Literature review

When one thinks of the literature review, Isaac Newton’s famous phrase comes to mind: I can see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The purpose of the literature review is:

  • To explore what has been explored and written on the subject matter before, and how
  • To identify what has not yet been explored
  • To identify and occupy a niche in the field

This has been aptly captured by John Swales CARS model: Click here to read more.


Drafting the literature review

Where does one start?

You may wish to start by conducting a literature search on Google Scholar and other search engines or database platforms.  Click here for more tips.

Ways of reading

You can begin by doing a preview and overview of the articles collected, in order to establish whether they are really relevant for your piece of research.  If they are, you can do a close reading or inview of the articles in question.

Ways of organising and storing relevant articles

Some of us still find the traditional cue cards and handwritten note taking system quite appealing, while others are moving to more efficient softwares such as Endnotes or even Nvivo to keep a record of the readings done.  The use of such softwares can also allow for thematic coding of the texts for easy retrieval when you are looking for articles on particular themes.

You may also consider tabulating summaries of readings by key scholars in order to juxtapose and compare them to one another.  Whichever method you use, be sure to label them and have back-ups on Google drive or Dropbox.

Guiding questions during the drafting process

  1. Who are the key theorists/ scholars in the field?  How do they engage with one another?

          E.g. Views differ on …

          While theorist A argues that…, theorist B claims that…

  1. What are the key theories in the field?  How are they linked / how do they differ?
  2. Which of these theories are relevant for your study?
  3. What are some of the gaps in the literature?

        E.g. Some areas that need to be explored further are …

  1. Which gap will your study address?
  2. What are some key concepts you will use while undertaking this study?  Describe and explain them.



Bongi Bangeni based at the University of Cape Town interviews a postgraduate student, Chivimbiso about her concepts for her literature review.  Chivimbiso is specialising in Anthropology and African studies.  Of course your process may be different, depending on your discipline and your topic.


Suggested activities

To plan your ideas and organise your readings, you can use this table, if you wish.  Some columns may be more relevant than others.  Here is an example:


Additional resources:

This link takes you to Pat Thomson’s thread ‘literature review’, but explore her blog for wisdom on various aspects of academic writing

Cecile Badenhorst offers advice on research and writing.

Advice on writing a literature review – seeing it as a process and not the final product.

Literature Review survival guide – compiled by UCT Librarian Alex D’Angelo. Unfortunately, some of the links given will be accessible only to UCT registered staff and students, but there are some very helpful pointers.

Literature review survival guide

Arnold Wentzel’s, Creating the literature review: Research questions and arguments