Please note there is also an introductory document providing general instructions on
Writing a Literature Review
A literature review is an explanation, often referred to as a critique, of published work
that is relevant to your project or research. However, it is important that you comment
on what you have read and compare the findings of different authors. It is an
opportunity for you to gain additional knowledge in the area of your research and show
that you understand the theoretical background to your project. It also provides you
with an opportunity to show where there are gaps in the research that has been
undertaken and in turn demonstrates how your project may fill any such gaps. In large
works, such as a PhD thesis, the Literature Review is usually presented as a single
chapter. In a final year project, it will most likely be included in your introductory
chapter, which you could entitle 'Introduction and Background'.
When undertaking a PhD the main reasons for searching the literature before starting
any research is to avoid duplicating research that has already been undertaken and to
determine areas that need additional research. For final year projects, searching the
literature and writing a review demonstrates your ability to source material, which is a
skill that will be of benefit to you in the work place. In addition, writing, in your own
words, about the material you have read will show your supervisor that you have the
ability to understand academic papers in your field of study and summarise what you
The length of your literature review will ultimately depend on the size of your report,
which is likely to relate to the number of modules credited to it. Before starting your
project, it is important that you discuss with your supervisor his or her expectations
and requirements relating to your written report. You should also determine whether
there is a departmental template or any specifications to which you must adhere.
2 Sourcing Your Material
It is very important that you use reliable sources of information such as journals,
conference papers or official reports. Try to keep referencing from websites, other
than legitimate and high quality ones such as Government reports, to a minimum.
Material on websites does not undergo peer review or any form of quality control to
ensure that it is accurate. Anyone can publish anything; content and address may
change. Take care not to introduce bias into your review by selecting only material
that agrees with your undertaking.
If you source a publication by a key player in your field but are unable to obtain a copy
of it don't despair, ask your supervisor as he or she may have a copy and if not, may
be prepared to sign a form to enable you to obtain the material via an Inter-Library
Another area of concern is that of how much material to source. This will depend on
the size of your project. For a small piece of coursework, referencing the most
prominent people in the field will suffice. A final year project will require the same
approach but with a larger number of references. For those of you who continue into
post graduate research degrees, citing the work of others becomes very important and
you will need to do exhaustive searches and will probably reference over two hundred
sources of material.
For final year projects, it is likely that your supervisor will suggest some background
reading material, however, if this is not the case then you should ask for some
recommendations. If your supervisor has publications related to your project then it is
a good idea to reference some of them.
When photocopying material from books or journals there are copyright restrictions
that determine how much material you can legally copy; if you are in any doubt you
should consult a librarian.
It is also important that you realistically apportion the time you will have available to
spend on your project. Writing reports and reviews invariably takes far longer than you
anticipate. Furthermore, it is impossible to complete a grammatical, well-presented
report in a couple of days.
3 Reading, Organising and Making Notes
The first thing to do after sourcing a publication is to read the abstract and determine
whether the paper appears to be relevant to your project. This will also demonstrate to
you the importance of writing a clear abstract or summary for your own report.
If after reading the abstract, you think that the material will be relevant to your project
then continue to read the whole paper. The best approach is to skim read it first to
make sure that it really is relevant - this tactic will save you a lot of time. If you find that
it is pertinent to your work then read it again more slowly and make some notes or
highlight sections. If you will be writing a lengthy review, either making a note of, or
highlighting the section you are interested in, will save you a lot of time when you start
writing. Use post-it notes in library books, as it is difficult to comprehend and make
notes from a book in which passages have been underlined and annotated by others.
Many academic papers are not easy to understand, they are written in a theoretical
manner using academic language and subject specific terminology. Read the easiest
to comprehend material first. This will increase your subject knowledge and hopefully
make the more difficult material appear less daunting. Reading academic literature will
also help you to write in an appropriate style.
File your material in a logical way. For example, you could use index cards with a brief
note about the content of the publication and file the paper or photocopy with your own
notes attached. If you file everything alphabetically you will be able to find material
much more easily, which will save you time when you commence writing your review.
Using a web-based application to store and manage your references will be helpful for
Colour coding your notes or drawing a mind map/ spider diagram as you read the
material may be helpful. This will also help you to develop headings and sub
headings. The more material you read, the easier you should find it to write in the
You need to evaluate material as you read it. Ask yourself questions such as; does the
research appear to be rigorous; is the conclusion realistic; are there any ambiguous
claims? If a survey is involved, notice the number of people surveyed and the
4 Structure and Getting Started with the Writing
There are many different ways to structure your literature review, for example:
• as a chronological review of the work of others
• giving the opinions of others for and against a particular issue
• by the order in which you tracked down information, in particular if one thing led
• by using the headings and sub headings you have determined.
Your perusal of relevant material will, it is hoped, have helped you to identify some
appropriate headings and sub-headings. However, writing a good literature review or
background to your project is not easy and may involve you deleting what you have
written and starting again - this may happen more than once.
4.1 Starting to Write
The most important thing is to write something. It is all too easy to sit staring at a blank
page on your computer screen not knowing where to start and waiting for inspiration. If
you find yourself in this situation, try making bullet points of what you want to say and
type or insert the reference(s) to the paper or papers you will be using. For example, if
your review is about changes to examinations taken by pupils at 18 years of age you
could start by writing something like:
I want to talk about the recent changes to GCE A Level.
Then think about what you want to say and insert some headings and sub-headings.
Once you have written something, no matter how basic or ungrammatical, it is easy to
improve it, revise it and add to it. Even a small piece of writing is encouraging.
What you are aiming for is a critique of the current literature not just a list of what one
author says followed by the findings of another person in the field. Try to make it into
an interesting ‘story’ that is interspersed with your own comments and flows smoothly.
It should explain why your work is being undertaken and why it is important. You may
have identified headings and sub-headings before you started to write your review,
nevertheless as you progress the need for more sub-headings may well arise. The
better your structure the easier it is to write your review and end up with a clear logical
Merlin (20**:pp-pp) has reported interesting findings on the stress of magic material
although he does acknowledge that his measurements were not as
stringent as he would have liked. However, in addition to his reported shortcomings
with the measurements, there was only a small sample of materials tested; it would be
useful to repeat the experiment using a larger sample size.
Do not put off getting started - the sooner you start it the sooner you will finish it. Start
typing and do not worry unduly at this stage, about style, grammar etc., the most
encouraging thing is to have a few pages written. Once you have something in your
computer, you can revisit what you have written to correct and revise it.
Like any other form of writing, your review needs an introduction that will act as a
signpost to the reader. The main body of your review will detail earlier research that is
relevant to your project. The objective is to give a coherent background to your work.
It may be stating the obvious but do remember to save your work regularly and print a
hard copy. Try to complete your writing ahead of the submission deadline; this will
leave you time for refinements and proofreading.
4.2 Font and Layout
It may be a departmental requirement that your report should use a particular font. It is
for you, as an individual (or a group), to establish the font that should be used. If in
doubt, use a sans-serif font. It is also important to determine the size of font and the
line spacing that is required. If there are not any specifications, use 12pt font with
single line spacing, left align text and avoid overuse of bold, underlining, italics and
variations in font. Following these recommendations will ensure that your work is well
presented and easy to read.
If your report requires binding then it is imperative that the left hand margin is wide
enough to allow for this.
4.3 Style of Writing
Current practice in scientific literature is to use the third person. This means that you
would not write, ‘I/ we have verified that all the results are included in our report’.
Instead, you should write, ‘It has been verified that all results are included in the
report’. Likewise, ‘We will show that the experiment has produced some interesting
results’ would be phrased as, 'It will be shown that the experiment has produced some
interesting results’. This can sound contrived and pompous; nevertheless, it is the
accepted style of writing for reports. It is important that you determine what your
departmental rules or guidelines are with regard to report writing.
In addition to using the third person, you may write in the active or passive voice. This
provides opportunity for you to place emphasis on the appropriate part of the sentence
as demonstrated in the following examples.
Passive: The first steam locomotive was designed by George Stephenson.
Here the emphasis is on the first steam locomotive (the result or a fact).
Active: George Stephenson designed the first steam locomotive.
Here the emphasis is on George Stephenson (the person or thing who did it).
Passive: The accuracy of measurements has been improved by new laboratory
Active: New laboratory equipment has improved the accuracy of measurements.
Plagiarism is using the work of others and, by failing to reference it, passing it off as
your own work. This is unacceptable behaviour and may be subject to disciplinary
procedures. For more details, see Plagiarism at Loughborough University
To avoid plagiarising the work of others you must comply with the following:
1. If you copy material exactly, then enclose it in quotation marks or indent it
using smaller font and reference it in your text and in your References section.
2. If you summarise or paraphrase the material, you must still reference the
source in your text and in your References section.
Your supervisor or lecturer will be familiar with publications relating to specific areas of
engineering and will be likely to recognise plagiarised writing. Furthermore, there are
several extremely good plagiarism checkers available on the internet and these are
able to check, in seconds, if your work is original or not.
Copying the work of other students is also plagiarism; this may be referred to as
To avoid plagiarism it is important to reference the work of others accurately in your
writing. If you are found to have plagiarised the work of others your Institution may
subject you to disciplinary procedures. At the end of your report, it is essential to
include a list referencing the work of others that you have referred to in your report
and/ or work that you have consulted in order to produce your report.
4.5 Quoting the Work of Others
You may quote directly from the work of others or paraphrase what you have read. In
both cases, you are obliged to reference the author(s). It must be clear to anyone
reading your review the distinction between your views and findings, and those of
The following bullet points demonstrate when it is appropriate to quote directly:
• an important finding
• when it is difficult to paraphrase what has been said without losing the true
• when an author has worded something so well that the impact would be lost if
you rephrased it.
It is very important that you quote the work of others accurately. If you are quoting
directly from the text then you must ensure that you copy it exactly as it is - this
includes spelling (for example, American English) and punctuation.
If you are paraphrasing material, take care not to change the meaning of the original
To ensure your writing flows use words that link sentences for example: hence,
therefore, nevertheless, however.
Make your own voice heard and demonstrate that you have read and understood the
material by starting sentences as follows:
A contrasting pointy of view is put forward by...
On the other hand, Smith (20**:pp) is of the opinion that...
When writing about someone's opinion do not use words such as he says. It is much
more appropriate to write:
Perkin (20**:pp) argues/claims that...
Finally, if you do not understand something then refrain from writing about it in a way
that suggests you understand it otherwise you may encounter difficulties at your viva.
The name(s) of the author(s) work you have used
be included in your writing
referenced at the end of your report.
5 Styles of Referencing
This section will concentrate on the importance of referencing, and the mistakes that
occur most frequently, rather than specific details of referencing. There exist several
different referencing systems; the most common are the Harvard system and the
It is important to note that, not only will different departments have different
preferences but also, within departments, individual lecturers may also have their own
Irrespective of the system adopted, it is important that you are consistent and follow
the layout exactly. This means paying attention to where full stops or commas are
required and displaying relevant text in italics. When referencing journal articles, it is
the title of the journal that is italicised; for books it is the title that is italicised.
Your references should provide adequate information to enable someone reading your
review to obtain copies of your referenced material if they wish to do so. It is therefore
imperative that your referencing is accurate, for example, surnames must correctly
spelled, multiple authors need to be listed in the correct order and page numbers must
be given when appropriate. All work of others, whether referred to, paraphrased or
quoted from must be included in your references; this applies to both published and
unpublished work, for example, PhD theses or private communications.
Never include 'second hand' references as if you had read them yourself. This means
that if you are reading a journal paper or textbook and the author, say Bloggs, includes
a quotation or paraphrases a conclusion or opinion from another author, say Smith,
you must not use this secondary source as if you had read the original. You must
either obtain Smith's original material to ensure that the work has been interpreted and
referenced correctly and quoted from accurately or, in your own review, write Bloggs
(yyyy:pp-pp), citing the work of Smith, explains...
6. Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
In order for your writing to be deemed professional it must be grammatically correct
(ensure that every sentence has a subject, object and verb), free from spelling
mistakes and well punctuated. Inevitably, there may be typing mistakes that remain
undetected; however, it is not acceptable for large numbers of them to remain.
Spell checkers on computers are extremely helpful but not infallible, especially with
typing errors. Consider the words now and not in the following two sentences:
The results are now presented in detail.
The results are not presented in detail.
These two sentences have very different meanings and a spell checker would not find
anything wrong with either of them.
Some frequently misspelt words are listed below:
In addition to misspelt words, there are words with similar spellings but different
meanings that are frequently confused. For example:
compliment and complement
lose and loose
personnel and personal
principal and principle
stationary and stationery
where and were
formally and formerly
And words that sound the same but have different meanings such as:
band and banned
for and four
sight, site and cite
their and there
to, too and two
whether, weather and wether (a castrated ram).
A sensible idea is to have a dictionary nearby. It is also advisable not to use the auto
correct feature as unrecognised technical words and proper names may be changed
to words that are known to 'Word'.
6.2 Grammar and Punctuation
There are many grammatical pitfalls for the uninitiated or unwary. Here we will look at
errors that frequently occur. It is pertinent to mention that, like the spell checker, the
grammatical checks in word processing packages are not infallible.
Care also needs to be taken with pronouns (words such as he/she/it, they, them) to
ensure that it is clear as to what or whom the pronoun is referring to. Another trap that
the unwary may fall into is that of splitting infinitives. The following are examples of the
infinitive form of verbs:
When using the infinitive form of a verb, the two words ‘to’ and the ‘verb’ must not be
separated. A classic example of a split infinitive is that used in Star Trek, ‘to boldly go
…’ Your report or review is not an episode of Star Trek and will be marked by your
Apostrophes demonstrating missing letters are not suitable for use in a report unless
you are citing work, which contains such words. For example, haven’t should be
written as have not, it’s should be written as it is, which will also help you to avoid
incorrect usage of its and it's. Care needs to be taken with the use of apostrophes
demonstrating possession. For example, Professor Blogg has had two years of
experience in dealing with his student’s difficulties.
In the previous sentence, student’s implies that the Professor has only dealt with one
student with difficulties. Whereas students’ would imply he has dealt with more than
one student with difficulties.
The use of punctuation can radically alter the meaning of a sentence; therefore, it is
essential to place commas in the correct place.
Consider the following:
(a) On Monday we walked, skied and drank mulled wine.
(b) On Monday we walked, skied, and drank mulled wine.
Example (a) implies that we drank mulled wine while we were actually ski-ing.
The semicolon (;) and the colon (:) are different punctuation marks which are not
interchangeable. A semicolon links two closely related sentences whereas a colon
shows that a list or example follows.
Take care not to write fragments, i.e., incomplete sentences that do not tell the reader
anything. However, long sentences are not only difficult to comprehend they are also
more difficult to write correctly. It is long sentences that most frequently contain
incorrect use of pronouns, tense changes and punctuation errors. However, too many
very short sentences may result in stilted text that does not flow. It is best to aim for
medium length sentences interspersed with occasional short sentences to add impact
to what you are telling the reader.
Avoid using unnecessary words that do not add to the meaning of the sentence and
too many long or unusual words. The review or report must include the technical
words that are associated with your subject and it must read as if an educated
professional has written it. Above all, your review is a serious piece of academic
writing and, as such, must be well written and free from jargon.
Checklist for your Literature Review
□ Detailed plan and timetable completed
□ Literature search is pertinent to the project
□ Material sourced
□ Material read
□ Notes made
□ Departmental guidelines have been sought
□ Cited material has been accurately referenced
□ Literature review has a logical progression
□ Consistent layout
□ Literature review has been proofread
Figure 1: Checklist for your Literature Review
References and Bibliography
LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY. Plagiarism and Referencing. Available from the
World Wide Web at http://learn.lboro.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=3606 [Accessed on
HOLTOM, D. & FISHER, E. (1999) Enjoy writing your science thesis or dissertation: a
step by step guide to planning and writing dissertations and theses for undergraduate
and graduate science students. Imperial College Press, London, UK.
LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. Doing a literature review. Available from
the World Wide Web at http://www.lboro.ac.uk/library/skills/report.html [Accessed on
NORTHEY, M. & JEWINSKI, J. (2007) Making sense: a student's guide to research
and writing: engineering and the technical sciences. Oxford University Press, Ontario,
ROBSON, C. (2007) How to do a research project: a guide for undergraduate
students. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, UK.
VAN EMDEN, J. & EASTEAL, J. (1993) Report Writing. McGraw-Hill, Berkshire, UK.
WALLIMAN, N. (2004) Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for
Success. Sage Publications Ltd., London, UK.
WILSON, P. (2007) Literature Reviews. Available from the World Wide Web at
[Accessed on 09/04/10].