How to Write a Successful Literature Review

One type of a proposal focus is a literature review/trend analysis. This type of a proposal is somewhat different from the other proposal foci. A sample literature/trend analysis is posted at the bottom of this guide.

A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research or theory, and provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works.The goal of this form of a proposal is to provide an overview of the significant trends in the literature that is published on this topic.

The topics and references you include in your proposal should be purposeful and represent the key authors and arguments in that particular area of study. This necessitates that the review be consistently up to date and include the newest findings/discussions in that particular area of study or debate.

Definition and use/purpose

In a literature review you may highlight a critical area of a thesis, or it may be a focused, selected review of writings on a subject with the following purposes. Each work should:

  • Relate to the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe / compare each work in relationship to the others in your proposal
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts among what is deemed as contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Illustrate how this work can be a starting point for further research
  • Highlight the relevancy of the work in the context of existing literature

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

What to include

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those supporting a particular position, those who have the opposite view, and those who give alternative theses entirely)
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • A conclusion. Determine which aspects are key in the debates on the topic, are most convincing, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of this particular research area.

Evaluating the data

  • Authority — What are the author's credentials? Is there evidence to support the author's arguments (e.g., primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity — Does the author have a bias in the writing, or is the perspective even-handed? Does the author consider contrasting or opposing data or does he or she ignore other pertinent information in order to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness — Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value — Does the author provide enough context to make the case that this is a relevant discussion in the current state of the field? Does this work make a significant contribution to create a stronger understanding of the subject?

A sample of a well-written literature review/trend analysis is available below. If you have questions, please email Cindy Winter or call her at 612-759-8580. You may also contact one of the section chairs.