The Ultimate Literature Review Guide

Last Updated: 24 November 2021

How to write a literature review

Maybe you are making a research paper, an undergraduate, master's, or doctorate dissertation, a research proposal, a term paper, or a thesis. If this describes you, you need to understand how to write a literature review because it is a critical component within the anatomy of these academic papers.

Usually assigned either as a stand-alone assignment or as part of a bigger assignment, writing a literature review requires keenness. It demands your attention and ability to read, critique, and reason with other authors.

The process of writing a literature review entails the searching and evaluation of available literature in a given subject or relating to your chosen topic. A literature review serves to document what others have said about your chosen topic.

It is not a book by book or article by article summary, neither is it not a descriptive list. Rather, a literature review must be defined by a guiding concept such as a research project, an objective, or essay question.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a piece of academic assignment where the author discusses published information in a given subject area and sometimes information in a given subject area within a certain period of time. It summarizes the synthesis of the concepts, insights, perspectives, and concepts from various sources organized in a specific format. It entails re-organizing, reshuffling, and sifting through the information, interpreting the old information, and combining it to form a new interpretation. A literature review can also trace the intellectual progression of a given field. Finally, it may evaluate the source and advise the readers on the most pertinent and relevant ones.

A literature review shows the readers that you have gathered in-depth knowledge about a given topic and understand where your research fits or adds to the existing body of knowledge.

It demonstrates familiarity with the body of knowledge and establishes your credibility. A literature review also presents a summary of prior research and says how your current project is linked to that research. It also integrates and summarizes the current knowledge about a subject. Finally, it demonstrates that you have acquired knowledge from others, and your research is now a starting point for new ideas. Unlike an argumentative essay, it does not give finality to a topic but instead expounds on a new way of looking at a topic.

A literature review is different from an academic research paper in that, while an academic research paper develops a new argument and likely contains a literature review as its part, a literature review summarizes, synthesizes, and critically analyzes the arguments and ideas of the other scholars or authors without adding new contributions. A literature review for a research paper or any other paper acts as a foundation and support for the new insights that the academic paper contributes.

The Purpose of a Literature Review Paper

You are probably wondering why you need to do a literature review. A literature review can be assigned as part of another assignment or as an independent assignment, just like an annotated bibliography.

A literature review helps you, the author of a research paper, term paper, or thesis, explain why you chose to approach your selected topic from a given perspective. It builds the understanding of the audience/readers concerning a specific topic.

If there is limited time to conduct research, literature reviews also give an overview and act as stepping stones for the research.

In the professional realm, literature reviews are regarded as special reports that update them with the happenstances in their field. For academicians, students, or scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review proves that one is credible and relevant to their field of study.

In general terms, literature reviews offer a strong background for investigating an issue, topic, or problem. It provides comprehensive knowledge that can be used to answer research questions, pass or refute a hypothesis, and adopt a given lens.

The four major objectives of a literature review include:

The Structure of a Literature Review

A literature review is structured like an essay or research paper. It has an introduction, body, and conclusion.


The introduction of your literature review should do the following:

Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs of the literature review is where you run the show. Each body paragraph should:


Like normal academic papers, the conclusion should wrap up everything. It should:

The conclusion summarizes what has emerged from the literature review and reiterates the conclusions.

Organization of Literature Review

You can organize the body of your literature review in different formats. Having a rough idea of the best strategy entirely depends on your choice, the research question, the length, and the scope of your literature review.

You can combine these strategies where necessary, especially if the literature review is longer.  For instance, you can adopt a thematic approach for your overall structure but take a chronological approach in discussing the themes.

Let's explore the various organizational strategies you can use when writing a literature review.


A literature review organized through the chronological approach entails writing about the materials depending on when they were published.

The chronological approach is the simplest to adopt when tracing the development of a topic through time.

If you select this strategy, be ready to avoid listing and summarizing the sources in order as we do with annotated bibliography. Instead, summarize, synthesize, and compare and contrast ideas, turning points, points of view, and major debates that shape the direction of the field you are interested in. You should also present your interpretation of how and why some developments occurred.

By publication

When writing a literature review, you can also organize it using their publication chronology.

By trend

You can organize a literature review by trend. This way, you end up with sections that detail the eras within the specific periods when the change was noticed.


Thematic literature reviews are organized around a given topic, issue, or theme. This approach is excellent if you have identified recurring central themes and need to organize your literature review based on the themes. Doing so helps in streamlining ideas that relate to different aspects of the topic.

For instance, if you are reviewing the literature on childhood obesity, you can talk about nutrition, physical activity, genetics, advertising, social status, and other aspects related to childhood obesity.


When you write a literature review with the methodological approach, your chief focus is on the methods of the researchers who conducted primary studies. In addition, you can look at the types of data collection methods (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods), sampling strategies, samples, data collection tools, and other aspects related to methodology.

It is best to explore how the topic has been developed through empirical and theoretical scholarship. You can as well categorize and classify the literature based on subject, points-of-view, and findings.


You can also arrange the body paragraphs of your literature based on the theoretical constructs, frameworks, or foundations of the past studies. Look at the theories, models, definitions, and frameworks that guided the studies.

For instance, if it's a leadership paper, check on leadership theories such as transactional, transformational, situational, contingency, and charismatic leadership theory. You can also look at the types of leadership or followership.

You need to argue for or against the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine different theoretical approaches to create a framework that guides your current research.

The 5Cs of a Literature Review

Given that a literature review is dense with information, the work must be intelligibly structured to allow easier readership, grasp the key concepts, and appreciate the purpose of a literature review. To achieve that, it is imperative to integrate the 5Cs (cite, compare, contrast, critique, and connect) into your literature review.

Above all, a good literature review has to be clear, concise, convincing, contributive, and critical.

The Six Proven and Tested Steps for Writing a Literature Review

Now that we understand the various aspects of a literature review let's look at the core steps that one takes when writing one. Follow these steps to write an excellent literature review without a struggle.

First Step: Conduct a comprehensive literature search

Before writing a literature review, you need to find out what other scholars have presented or published about your subject, field, or chosen topic. To do so, you need to conduct a comprehensive literature search. It is the first step when writing a literature review, and there are different strategies to do so.

Naturally, the first step for your literature review writing process entails scavenging for the existing research that is relevant to your topic. This step is standard whether you are writing a literature review for a proposal, dissertation, or literature review section for a research or term paper assignment.

However, if you are doing the literature review as an independent assignment, you must choose your focus and develop a central question that will direct your search. That is the question that enables you to collect good data. It is that question that you must answer through your literature review.

To conduct a good search, follow these tips:

1.      Define all the key terms

Begin by defining the research project or topic. And if you have a question, ensure that you internalize it at this point. Next, ask yourself the major concepts you need to feature in your literature review and compile a list of these keywords, related terms, and synonyms. These will be your seed keywords when developing a research strategy.

2.      Search for relevant sources

Using the keywords, you then begin searching for sources. There are various tricks and tips that you can use to get as many sources as possible then narrow down to the best. Here is where you put on the cap of a hunter, a researcher, or a scavenger. Here are some tips:

Some other potential sources for your literature review apart from the library catalog of your university include INSPEC, Project Muse, Medline, EconLit, and JSTOR. Do not limit yourself; even the articles found on Science Direct can be good as long as they meet the criteria you have identified for your literature review. You can also check publisher websites, newspapers and magazines, conference papers, government publications, bulletins, and periodicals.

When searching for literature review, you can use Boolean operators to narrow your search and identify good sources. For example, you can use AND find sources that also contain more than one keyword, OR find the sources that contain a synonym of your keyword, and NOT exclude the results that contain certain unwanted terms.

You can select the articles to keep by reading the abstracts then judging whether they are fit for your question or work. If you have authors who are prominently cited in many sources, they are an authority, check out whether there are pieces of their work that can match your inclusion criteria.

Second Step: Organize, Clean, and Synthesize the sources

Assuming that you have your list of articles at this point, it is time to now clean out the bad and remain with what matters. You need to evaluate the sources further to determine if they are fit for entry into your literature review.

You need to begin by logging the reference information. For this, you can use online citation management tools such as Mendeley or Zotero. You are better of with these reference managers, and if you are patient enough, you can also use the MS Word Inbuilt reference manager. Keeping track of citations is necessary to avoid plagiarism. Besides, if you are to write an annotated bibliography or fill a literature evaluation table, it would be straightforward. Be sure to choose the appropriate citation style: MLA, APA, Harvard, Chicago/Turabian, or Oxford styles.

You can then further profile the contents of the articles based on major arguments, context, date, author, title, methodology, quotations, and notes. Of course, this means that you need to read every source and drop those that are not really reliable, credible, and relevant.

It would help if you took notes as you read the articles. These notes are beneficial once you begin writing. As a matter of fact, you can use an excel sheet to document different aspects of these sources.

If you want to synthesize the articles sufficiently, have an excel sheet with these columns:

After detailing the components of the articles, it is now time to synthesize the information. You can create mind maps, concept maps, or relationship diagrams. Here are some important questions to ask yourself:

Third Step: Organizing facts for your review

Now that you know what the authors have argued or said, you need to organize the arguments of your literature review and determine the appropriate structure to use. Check whether there are links between sources you read and borrow ideas from your notes; identify the themes, debates, and gaps.

You can identify the trends and patterns in results, methodology, and theory over time and check the themes that recur in the literature. Also, check the debates, contradictions, and conflicts between authors on subjects. Next, list the pivotal publications or the seminal works that highlight landmark studies that developed theories or changed the direction of a given field. Finally, check if there is a missing link in the literature and weaknesses that must be addressed.

Doing the above step helps you contextualize your literature review. It also allows you to choose an appropriate approach to your literature review and show how your research addresses the deficiencies in past research and contributes to knowledge in the field.

Fourth Step: Choose an appropriate Structure and write an outline

As we explored earlier, there are different approaches. Whether you go for chronological, thematic, theoretical, methodological, trend, or publication, you need to have an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Write an outline of your literature review, which is more of a blueprint that will guide your writing process. A detailed outline is a skeleton that helps you to envision how the piece of academic task would be. It enables you to avoid writing then realizing you omitted or overdid a section.

Although you will most likely derail off your structure, it is best to have it so that you can trace where you are when writing. It also eliminates the wastage of word count on things that do not matter.

Allocate the most optimum word count limits for every section of your literature review based on their relevance to the overall structure.

Fifth Step: Write your Literature Review

Now that you have the blueprint – your detailed literature review outline, write up the paper confidently. The only barrier here can be writer's block and procrastination. Try to avoid these two barriers and work early enough to avoid the pressure of writing a literature review in a rush.

The first draft is just that, a draft with so many mistakes. So, write first, then edit later. Then, express your thoughts, arrange and rearrange them, refine the points, and focus on perfection later.

With the initial draft written, take a break for as long as time allows, minding the deadline so that you can develop an objective and fresh mind for revision.

Sixth Step: Revise, Edit, and Polish

Now that you have done what most people find challenging, you need to polish it to achieve the 100% mark. You can polish your literature review by sending it to the supervisor for criticism and comments. When you receive the feedback, you can then edit the paper.

Alternatively, share the draft with a colleague or editor and ask if they understand what you wrote. If you want a peer-to-peer editing program, you can use our online editing service. We have strict and experienced academic editors. These research specialists can come in handy when polishing your literature review. Remember, maintaining simplicity when writing your literature review matters more.

After all, is done, check your grammar, punctuation, language use, verbs, tenses, nouns, and formatting to ensure that you are all set, then submit for grading.


Tips and Tricks for Writing and Outstanding Literature Review

Here are a few tips and tricks from our literature review writers to help you finish your literature review assignment. These tips and tricks have been tried, tested, and proven to work. They can be your guiding principles when writing your literature review.

Literature review checklist

We wish you the best of luck as you write your literature review; you will need it!