How to Write a Literature Review: Step By Step Guide

Oct 25, 2019 | 0 comments

Oct 25, 2019 | Guide | 0 comments

Literature reviews provide the current and complete 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 combines old and new references.

What is the significance of a literature review?

What is the significance of a literature review?
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The main purpose of a literature review is to summarize and organize the ideas from previous publications.

A literature review should be objective and should not add information that is not published.

But, it is not just supposed to summarize sources – a writer should connect the sources by looking for common ideas or trends.

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.

The ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books critical appraisal

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 to 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 to reduce the material you have to go through.

Consider the date of your sources.

Let’s say you are writing the literature review about the 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, you should include old sources.

How to write a literature review

How to write a literature review
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Writing the literature review is an exciting and challenging process, wherein you have to find relevant publications (such as books and journal articles), critically analyze them, explain what you found. Five key steps are required for this process:

  1. Search for relevant literature
  2. Evaluate sources
  3. Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  4. Outline the structure
  5. Write your literature review

A good literature review is more than just a summary of facts; it must also analyze and critique the sources to paint an accurate picture.

Step 1: Search for relevant literature.

It would help if you had a clearly defined topic before you start looking for literature. This way, when you’re writing your dissertation or research paper and need to provide background knowledge on the subject with reliable sources, it will be easy!

You want to find good quality information that is trustworthy and credible, so you can rely on it while presenting an argument in your work without fear of being called out by someone who disagrees with what they see as insufficient evidence – this is why having a clear idea about where to look first saves time later down the line.

When you are writing a literature review as a standalone assignment, your main goal is determining which direction the project will take. You need to choose an area and develop a research question that can be answered by looking at previous publications without relying on new studies’ data.

Research question example

What is the impact of social media on body image among Generation Z?

Make a list of keywords.

Your search for the perfect research topic starts with finding keywords related to your subject. You can start by brainstorming a list of words and phrases that relate to both key concepts in the literature review, as well as any synonyms or alternate terms you might find during your readings.

Search for relevant sources

The internet is a vast and infinite space. This means that it’s crucial to know your keywords before starting any research paper project, especially when looking for academic sources. The following databases can be used as good places to start searching:

  • Inspec (physics, engineering, and computer science)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Google Scholar
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Your university’s library catalog

Researchers in academia spend a great deal of time reading and analyzing articles. When selecting sources, it is important to find the most relevant information possible for your research topic. To do this, you should note any recurring citations, as these will typically be some excellent resources on the subject matter at hand.

Step 2: Evaluate and select sources

No matter how much you want to read about it, there are many written words on this topic. You’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant for your questions and ones that will be easy to read or more in-depth than the others.

For each publication, ask:

  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • What are the key concepts, and how are they defined?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
  • What research question or problem is the author addressing?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?

Step 3: Identify themes, debates, and gaps

To write an engaging literature review, you must understand the connections and relationships between sources. Use what you’ve learned to look for:

Gaps: What is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

Trends and patterns (in theory, method, or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?

Debates, conflicts, and contradictions: where do sources disagree?

Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?

Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?

Step 4: Outline your literature review’s structure

There are many ways that you can organize your literature review. It’s important to know the best method before starting, as this will help make a smoother and easier read for the reader- depending on how long it is. The different strategies each have their own purpose; combining them might not be necessary if one of these already suffices.

The strategies include chronological, thematic, methodological.

Step 5: Write your literature review

When it comes to a literature review, there are three main sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. The contents of each depend on the objective of your report, but they all need to be included in one cohesive package.

Tactics for Writing the Literature Review

The following are some tactics of writing a review:

Focus on an idea

Good literature reviews focus 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 thesis 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?

Literature reviews have three basic sections:

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

Before writing a literature review body, 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.

Tracing the development of topics over time is a simple way to organize your paper. You should not just list and summarize sources in order. Instead, analyze patterns that shape the field, such as turning points or key debates. Make sure to interpret how certain things occurred since they are all interconnected with each other.

2) Trend or theme

If you have found recurring themes, organizing your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic can help.

It is a concise overview of what has been studied, argued, and established about a topic, and it is usually organized chronologically or thematically. It is not an annotated bibliography because it groups related works and discusses trends and developments rather than focusing on one item at a time.

For instance, let’s say your review’s topic is cervical cancer treatment. You could use a thematic organization to organize your sources for types of cervical cancer. Therefore, you will have a section of sources covering squamous cell carcinomas and another on adenocarcinomas.

3) Methodological

It’s always useful to draw from different fields of study and research methods when conducting your own personal project. Compare the findings you get, look for any contradictions or differences in opinion on certain topics or issues.

4) Theoretical

You can use a literature review to build your theoretical framework and discuss various theories or models of key concepts.

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 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 needs 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 Reviews Writing

The Dos And Don’ts Of Literature Reviews Writing
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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 of literature reviews writing

  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.

2. 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.

3. 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 their significance to your research. The point is to connect your sources to the focus of your review.

4. 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.

5. 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, refer to the writer of the source in your text.

6. Revise

After finishing your work, could you 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 reviews writing

When writing your literature review, don’t:

  • Include sources whose research is 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 an isolated research paper that is not based on the focus of your review.

How To Format A Literature Review

How To Format A Literature Review
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A literature review is a type of writing that examines published literature within a given topic.

As such, a literature review will require you to read and analyze different sources.

After that, you are required to present your understanding of the literature.

In essence, you are supposed to summarize different sources and write your synthesis.

Also, you are required to present the information in a specific order and follow a specific format when presenting the assignment.

In this article, you will find useful information on how to format a literature review.

Structure and Format A Literature Review

Structure and Format A Literature Review
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Like most academic papers, a literature review should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

But the content of these sections is different in literature reviews.


The introduction of a literature review should clearly indicate the main organizing principle.

The first thing you need to do is introduce the general topic (women’s reproductive rights).

Then, inform the reader of the main criterion used to select the sources, which could be chronological history in the example above.

Finalize the introduction by linking the main organizing principle to your sources.


The body of the literature reviews provides a summary and synthesis of each source.

But, first, you have to choose a method to organize your sources.

There are three main ways of organizing sources in a literature review:

  • Chronologically: organizing sources chronologically means maintaining the right historical timeline. Therefore, if you choose this organizing principle, you start with the earliest source and end with the latest source.
  • Methodologically: this organizing principle focuses on the methods used by the authors to present critical concepts. For instance, one way to methodologically organize sources on women’s reproductive rights is to look at how cultural bias affects how authors depict the exercising of women’s rights.
  • Thematically: this refers to organizing sources in terms of a theme, trend, topic, or theoretical concepts you deem necessary to understand a given topic. Let’s say you are looking at sources on cervical cancer treatments; you could thematically organize the sources according to the type of treatments they cover, i.e., radiation and non-radiation treatments.


The conclusion should provide a summary of your findings.

In a literature review, you should relate your findings to the real world.

In other words, try to make your reader understand why your literature review was important.

It is also advisable to leave your readers with something to think about by ending with a rhetorical question or posing questions for further research.

Format a Literature review in APA

The instructions given by the instructor will help you determine the format and outline to use.

So before you start writing, seek clarity on:

  • The review format to be utilized in citations
  • The number and types of sources to include
  • The expected length
  • The headings, subheadings, and any other background information to include

In most cases, you will present your literature review in the APA format.

If that’s the case, consider the following rules:

1) Insert a page header, and type the page number aligned right and the literature review title in caps left-aligned.

Note that the review title should be shortened to 50 characters or less (including spaces and punctuation).

Also, the header of the first page should have the phrase ‘running head.’

2) On the title page, type the title of the review, the name of the student, and institutional affiliation.

This information should be center-aligned and should appear in the middle of the page.

The review title on the title page should not exceed 12 words.

3) Type the paper in Time New Roman font and font size 12.

The whole document should have double-spaced paragraphs.

Final thoughts on Writing a Literature Review

The truth is that it can be quite challenging to write a literature review.

But, with proper planning, understanding the structure, and having the correct outline, you will have an easier time.

The above guide will help you write a better literature review.

You can also sharpen your review writing skills by going through other reviews; free samples are on our website.

Reading review examples will help you to understand better what the literature of your field requires.

If you need professional help formatting your literature review, contact us now.

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