How to Write a Literature Review

Learn everything you need about how to write a literature review Including a step-by-step guide, outlines, templates, and tips.
Kelly Spancer
5
min read
Sep 6, 2021

As tempting as it may be, this is not the time to sit back with your favorite novel and do a book report!  A literature review in the academic sense is a type of writing assignment where you collect and briefly analyze a wide array of information about a specific topic. 


A literature review can either be part of a larger research paper or can be a standalone assignment. As part of a larger thesis, research paper, or essay, a literature review is usually the first step of the research process. As a standalone assignment, the goal of a literature review is to familiarize the writer with the current information and research about a topic.


Learning to write a literature review is particularly important if you want to work in research or are pursuing higher degrees. This article will give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to write a literature review including outlines, research tips, and more.

8 Steps to Writing a Literature Review

Writing a literature review does not have to be terrifying or complicated. As long as you go step by step and break things into manageable pieces you will be done sooner than you think. The more time you spend in the pre-writing process, the easier and faster the actual writing will go. Let's get started!

Step 1. What are the purposes? 

The first thing you need to do when writing your literature review is figuring out exactly what question you are trying to answer. The best place to start is the actual assignment question. Make sure you go over it thoroughly and follow the instructions. If you need any more clarifications don't hesitate to ask your teacher for more information. At a bare minimum, you should know how many sources you should include, what type of sources you should include, and what the quality of those sources should be. 


A literature review can be a simple summary of information from a variety of sources or it can be a synthesis including a brief analysis. A literature review is written as a summary of information most often when it is part of a larger research paper or thesis paper. If the assignment is a standalone literature review, there are several different ways you can write it depending on the purpose. You can write a literature review that organizes available information in a way that adds clarity. You can also write one that traces the main developments about the topic. Or you can write one that suggests possible avenues of further research. 


Read an example of a literature review to help you write your own but in general, a literature review can do the following things

  • Help familiarize you with a specific topic
  • Understand what elements are interesting to other researchers
  • Find areas to explore within a topic
  • Help others cut down on research time by providing a collection of existing information
  • Deepen your understanding of a topic

Step 2. Research possible literature review topics

Once you have an understanding of what the purpose of the literature review is you need to think about what specific topic you want to choose. A good topic should not be so broad there is too much research to organize and synthesize. Nor should it be so narrow that there isn't enough information to properly analyze. For example, the topic of medieval art may be too broad, a better topic would be Dutch Impressionism during the Renaissance.


There are a lot of ways you can find literature review topic ideas. The topic you choose will be determined by the assignment requirements, the kind of class you are writing the review for, and what you are interested in. For example, how to write a scientific literature review will be very different from writing a humanities review.  


One of the best ways of coming up with a topic is by having a chat with your professor. Don't just ask them what you should write about, rather go prepared with a list of things that you are interested in and ask for their guidance. 


If you want to come up with the topic completely on your own, don't just choose the first one that comes to mind. Spend some time brainstorming various different ideas, do some research on the ones you like the most, and finally choose one that you both like and know there is enough information about.


A textbook or lecture notes are a great place to find possible topics as well. If you came across something you found particularly interesting and want to know more about, it can be an excellent topic. 


The internet is a great place to find a variety of topics. Google things like “ the history of X topic” or “Research on X topic” and choose something that you like.  

Step 3. Begin searching for relevant literature

As tempting as it may be, Wikipedia is not a source you can use when writing a review. The quality of your sources is an important criterion when your review is being evaluated. Here are some tips on where to find appropriate information.


The library isn't just a place to go and study. Find as many books and papers as you can since they are some of the best sources you can use. Depending On your topic some information may not be easily available online, and local libraries are some of the best places to get specific types of information.
Journals are the place to find the most recent research on any topic. Most journals are available online but may require a subscription. Your University or educational institute should be able to give you access to databases and subscription journals.
Newspapers and magazines are other good sources of information, but make sure that the publication you draw information from is well respected. A local weekly newspaper can be a good source if your topic is related specifically to the town but otherwise look at publications like The Economist and Harvard Business Review.
Join online groups that are dedicated to the topic you want to research. You can get recommendations from people as well as find sources that are difficult to discover by yourself.
Read a literature review sample or a literature review example on a topic of interest and go over its ‘work cited’ page for inspiration and for possible sources. 
Be creative with how you search for relevant sources. At this stage, your main goal is to find as much information as possible. The deeper the net you cast, the more interesting the information that you will get back! 

Step 4.  Evaluate the articles you have found

Not every source you find is going to be relevant to your topic and not every source is going to be credible. Think about these things when you are evaluating the articles you find.


  • What assumptions are the writers of every paper making?
  • What is the main issue the source is addressing?
  • What are the methodologies being used across several sources?
  • What are some of the key terms used?
  • Are there specific researchers that come up often?
  • Does a specific source have the same conclusion as others?
  • In what way can each article be better?

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Step 5. How to Structure a Literature Review

Before jumping into actually writing you should spend some time thinking about how to write a literature review outline and understanding the literature review format. 


The components of a literature review are similar to other pieces of academic writing with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Have a look at this sample literature review outline. Later we will go more in-depth on how to write a literature review introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. 


Introduction

  • A catchy hook
  • Brief summary of the purpose of your paper
  • General background information
  • Important methodologies
  • Your thesis statement
  • Trends in the current research and the direction of your paper


Body Paragraph 1

  • Topic sentence about the theme, methodology, or time period explored in the paragraph  
  • First main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • Specifics of the study or source
  • Why this is important
  • Connect to the main thesis 


Body Paragraph 2

  • Topic sentence about the theme, methodology, or time period explored in the paragraph  
  • First main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • Specifics of the study or source
  • Why this is important
  • Connect to the main thesis 


Body Paragraph 3

  • Topic sentence about the theme, methodology, or time period explored in the paragraph  
  • First main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • Specifics of the study or source
  • Why this is important
  • Connect to the main thesis 


Conclusion

  • Summary of the main points of each paragraph and the most important sources
  • How different sources connect to each other
  • Reiterate your thesis statement
  • The main points of difference amongst sources
  • Avenues for possible further research 


Depending on the topic there are a variety of different ways you can organize your body paragraphs. Some topics may benefit from a chronological organizational method, while others may benefit from a thematic organizational structure. These are some of the main ways you can organize your body paragraphs.


Chronological

One of the easiest ways of organizing your body paragraphs is by going in chronological order. Essentially you will write about each source in the order that it was published. This can be beneficial for showing the readers the evolution of information and thought regarding a specific subject. On the other hand, depending on your topic, organizing information chronologically might not be the clearest way to explain your topic. Make sure you don't just end up listing information, analyze trends, and identify moments when big changes in the debate about the topic happened.


Thematic

Organizing Information and sources thematically can be challenging, but it is often the best way of getting your point across to readers. The first challenge is finding the main themes to focus on. Determining themes is based on understanding exactly what your topic is, as well as the common themes that show up during the literature search. Each theme you explore can be a subsection or a separate body paragraph. Organizing your paper this way allows for an in-depth analysis of different aspects of a specific topic. Make sure to connect different themes to each other and state why each theme is important. 


Methodology

It may make sense to organize the body paragraphs by the different research methodologies used. Rather than organized by themes or by the time of publication, organizing the paragraphs based on the type of research methods used gives insight into the way something has been studied. You can look at the difference between qualitative and quantitative research on the subject or consider empirical sources versus theoretical sources. The type of methodology that you use will determine the kinds of sources that will be cited in the paper. This method of organization can be useful, but make sure that you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each methodology, and connect the findings of each subsection with other paragraphs. 

Step 6. Craft a thesis statement

Think of your thesis statement as the main question you are trying to answer or the main point you are trying to make. A good thesis statement clearly relates to the reader what the paper is going to be about. Your thesis statement should be included towards the end of your introduction paragraph and should be reiterated in your conclusion. 


When you start thinking about a topic you probably already have certain questions in mind. After all, something curious about the topic or a question you had about it is why you found it interesting in the first place. As you conduct research you will probably come across interesting viewpoints that create new questions and guide further research. This is a great place to start coming up with a specific thesis statement. What are the questions that drove your research and what interesting phenomenon have you uncovered that you specifically want to talk about? 


It is helpful to think about your thesis statement from the very beginning of the process as you are coming up with a potential topic, but your research should guide your eventual thesis statement. Remember, if you already have a specific view on an issue and then do research for it you can fall prey to confirmation bias where you ignore information that goes against your perspective. 


Once you have done research on multiple sides of an issue from different perspectives, you should come up with a thesis statement that will guide the writing process. A good thesis statement is specific, clear, not too broad or too narrow, and not more than two sentences.  

Step 7. Write your literature review 

You are finally ready to start writing your literature review! Though a literature review generally follows the standard format of an introduction paragraph, body paragraphs, and a conclusion, each body paragraph can have many subsections and you can include as many body paragraphs as you think necessary. This is when all the prewriting prep work pays off! All you need to do is follow your literature review template to write your paper, but here are some tips for writing a literature review as well!


Literature Review Introduction

  • Introduce your topic and explain why it is important
  • Give a brief overview of the organizational structure of the paper
  • Narrow down your topic by specifying what elements of it will be discussed in depth
  • Explain why you chose particular resources
  • If it is part of a larger research paper, mention the overall research question


Literature Review Body Paragraphs

  • Start with general information about the topic and move towards your specific field of interest
  • Talk about the historical background of the topic
  • Mention the main methodologies used in the existing literature
  • Include various viewpoints and perspectives on the subject
  • Combine the main points of multiple sources 
  • Connect the findings of other papers and do your own analysis
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the sources
  • Make use of transition words to connect different ideas and paragraphs


Literature Review Conclusion

  • Summarize the most important findings from the literature review
  • Highlight the reasons behind the differences of opinions if they exist
  • Find areas for future research
  • Give your own perspective on the available information

Step 8. Review your work 

Just because you're done writing the paper doesn't mean that it's ready to be submitted yet; a first draft is never completely ready, think of it more as writing a literature review example. During the review process, you may find better ways of organizing the paper, ways of improving flow, discover connections that you did not previously see, fixing silly mistakes that would hurt your grade, making sure you have correctly cited all sources, and several other things. Here's a list of things you should check and some tips to follow when reviewing your work.

  • Do you have a clear thesis statement and does the rest of your paper follow that thesis statement?
  • Are your sources relevant and are they of high quality?
  • Make sure you have cited all your sources in-text as well as on your work cited page
  • Every piece of information you include should have some analysis or should be backing up a conclusion you are making
  • Each topic sentence should give an idea of the main points you are making within the paragraph
  • Do the paragraphs flow logically and consistently?
  • Analyze each paragraph and remove extra information or add information as necessary
  • Read the entire paper out loud to make sure that it flows well
  • Check your punctuation
  • Make sure you have not paraphrased too much
  • Ask a friend to go over your paper and give some feedback

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How to Write a Good Literature Review

Every writing assignment is unique, and there are some things that are more important when writing a literature review than when writing another kind of academic paper. Don't worry though, as long as you make sure you do the following things you will end up with a high-scoring paper!


In an academic paper, any point you make should be backed by evidence, but in a literature review, it is vitally important. That makes sense considering a literature review is essentially a collection of a variety of different sources.  Make sure that every point you make is correctly cited and that the sources you choose are of high quality. 


Don't be afraid to do more research as new ideas come to you as you write your paper. Though it is useful to follow your outline, new avenues of research and better ways of presenting information may come to you as you write the paper. 


A good literature review has information from a variety of sources, but that doesn't mean that you should overwhelm the reader. Make sure you only choose the most important and most relevant pieces of information from every source. 


Organize your research in the form of an annotated bibliography. This will help keep track of important pieces of information or important studies, structure your eventual review, and help you with your works cited page. 


The goal of a literature review is not to paraphrase or repeat information that already exists,  rather, it is to collect information and interpret it in your own way. So avoid paraphrasing large sections of someone else's research. Instead, focus on combining different findings and phrasing your results in your own way.   


Make sure that you give your own interpretations of the information you find. This will ensure that you are not just repeating existing research but are actually offering some kind of synthesis and analysis. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that is uniquely yours, and every paragraph should end with a personal analysis or conclusion of the research. 


An easy way of making sure that you are including analysis in each paragraph is by checking how many sources you are citing. If you are citing just a few sources it is possible that you are just repeating information that exists elsewhere. If you cite several sources it is more likely that you are presenting information from multiple viewpoints and analyzing and drawing fresh conclusions. 

Conclusion

Writing a literature review doesn't need to be a daunting task, in fact, if you choose a topic that you truly like, it can be an interesting and fascinating assignment! As long as you have a clear thesis statement, have done thorough research, and not just paraphrased information, you'll end up with a great paper. You now know the steps in writing a literature review, all you have to do is follow them and you’ll be done in no time! In case you need any more help with this kind of essay, or any academic assignment, don't hesitate to reach out to the experts Studyfy.

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