How to Write a Literature Review

How to Write a Literature Review

A literature review provides the current and complete state of knowledge on a given topic as published in academic journals and books. Scholars usually write literature reviews on topics with limited information.

Basically, it is a summary of the references to a given topic. However, you are required to synthesize the sources you choose.

For instance, a student might be asked to provide a new interpretation of old sources or to provide an interpretation that combines old and new references.

Why Are Literature Reviews Important?

A literature review provides a useful guide towards a certain topic that has limited sources. Therefore, it comes in handy when you do not have enough time to conduct thorough research.

Things To Do Before Beginning Your Literature Review

Before beginning your literature review:

Seek clarity from the lecturer

Confirm from your lecturer:

  • The number and types of sources to include
  • If you need to evaluate the sources
  • And, if subheadings and additional information is mandatory

Revise other reviews

Look at other literature reviews in our field or course. Going through such reviews will give you a clearer idea of how to write your review. Furthermore, these previous reviews in your field will have references that will be a good place to start your research.

Narrow down the scope of your research

Some topics have many sources. And, your lecturer probably does not expect you to include all of them in your review. Therefore, you need to narrow your topic so you can reduce the material you have to go through.

Consider the date of your sources

Let’s say you are composing a literature review about treatment of a certain medical condition. Medical procedures change regularly to accommodate current studies. So, when writing a review you need updated sources as references that are even a year old could be out-of-date.

On the contrary, if you are writing a review in social sciences, the review might require you to assess how things have changed over time. In such cases, old sources should be included.

Literature Review Writing Tactics

The following are some tactics of writing a review:

Focus on an idea

A good literature review focuses on an idea. That is to say, you need to read and understand your sources, and then find a central idea that connects them.

For instance, you could focus on:

  • How well your sources present a given topic
  • A trend your sources reveal
  • Something that is missing from all your sources

Have a statement

The typical literature review does not have a thesis statement. However, it is advisable to tell the reader the idea, concept, or principle, behind the compilation of the review. In other words, try and inform a reader what they should expect.

The following are two samples of excerpts from reviews:

  1. The contemporary treatment for kidney failure is a combination of medicine and surgery.
  2. Should social media be considered in courses in the field of society and culture?

Pick an organizational format for your sources

This is a question of how you will present your review. What topics or subheadings will you include and how will you arrange them?

A literature review has three basic sections:

  • Introduction
  • Body (the section that lists and discusses different sources)
  • Recommendations or conclusion

Before writing the body of the review, you need to consider how you will organize the sources. The following are the methods you can use to organize your sources:

  1. Chronological – in a chronological organization, you arrange your sources according to their date of publication. In a literature review, you start with the earliest source and end with the latest source.
  2. Trend or theme – you can identify a trend or theme in your topic and organize your sources according to it. For instance, let’s say your review’s topic is cervical cancer treatment. You could use a thematic organization to organize your sources to types of cervical cancer. Therefore, you will have a section of sources covering squamous cell carcinomas and another on adenocarcinomas.
  3. Methodological – this approach focuses on the methods of the writers not the content of the sources. The method of the writer affects how they discuss a topic. For instance, when looking at women’s rights, you could focus on the cultural differences on the perception of women’s rights in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and America. Writers from these different regions will discuss women’s rights differently due to cultural bias.

Once you pick an organizational structure, it will be easy to deduce the segments you need to include in the body of your literature review.

At times your study requires additional information that you cannot incorporate in the organizational approach you picked. Such segments include:

  • History: this segment explains the chronological progression of the field or the sources included in the review. It can also explain something that is necessary to understand the review. This segment is mostly included if the organizational approach is not chronological.
  • Methods or standards: include this statement t explain the criterion you used to choose sources for your review. For example, you could use this subheading to explain to your readers that your review only includes only peer-reviewed journals.
  • Questions for further research: if your review sparks questions or a need for further research, include this segment.
  • Current situation: this section includes information that a reader requires to understand the idea behind your review.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Literature Review Writing

At this point you have decided on a focus for your review, you have your sources, and you have decided on an organizational structure and the additional segments to include. The next step is to start writing your review.

When writing your review, consider the following guidelines.

The Dos

  1. Back up your content with evidence

Whatever you are writing in your literature review has to be legitimate. Therefore, like any other academic paper, the content of your literature review has to be backed up with evidence. That is especially true when making a point or elucidating an argument in your introduction.

  1. Include only important points

From your sources, you can deduce very many points. But, you only need to include the points that are relevant to the focus of your review.

  1. Summarize and synthesize your sources

Take the important points from a source and summarize them. Then, include information on how the texts change your thinking and its significance to your research. The point is to connect your sources to the focus of your review.

  1. Limit the use of direct quotes

A literature review looks into several sources. Therefore, it does not accommodate the detailed discussion of quotes from a single source. So, it makes more sense to rephrase what the writer said, rather than including a direct quote.

  1. Be careful when paraphrasing

Often, you will have to paraphrase. But, when rewording, your final phrase should represent the writer’s idea accurately. To have an easy time when paraphrasing, in your text, refer to the writer of the source.

  1. Revise

After finishing your work, go through it. Check that:

  • You have followed all the instructions from your lecturer
  • You have used language that is easy for your readers to understand
  • There are no grammar and typing errors
  • Your sources are documented
  • There is no jargon and fluff
  • Your sentences and ideas flow smoothly

The Don’ts of literature review writing

When writing your literature review, don’t:

  • Include sources whose research are based on assumptions and disregard or contradict the findings of your review.
  • Leave out a segment explaining the search criteria used in picking your sources.
  • Write isolated research that is not based on the focus of your review


The above guide will help you write a better literature review. You can also sharpen your review writing skills by going through other reviews; there are free samples on our website. Reading review examples will help you to better understand what the literature of your field requires.

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