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What is a review writing?

A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviewscan

consider books, articles, entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion,
restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and many other forms. This handout
will focus on book reviews.

A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and
merit.[1] A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly
review.[2] Books can be reviewed for printed periodicals, magazines and newspapers, as school
work, or for book web sites on the Internet. A book review's length may vary from a single paragraph
to a substantial essay. Such a review may evaluate the book on the basis of personal taste.
Reviewers may use the occasion of a book review for a display of learning or to promulgate their
own ideas on the topic of a fiction or non-fiction work.
There are a number of journals devoted to book reviews,[3] and reviews are indexed in databases
such as Book Review Index and Kirkus Reviews; but many more book reviews can be found in
newspaper databases as well as scholarly databases such as Arts and Humanities Citation
Index, Social Sciences Citation Index and discipline-specific databases.

Tips for writing book reviews

Luisa Plaja
Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've
loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new
books that are right for them. If you're stuck on what to say in a review, it can help to imagine
you're talking to someone who's asking you whether they should read the book.

Author Luisa Playa gives her top tips for writing reviews:

1) Start with a couple of sentences describing what the book is about

But without giving any spoilers or revealing plot twists. As a general rule, try to avoid writing in detail
about anything that happens from about the middle of the book onwards. If the book is part of a series, it
can be useful to mention this, and whether you think you'd need to have read other books in the series to
enjoy this one.

2) Discuss what you particularly liked about the book

Focus on your thoughts and feelings about the story and the way it was told. You could try answering a
couple of the following questions:

Who was your favourite character, and why?

Did the characters feel real to you?

Did the story keep you guessing?

What was your favourite part of the book, and why?

Were certain types of scene written particularly well - for example sad scenes, tense scenes, mysterious

Did the book make you laugh or cry?

Did the story grip you and keep you turning the pages?

3) Mention anything you disliked about the book

Talk about why you think it didn't work for you. For example:

Did you wish the ending hadn't been a cliffhanger because you found it frustrating?

Did you find it difficult to care about a main character, and could you work out why?

Was the story too scary for your liking, or focused on a theme you didn't find interesting?

4) Round up your review

Summarise some of your thoughts on the book by suggesting the type of reader you'd recommend the
book to. For example: younger readers, older readers, fans of relationship drama/mystery stories/comedy.
Are there any books or series you would compare it to?

5) You can give the book a rating, for example a mark out of five or ten, if
you like

How to Write a Book Review

by Bill Asenjo

Return to Successful Freelancing Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A book review describes, analyzes and evaluates. The review conveys an opinion,
supporting it with evidence from the book.

Do you know how to write a book review? I didn't. And even though I knew I didn't,
that didn't stop me from firmly inserting my foot in my mouth by agreeing to conduct
a book review writing workshop for my local Barnes & Noble. I blithely assured
myself it would simply be a matter of picking up Book Reviews for Dummies, or
something to that effect. Au contraire. It's easier to find information on bomb-making
than book review writing.

So I did what any other resourceful writer on deadline would do; I panicked. Well, for
a moment. Quickly composing myself I scrounged the library and internet for every
conceivable source that even hinted at the term "book review." What follows is the
result of my gleaning.

Before reading, consider:

Title - What does it suggest?

Preface or Introduction - Provides important information about the author's

intentions or the scope of the book. Can you identify any limitations? Has the
author ignored important aspects of the subject?

Table of Contents - Shows how the book's organized -- main ideas, how
they're developed (chronologically, topically, etc.)

Points to ponder as you read the entire book:

What's the general field or genre? Does the book fit?

From what point of view is the book written?

Do you agree or disagree with the author's point of view?

Make notes as you read, passages to quote in your review.

Can you follow the author's thesis, "common thread"?

What is the author's style? Formal? Informal? Suitable for the intended

Are concepts well defined? Is the language clear and convincing? Are the ideas
developed? What areas are covered, not covered?How accurate is the

Is the author's concluding chapter, the summary, convincing?

If there are footnotes, do they provide important information? Do they clarify
or extend points made in the text?

If relevant, make note of the book's format - layout, binding, etc. Are there
maps, illustrations? Are they helpful?

Is the index accurate? What sources did the author use -- primary, secondary?
Make note of important omissions.

What did the book accomplish? Is more work needed? Compare the book to
others by this author, or books in this field by other authors. (Use the books
listed in the bibliography.)

Writing the Review:

Include title, author, place, publisher, publication date, edition, pages, special
features (maps, etc.), price, ISBN.

Hook the reader with your opening sentence. Set the tone of the review. Be
familiar with the guidelines -- some editors want plot summaries; others don't.
Some want you to say outright if you recommend a book, but not others.

Review the book you read -- not the book you wish the author had written.

If this is the best book you have ever read, say so -- and why. If it's merely
another nice book, say so.

Include information about the author-- reputation, qualifications, etc. --

anything relevant to the book and the author's authority.

Think about the person reading your review. Is this a librarian buying books for
a collection? A parent who wants a good read-aloud? Is the review for readers
looking for information about a particular topic, or for readers searching for a
good read?

Your conclusion should summarize, perhaps include a final assessment.

Do not introduce new material at this point.

To gain perspective, allow time before revising.

Writing a Fiction Book Review

Note: You don't have to answer every question -- they're suggestions!

Points to Ponder:

What was the story about?

Who were the main characters?

Were the characters credible?

What did the main characters do in the story?

Did the main characters run into any problems? Adventures?

Who was your favorite character? Why?

Your personal experiences

Could you relate to any of the characters in the story?

Have you ever done or felt some of the things, the characters did?

Your opinion

Did you like the book?

What was your favorite part of the book?

Do you have a least favorite part of the book?

If you could change something, what would it be? (If you wish you could
change the ending, don't reveal it!)

Your recommendation

Would you recommend this book to another person?

What type of person would like this book?

Things to Bear in Mind:

Don't be intimidated by famous authors -- many have written mediocre books.

Don't review books by people you know, love, or hate.

Do you want to be a book reviewer? Start by doing. Write book reviews for local
newspapers. If they don't have a book review section, start one.

If you have a specialty -- romance, mystery, dark fantasy -- cultivate it, become an


A book review focuses on one book-length text and briefly summarizes its contents, identifying
its thesis or main argument(s), and establishing the degree of success with which the author supports his
or her claims.

Notice that the criteria of such an assignment far exceed the requirements for book reports, with which
you are probably familiar from high school. A high school book report merely asks you to summarize the
contents of a book and to conclude with your subjective opinion on whether you "liked" the book, and
why. Such a high school-level book report is not a book review, which requires far more. Again: for a book
review, you need to establish the argument(s) of the book you are writing on, the manner in which the
author attempts to support that argument, and his or her success in so doing.

A well-executed book review will also hone your critical reading skills by inviting you to identify the
author's perspective: does the author seem prone to bias or prejudice? How does the author's slant (if
any) find expression? Does he or she challenge other writers' work and, if so, is this done in a persuasive
manner, or does it seem motivated by petty professional or personal rivalry (this also opens issues
of historiography). Is there anything in the author's own biography that may help explain (though not
necessarily justify) any bias you have identified? All these are questions a well-executed book review will
take into consideration.


Critical reading skills aside, the basic objective of a book review assignment is twofold: 1.) it gets you to
read and write about a complex, fully-developed argument and, 2.) in so doing, heightens your awareness
of how a good (or bad) argument can be constructed and supported, thus offering possible strategies and
approaches you may want to pursue (or avoid) in your own writing.

When reviewing a book, you may want to answer some of the following questions:

1. What is the book's main argument?

2. Who seems to be the intended audience for the book?
3. How is the book structured?
4. Does the structure of the book (its various parts and chapters) reinforce its larger argument?
5. What kinds of sources, or examples, does the book offer in support of its argument, and which
are most (and least) effective? Why?
6. Does the book engage other writers' works on the same subject and, even if not, how would you
position the book in relation to other texts you are aware of on the same subject (texts you have
read for class, for example)?
7. Does the author seem biased or prejudiced in any way and, if so, is that prejudice or bias the
product of the author's own background, as far as you can tell?
8. How persuasive is the book (if certain aspects are more persuasive than others, explain why)


Let us assume that the text assigned for your book review is Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The
Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). This best-selling work of narrative
history describes in graphic detail the imperial Japanese army's 1937 attack and occupation of the
Chinese city of Nanking, which, Chang claims (in accordance with most Western historians) resulted in a
six-week massacre of the civilian population marked by widespread rape, pillage, murder, and other
atrocities. This event is often referred to as "the Rape of Nanking." On this text, see also historiographic
essays and evaluating contradictory data and claims.

Below, we briefly respond to each of the bulleted questions above:

1. The book's main argument is threefold:

a. most determinedly, that the Rape of Nanking, disputed by some Japanese historians, did occur;
b. that the Japanese government, post-war Japanese historiography and, therefore, the Japanese
population as a whole, have failed to fully acknowledge and apologize for the massacre, and
indeed deny it;
c. and, 3.) that what Chang refers to as the Japanese "cover up," the effort "to erase the entire
massacre from public consciousness, thereby depriving its victims of their proper place in history" is
an example of revisionist history equal to Holocaust-denial (14).

While her hoped-for objective, in this context, is that the book "will stir the conscience of Japan to accept
responsibility for this incident," the larger argument is that history, including horrific history, needs to be told
truthfully in order for us to learn from the past (16).

2. The book's intended audience is a non-academic American readership, generally uninitiated into the events
described. The book can fairly be called a work of popular narrative history directed at a mass audience.
3. The book is divided into three parts, each subdivided into several chapters.
o Part I briefly sets the scene by historicizing the Japanese codes of warfare and honor, then describes in
detail the campaign waged by the Japanese and their many atrocities against the civilian population of
Nanking in 1937. Many of these graphic descriptions are corroborated by eye witness accounts both
Japanese and Chinese.
o Part II describes the ensuing Japanese occupation of the city. An important aspect of this section is Chang's
description of the lengths to which the Japanese government and military went to limit media access to the
city in order to prevent news of the massacre from spreading (she calls this "Japanese damage control"
[147]). This section ends with the liberation of the city and the Allied war crimes tribunals, as a result of which
seven high-ranking Japanese officers were condemned to death by hanging, and executed.
o Part III describes the efforts of post-war Japan, led by its politicians and historians, to cover up the events at
Nanking, efforts Chang strongly condemns. She concludes with the observation that although, at the time of
the massacre, it was "front-page news across the world, ... yet most of the world stood by and did nothing
while an entire city was butchered." She likens this to "the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-
Herzegovina and Rwanda: while thousands have died almost unbelievably cruel deaths, the entire world has
watched CNN and wrung its hands" (221).
4. Chang chooses her three-part structure in order to communicate the diversity of voices that need to be heard
in order to fully comprehend the events in Nanking: the victims', the perpetrators', and the historians'. That
history has largely failed at its task to tell the full story is integral to her argument. Thus she likens her three-
part structure to that of the Japanese film Rashomon, in which different witnesses of a rape recount its story,
each from their own perspective (including the victim's, the rapist's, and that of an eyewitness). The
accounts, of course, vary considerably: "It is for the reader to pull all the recollections together, to credit or
discredit parts or all of each account, and through this process to create out of subjective and often self-
serving perceptions a more objective picture of what might have occurred. This [film] should be included in
the curriculum of any course treating criminal justice. Its point goes to the heart of history" (14)
5. The book cites eye witness accounts on all sides, including Western eye witnesses: much mileage is
generated by the memoirs of American missionaries who were on the scene at the time of the massacre. The
book also provides a map of the city, marking specific locations of individual massacres, and twenty-four
pages of photographs. Without a doubt, the graphic verbal accounts of those who witnessed the event are
most effective: they are searing and hard to forget. Some of the photographs, too, are extremely graphic
(they include multiple images of nude victims of rape, beheadings, corpses and the desecration of corpses,
and severed heads); while these are very effective primary sources, their veracity has been retroactively
challenged, which diminishes their effectiveness (see Historiography and Evaluating Contradictory Data
and Claims). The map, which appears prior to any of the main text, is ineffective: it shows no scale, does not
identify Nanking's location within the larger landmass of China for the intended uninitiated readership, nor the
troop movements of the Japanese army as they entered the city or the remnants of the Chinese army as they
fled. These are events the book describes, but which find no visual correlation on the map itself. The sites of
specific massacres visually identified on the map are simply marked "X" (there are approximately forty-five)
but are not identified by name, and can therefore not be linked to specific events described in the later text.
6. On the issue of other, related works on this subject, please follow the link to Historiographic Essays.
Generally, there was no large body of literature on the Rape of Nanking prior to the publication of Chang's
book, although the book itself has spawned a large number of responses, many of them in general
agreement with Chang, some critical (these, mainly generated by Japanese scholars), and a few that
denounce her book as an outright fabrication. Again, follow the link to historiographic
essays and contradictory data and claims on this. Chang does not provide a bibliography. Part of her
argument, of course (in 1997, the year of her book's publication) is that the Rape of Nanking had been a
generally-forgotten event prior to her own efforts.
7. Chang does seem prejudiced against the Japanese version of the event (again, this is integral to her
argument and she openly reveals the animus she feels towards Japanese historians from the start; given the
nature of her project, it would seem difficult for her not to feel these sentiments). Her personal background as
the grandchild of former residents of Nanking (her grandparents escaped just weeks before the massacres
began) undoubtedly contributes towards her perspective. Here, again, she makes no effort to conceal her
position. Indeed, the manner in which she personalizes her account in her introduction is an important and
effective "hook" that draws the reader in: "I first learned of the Rape of Nanking when I was a little girl. ...
Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing
Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese. ... Throughout my
childhood Nanjing Datusha remained buried in the back of my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil" (7,
8. Overall, the book is effective, in part because of its sensational and unfathomably horrific subject matter. A
strange moment of cognitive dissonance is created, however, by the fact that, as cited above, Chang claims
that the massacres occurred before the eyes of the world (the event, she states in her conclusion, was "front-
page news across the world ... splashed prominently across the pages of newspapers like the New York
Times" [221]), yet she cites only very few of these news articles to back up her claim. (In fact, she cites the
same one multiple times: "Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled," The
New York Times, December 22, 1937, p. 38 - hardly "front-page news"). Nevertheless, the book is
memorable and powerful, and as evidenced by its bestselling status, succeeded in its day in bringing to the
world a story previously largely unknown, denied, or ignored. As such, it stands as a success, although the
controversy it generated upon publication has slightly diminished its overall legacy (see Historiographic
Essays and Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims).

Writing a Book Review

This resource discusses book reviews and how to write them.
Contributors:Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2016-01-13 10:37:33

Book reviews typically evaluate recently-written works. They offer a brief description of the texts key
points and often provide a short appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

Readers sometimes confuse book reviews with book reports, but the two are not identical. Book
reports commonly describe what happens in a work; their focus is primarily on giving an account of
the major plot, characters, and/or main idea of the work. Most often, book reports are a K-12
assignment and range from 250 to 500 words. If you are looking to write a book report, please see
the OWL resource, Writing a Book Report.

By contrast, book reviews are most often a college assignment, but they also appear in many
professional works: magazines, newspapers, and academic journals. They typically range from 500-
750 words, but may be longer or shorter. A book review gives readers a sneak peek at what a book is
like, whether or not the reviewer enjoyed it, and details on purchasing the book.

Before You Read

Before you begin to read, consider the elements you will need to included in your review. The
following items may help:

Author: Who is the author? What else has s/he written? Has this author won any awards?
What is the authors typical style?
Genre: What type of book is this: fiction, nonfiction, romance, poetry, youth fiction, etc.? Who
is the intended audience for this work? What is the purpose of the work?
Title: Where does the title fit in? How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate
the message of the text? Is it interesting? Uninteresting?
Preface/Introduction/Table of Contents: Does the author provide any revealing
information about the text in the preface/introduction? Does a guest author provide the
introduction? What judgments or preconceptions do the author and/or guest author provide?
How is the book arranged: sections, chapters?
Book Jacket/Cover/Printing: Book jackets are like mini-reviews. Does the book jacket
provide any interesting details or spark your interest in some way? Are there pictures, maps,
or graphs? Do the binding, page cut, or typescript contribute or take away from the work?

As You Read

As you read, determine how you will structure the summary portion or background structure of your
review. Be ready to take notes on the books key points, characters, and/or themes.

Characters: Are there characters in the work? Who are the principal characters? How do they
affect the story? Do you empathize with them?
Themes/Motifs/Style: What themes or motifs stand out? How do they contribute to the
work? Are they effective or not? How would you describe this authors particular style? Is it
accessible to all readers or just some?
Argument: How is the works argument set up? What support does the author give for
her/findings? Does the work fulfill its purpose/support its argument?
Key Ideas: What is the main idea of the work? What makes it good, different, or
Quotes: What quotes stand out? How can you demonstrate the authors talent or the feel of
the book through a quote?

When You Are Ready to Write

Begin with a short summary or background of the work, but do not give too much away. Many reviews
limit themselves only to the first couple of chapters or lead the reader up to the rising action of the
work. Reviewers of nonfiction texts will provide the basic idea of the books argument without too
much detailed.

The final portion of your review will detail your opinion of the work. When you are ready to begin your
review, consider the following:
Establish a Background, Remember your Audience: Remember that your audience has
not read the work; with this in mind, be sure to introduce characters and principals carefully
and deliberately. What kind of summary can you provide of the main points or main characters
that will help your readers gauge their interest? Does the authors text adequately reach the
intended audience? Will some readers be lost or find the text too easy?
Minor principals/characters: Deal only with the most pressing issues in the book. You will
not be able to cover every character or idea. What principals/characters did you agree or
disagree with? What other things might the author have researched or considered?
Organize: The purpose of the review is to critically evaluate the text, not just inform the
readers about it. Leave plenty room for your evaluation by ensuring that your summary is
brief. Determine what kind of balance to strike between your summary information and your
evaluation. If you are writing your review for a class, ask your instructor. Often the ratio is
half and half.
Your Evaluation: Choose one or a few points to discuss about the book. What worked well
for you? How does this work compare with others by the same author or other books in the
same genre? What major themes, motifs, or terms does the book introduce, and how effective
are they? Did the book appeal to you on an emotional or logical way?
Publisher/Price: Most book reviews include the publisher and price of the book at the end of
the article. Some reviews also include the year published and ISBN.


When making the final touches to your review, carefully verify the following:

Double-check the spelling of the author name(s), character names, special terms, and
Try to read from the vantage point of your audience. Is there too much/enough summary?
Does your argument about the text make sense?
Should you include direct quotes from the reading? Do they help support your arguments?
Double-check your quotes for accuracy.

Writing a Book Review

A book review is a description and a critical evaluation of a book. It gives a summary of the content
and assesses the value of the book focusing on the book's purpose, contents, and authority.

Check the guide, How to Write a Book Review (Dalhousie University) for a step by step approach
to writing critical book reviews.

A book review is a descriptive and critical/evaluative account of a book. It provides a summary of

the content, assesses the value of the book, and recommends it (or not) to other potential readers.

Write the introduction

Below are a few guidelines to help you write the introduction to your
critical review.

Introduce your review appropriately

Begin your review with an introduction appropriate to your assignment.

If your assignment asks you to review only one book and not to use outside sources, your
introduction will focus on identifying the author, the title, the main topic or issue presented in
the book, and the author's purpose in writing the book.

If your assignment asks you to review the book as it relates to issues or themes discussed in
the course, or to review two or more books on the same topic, your introduction must also
encompass those expectations.

Explain relationships
For example, before you can review two books on a topic, you must explain to your reader in
your introduction how they are related to one another.

Within this shared context (or under this "umbrella") you can then review comparable aspects
of both books, pointing out where the authors agree and differ.

In other words, the more complicated your assignment is, the more your introduction must

Finally, the introduction to a book review is always the place for you to establish your position
as the reviewer (your thesis about the author's thesis).

As you write, consider the following questions:

Is the book a memoir, a treatise, a collection of facts, an extended argument, etc.? Is the article a
documentary, a write-up of primary research, a position paper, etc.?
Who is the author? What does the preface or foreword tell you about the author's purpose,
background, and credentials? What is the author's approach to the topic (as a journalist? a historian?
a researcher?)?
What is the main topic or problem addressed? How does the work relate to a discipline, to a
profession, to a particular audience, or to other works on the topic?
What is your critical evaluation of the work (your thesis)? Why have you taken that position? What
criteria are you basing your position on?


Provide an overview
In your introduction you will also want to provide an overview. An overview supplies your
reader with certain general information not appropriate for including in the introduction but
necessary to understanding the body of the review.

Generally, an overview describes your book's division into chapters, sections, or points of
discussion. An overview may also include background information about the topic, about your
stand, or about the criteria you will use for evaluation.

The overview and the introduction work together to provide a comprehensive beginning for (a
"springboard" into) your review.
As you write, consider the following questions:

What are the author's basic premises? What issues are raised, or what themes emerge? What
situation (i.e., racism on college campuses) provides a basis for the author's assertions?
How informed is my reader? What background information is relevant to the entire book and should be
placed here rather than in a body paragraph?

Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Marco Pautasso1,2,*

Philip E. Bourne, Editor

Author information Copyright and License information

This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-
increasing output of scientific publications [1]. For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three,
eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and
biodiversity, respectively [2]. Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to
examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3]. Thus, it is both
advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although
recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead
to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4]. For such summaries to be useful,
however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5].
When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is
why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect
position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing
the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of
what has already been done on their research issue [6]. However, it is likely that most scientists
have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.
Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating
relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to
paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7]. In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I
learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and
insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from
reviewers and editors.
Go to:

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that
you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering
what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may
have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely
to lead to a brilliant literature review [8]. The topic must at least be:

i. interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your
line of work that call for a critical summary),
ii. an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there
will be enough material to write it), and
iii. a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which
would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be
answered [9], but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In
addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic
(e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g.,
computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g.,
computer science, biology, etc.).
Go to:

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading
relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

i. keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10]),
ii. keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later
with alternative strategies),
iii. use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
iv. define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can
then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
v. do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review (Figure 1), if
not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already
a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry
on with your own literature review,

Figure 1

A conceptual diagram of the need for different types of literature reviews depending on the amount
of published research papers and literature reviews.
i. discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
ii. trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
iii. incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

i. be thorough,
ii. use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR
Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
iii. look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Go to:

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very
good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were
while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting
pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write.
This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough
draft of the review.
Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text
with a coherent argument [11], but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank
document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying
verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words
in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as
to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour
will save you time.
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Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of
material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a
mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews
focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review
is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although
it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space
limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the
complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very
important papers to be read by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.
There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the
dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the
methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to
find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12]. A similar distinction exists
between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic
reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a
predefined protocol to reduce bias [13], [14]. When systematic reviews analyse quantitative
results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review
types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the
material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write
the review and the number of coauthors [15].
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Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16,17.
Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many
things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary
reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18]. If you are writing a review on,
for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you
may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of
cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would
only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of
While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced
with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by
discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.
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Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the
literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research
gaps [19]. After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

i. the major achievements in the reviewed field,

ii. the main areas of debate, and
iii. the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a
set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved,
some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a
knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this
sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical
thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active
voice and present vs. past tense.
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Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure
Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's
time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With
reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and
discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and,
toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense
also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including
information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20].
How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn
into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review,
e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order
and link the various sections of a review [21]. This is the case not just at the writing stage, but
also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of
diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text
too [22].
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Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and
rightly so [23]. As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review
draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies,
inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the
typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before
submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the
reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.
Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so
as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on
the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence
of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where
the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an
issue [24].
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Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they
are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their
own work [25]? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and
thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could
also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own
achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when
reviewing it.
In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise
in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and
methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be
possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple
authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different
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Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the
literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry,
but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published.
Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been
addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies
(sleeping beauties [26])). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye
on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in
scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain
point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly
appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers
that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which
to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.
Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews)
will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the
need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27][32]. I wish everybody good
luck with writing a review of the literature.

Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature
Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading
Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write
Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest
Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent
Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure
Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback
Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective
Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Characters: Are there characters in the work? Who are the principal characters? How do they
affect the story? Do you empathize with them?

Themes/Motifs/Style: What themes or motifs stand out? How do they contribute to the
work? Are they effective or not? How would you describe this authors particular style? Is it
accessible to all readers or just some?

Argument: How is the works argument set up? What support does the author give for
her/findings? Does the work fulfill its purpose/support its argument?

Key Ideas: What is the main idea of the work? What makes it good, different, or
Quotes: What quotes stand out? How can you demonstrate the authors talent or the feel of
the book through a quote?


Does the book give a "full-length" picture of the subject?

What phases of the subject's life receive greatest treatment and is this treatment justified?

What is the point of view of the author?

How is the subject matter organized: chronologically, retrospectively, etc.?

Is the treatment superficial or does the author show extensive study into the subject's life?

What source materials were used in the preparation of the biography?

Is the work documented?

Does the author attempt to get at the subject's hidden motives?

What important new facts about the subject's life are revealed in the book?

What is the relationship of the subject's career to contemporary history?

How does the biography compare with others about the same person?

How does it compare with other works by the same author?


With what particular period does the book deal?

How thorough is the treatment?

What were the sources used?

Is the account given in broad outline or in detail?

Is the style that of reportorial writing, or is there an effort at interpretive writing?

What is the point of view or thesis of the author?

Is the treatment superficial or profound?

For what group is the book intended (textbook, popular, scholarly, etc.)?

What part does biographical writing play in the book?

Is social history or political history emphasized?

Are dates used extensively, and if so, are they used intelligently?
Is the book a revision? How does it compare with earlier editions?

Are maps, illustrations, charts, etc. used and how are these to be evaluated?


Is this a work of power, originality, individuality?

What kind of poetry is under review (epic, lyrical, elegaic, etc.)?

What poetical devices have been used (rhyme, rhythm, figures of speech, imagery, etc.), and
to what effect?

What is the central concern of the poem and is it effectively expressed?