How to write a good literature review

Whether you are writing a paper or a thesis, a review of existing literature is always part of the deal. For a thesis, a literature review is part of the introduction, but it can be a separate section as well. It is designed to provide an overview of the sources you have explored while researching a particular topic, such as books, journal articles and theses. A good literature review does not just summarize sources, it analyzes previous research showing gaps that your own research will attempt to fill. It also demonstrates to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study. This is a step-by-step guide on how to write a good literature review that will earn you a top grade.

Step 1: Determine the purpose of your literature review

In the first step, make sure you know specifically what the assignment is and what form your literature review should take. Read your assignment carefully and seek clarification from your professor or instructor if needed. You should be able to answer the following questions:

  • How many sources do I need to include?
  • What types of sources should I review?
  • Should I evaluate the sources?
  • Should I summarize, synthesize or critique sources?
  • Do I need to provide any definitions or background information?

In addition to that, be aware that the narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good overview of the topic.

Now you need to find out what has been written on the topic and search for literature related to your research problem. If the literature review itself is your assignment, you will need to focus and develop a central question beforehand to direct your search.

Make sure to select appropriate source material, which means using academic or scholarly sources, including books, reports, journal articles, government documents and web resources. Come up with a list of relevant keywords and then start your search with your institution's library catalog, and extend it to other useful databases and academic search engines like:

Our guide on how to gather content for your thesis might be helpful at this stage of your research as well as the top list of academic search engines.

Step 3: Evaluate & select literature

When you have found a useful article, check out the reference list. It should provide you with even more relevant sources. Also, keep a note of the publication title, date, authors' names, page numbers and publishers. Doing this now will save you time later, when you have to work on your bibliography.

Read the literature. You will most likely not be able to read absolutely everything that is out there on the topic. Therefore, read the abstract first to determine whether the rest of the source is worth your time. If the source is relevant for your topic:

  • Read it critically
  • Look for the arguments presented
  • Take notes as you read
  • Organize your notes using a table, mind map, or other technique you are familiar with

Step 4: Analyze the literature

Now you are ready to analyze the literature you have gathered. While your are working on your analysis, you should ask the following questions:

  • What are the key terms, concepts and problems addressed by the author?
  • How is this source relevant for my specific topic?
  • How is the article structured? What are the major trends and findings?
  • What are the conclusions of the study?
  • How are the results presented? Is the source credible?
  • When comparing different sources, how do they relate to each other? What are the similarities, what are the differences?
  • Does the study help me understand the topic better?
  • Are there any gaps in the research that need to be filled? How can I further my research as a result of the review?

Step 5: Plan the structure of your literature review

As there are various ways to organize your literature review, you should have a rough idea of the structure before you start writing:

  • Writing in the chronological method means you are presenting the materials according to when they were published. Follow this approach only if a clear path of research can be identified.
  • A thematic review of literature is organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. When a literature review focuses on a certain topic, for example religious influence on public policy making, it can still present the evidence in a chronological order. The difference to the chronological method is that it is still emphasizing religious influence on public policy making.
  • You can order your sources by publication, if the way you present the order of your sources demonstrates a more important trend. That would be the case if with the progression revealed from study to study, the practices of researchers have changed and adapted due to the new revelations.
  • A methodological approach focuses on the methods used by the researcher. If you have used sources from different disciplines that use a variety of research methods, you might want to compare the results in light of the different methods and discuss how the topic has been approached from different sides.

Step 6: Write your literature review

Depending on the purpose of your literature review and the structure you have chosen, your literature review can look very differently. But there are a few guidelines to follow, as for any academic text, your literature review should have an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion.

Your introduction should give the reader an outline of why you are writing the review and explain the relevance of the topic. Furthermore, you should explain the scope of your review and why you chose the literature you chose. You can also use the introduction to highlight gaps in the literature that you attempt to fill.

Divide the body of your literature review into different sections, and make sure there is a clear connection between your sources. Write in well-structured paragraphs, use transitions and topic sentences and critically analyze each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching. Do not just paraphrase other researchers, add your own interpretations where possible. The body could also include paragraphs on previous studies on the topic, historical background, mainstream versus alternative viewpoints or general conclusions that are being drawn.

In your conclusion, you should summarize your key findings, the main agreements and disagreements in the literature, your overall perspective of the topic and any gaps or areas for further research.