is Literature? || Definition & Examples

    1. a quality of invention or inventiveness in the text itself; 2. the reader's sense that what they are reading is singular. In other words, the unique vision of the writer herself. 3. a sense of 'otherness' that pushes the reader to see the world around them in a new way

  5. What is Literature

    Definition: Literature refers to written works of imaginative, artistic, or intellectual value, typically characterized by the use of language to convey ideas, emotions, and experiences. It encompasses various forms of written expression, such as novels, poems, plays, essays, short stories, and other literary works. History of Literature

  6. What Literature Can Teach Us

    Literature is a term used to describe written and sometimes spoken material. Derived from the Latin word literature meaning "writing formed with letters," literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination, including poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction, and in some instances, journalism, and song. What Is Literature?

  7. Literature Definition & Meaning

    literature noun lit· er· a· ture ˈli-tə-rə-ˌchu̇r ˈli-trə-ˌchu̇r, ˈli-tər-ˌchu̇r, ˈli-tə-, -chər, -ˌtyu̇r -ˌtu̇r 1 a (1) : writings in prose or verse especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest literature stands related to man as science stands to nature J. H. Newman (2)

  8. (PDF) Defining a Literature

    Zoë Allman. View. Show abstract. ... Literature is a form of human expression that belongs to the category of art that uses language as material (Jakobson, 1987;Lodge, 2015;Thomas, 2020). Experts ...

  9. Literature Reviews

    A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information.

  10. Overview of Literature

    OVERVIEW of Literature The Seventeenth Century: An Age of Genius. It is difficult to summarize the achievements of European literature in the Baroque and classical eras, because they are at one and the same time enormous and yet enormously varied. From the benefit of hindsight, though, the years following 1600 witnessed some fundamental changes ...

  11. What is a Literature Review?

    A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research. There are five key steps to writing a literature review: Search for relevant literature. Evaluate sources. Identify themes, debates and gaps.

  12. Writing a Literature Review

    A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays).

  13. What is a literature review?

    A literature or narrative review is a comprehensive review and analysis of the published literature on a specific topic or research question. The literature that is reviewed contains: books, articles, academic articles, conference proceedings, association papers, and dissertations.

  14. American literature

    American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States.. Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent—colonies from which a few hardy souls ...

  15. Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide

    What kinds of literature reviews are written? Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified.

  16. Literature review

    [1] A literature review can be a type of review article. In this sense, a literature review is a scholarly paper that presents the current knowledge including substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic.

  17. What is a Literature Review?

    A literature review is meant to analyze the scholarly literature, make connections across writings and identify strengths, weaknesses, trends, and missing conversations. A literature review should address different aspects of a topic as it relates to your research question. A literature review goes beyond a description or summary of the ...

  18. Literary Theory: Understanding 15 Types of Literary Criticism

    Literary Theory: Understanding 15 Types of Literary Criticism. Written by MasterClass. Last updated: Jun 7, 2021 • 4 min read. Literary theory enables readers and critics a better understanding of literature through close readings and contextual insights. Literary theory enables readers and critics a better understanding of literature through ...

  19. How to Write a Literature Review

    What Is the Literature What Is a Literature Review A literature review is much more than an annotated bibliography or a list of separate reviews of articles and books. It is a critical, analytical summary and synthesis of the current knowledge of a topic.

  20. An Overview of Literature

    Abstract. This chapter organizes two Sects. 2.1 and 2.2 which draw together the literature spread of over five decades, and synthesize that on the grounds of purpose/objectives, design/methods, statistical approach, and findings/conclusion. Second Sect. 2.2 obtains that literature is fragmented and is much cumbersome due to copious ...

  21. PDF Literature Review: An Overview

    Literature Review: An Overview Having happily found a suitable topic, the beginning researcher is usually "raring to go." ... Definition, Purpose, and Scope The Review of related literature involves the systematic identification, location, and analysis of documents containing information related to the research problem. The term is

  22. Literature Review: Definition and Context

    Literature Review is one part of that process of writing a research paper. In a research paper, you use the literature as a starting point, a building block and as evidence of a new insight. The goal of the literature review is only to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. You should not present your original idea.

  23. Background and Definition of Literature (docx)

    Background and Definition of Literature We cannot deny the fact that literature is highly dependent on imagination. While some authors would say that experience will serve as the building blocks of literature, we cannot deny the fact that there is a need to incorporate our sense of imagination in order to produce a literary output that is hooking, intriguing, interesting, and subsequently ...

  24. Modernist Literature Guide: Understanding Literary Modernism

    Modernist Literature Guide: Understanding Literary Modernism. Modernism was a literary movement that lasted from the late nineteenth century to around the mid-twentieth century, and encapsulated a series of burgeoning writing techniques that influenced the course of literary history. Modernism was a literary movement that lasted from the late ...

  25. Getting started

    What is a literature review? Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject. Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field. Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in ...