Literature reviews are one of the most common types of essays that teachers will expect you to perfect. You will be required to conduct a literature review when working on a research paper, a thesis, or dissertation.

The review's main aim is to demonstrate that you can develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your paper. It also shows that you are familiar with the topic at hand, and you can identify an informational gap that current research has not addressed.

As such, literature reviews are very important for any scholarly article to be credible. So how do you go about writing one? First, you need to know what a literature review is.

What is a literature review?

In general, a literature review is an in-depth overview of existing research about a given topic. It is meant to show the reader what is currently known about the subject you're researching. It also helps point out informational gaps that exist in your field of study. This will help develop a rationale or justification for your new study.

A literature review should include all the main themes found in the given studies that you are analyzing when done perfectly. It should also highlight the methodology and findings of those research papers. In essence, it should summarize, analyze and evaluate the literature, and explain the kind of research done for a given research area.

Literature reviews serve different purposes; however, the main ones include;

  • It identifies areas of prior study.
  • It brings to light the contribution of a given study to understanding the specific issue under research.
  • Establishes a link between each of the sources to the others that have been selected.
  • Identifies gaps that were not addressed by previous studies.
  • Highlight any conflicting evidence
  • It explains how future research on a given topic should be conducted.
  • How to write a literature review

    Now that we have already established what a literature review is and its purpose, let's look at how to write a literature review.

    Focus your Topic

    The first thing that you need to do is to determine why you are conducting the literature review. This will help guide the approach you take. Consider what the result of the review is. Do you want to use it as part of your dissertation/thesis? Will it be a published research paper, or is it a personal undertaking.

    Some teachers might provide you with guidelines on what to focus on during your research. However, in most cases, you will be required to define the focus of the review. This is usually the difficult part. Since numerous studies focus on a certain topic, how do you narrow down the focus of the review to something manageable and relevant at the same time? For example, if the general topic is "The effect of diet on cancer." Initial research on such a topic would yield vast quantities of information.

    However, if you only concentrate on a given type of food and how it increases the prevalence of cancer among a certain demographic, the search results would be more manageable. If you are having trouble narrowing down your topic, talk to your professor, or brainstorm with your peers. The focus of your study should appear at the start of your paper

    After you have already determined your research focus, you can now move on to search for literature. The best way to find relevant and useful material during the search is to formulate keywords. These keywords will be the cornerstone of an effective search.

    Start by creating a list of keywords that are related to your topic. Consider all the possible words (including synonyms and alternate words) that relate to your study. Most databases use these keywords to make it easier for users to retrieve information consistent with their research. When developing these search words, you should also be mindful of spelling variations. For example, some words are spelled differently in the UK and US, e.g. organization or organization.

    The good thing about living in a digital world is that almost all information you might need to conduct your research can be found online. However, conducting a random google search will not necessarily yield articles that are useful for academic research. This is because much of the literature you will find will be from Web Pages that would not pass the credibility index.

    Therefore, focus on searching for materials from online libraries and databases such as Scopus and Web of Science. Such databases have well-defined search platforms that are easy to use. You can also use databases that focus on a specific field, for example, PubMed for medical studies or IEEE Xplore for engineering papers. Such platforms will provide you will numerous credible sources- however, if you want a particular medium, e.g. book or journal, you can try websites such as WorldCat or Trove.

    Another great tip is to look at the reference list of recent articles to find more useful content. Also, avoid websites whose credibility is not guaranteed, for example, Wikipedia.

    The publication date is also important. Try to find literature that is recent as they will provide information that is up to date.

    After you have found the articles you want to use, you need to appraise them. This is meant to establish whether they will be useful to your research or not. Ask yourself the following questions:

    • Does the article relate to the focus of the study?
    • Is the scope of the identified literature clearly defined?
    • What is the research orientation- Is it a qualitative or quantitative paper?
    • Does the author contribute to advancement in the field?
    • Does the author appear to have any bias?
    • What was the sample size used?

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    Read And Thoroughly Evaluate The Selected Article.

    This is the next important step. After you have identified the articles you will use, you need to evaluate them before writing. Start by skimming the studies to get a rough idea of the general purpose of the paper. After you know what each article is about, group the articles into categories, e.g. topics or subtopics, and note everything down. You can do this by identifying the relationships among the studies.

    Once you have every article categorized, it's time to read every paper thoroughly. During your read, take note of the emphases, weaknesses, and strengths of each author. Literature reviews are meant to show that you can critically analyze a paper. Therefore, just writing a summary of the paper will not be enough.

    Show the reader that you can critique the study's methodology and establish whether the authors effectively supported their opinions using actual research findings. It is also vital for you to identify gaps in the study and why they exist based on facts relating to the field of study. As you read the different articles, please take note of how they relate to your study. Record the specific aspects that will help support your thesis statement.

    Summarize and Synthesize the Literature

    Since some literature reviews will require you to use a lot of sources, it is important to summarize the literature in a table format. You can do this the old-fashioned way in your notebook. However, the best method is to create a table using Microsoft Word or Excel. This will help you organize and summarize your finding efficiently. For each study, ensure you have tables that will include;

    • The research method
    • The findings
    • Definition of key concepts
    • The strengths and weakness
    • The most influential theories
    • Findings that are common or contested

    The tables and notes that you create will help you develop an outline for your final review, as you will be able to compare and contrast all of them.

    Writing the literature review

    Once you are done with everything mentioned above, writing the review is the easy part. Just like any other academic paper, literature reviews should have an introduction, body, and conclusion.


    Introductions can make or break your paper. You will not get a second chance to impress your reader if your introduction is not good. One of the things that most students struggle with when it comes to literature reviews is how to organize their thoughts linearly. That is why the introduction section is very important, as it will provide the framework for your work.

    It would be best if you began by defining your topic and providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature. Let the reader know why you want to conduct this review and why your research topic is important. By the time the reader is done reading your introduction, you must have answered the following questions for him:

    • What were you studying?
    • Why the topic you were studying was important?
    • How you knew or arrived at that topic before you did the study?
    • How will your work advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding?

    Finally, at the end of your introduction, you should have a thesis statement or purpose statement. The thesis statement should clearly outline the conclusion/s you will draw from your evaluation and synthesis of the literature.


    This is the center of your work, and it is where you will present, analyze, evaluate and synthesize the studies you were reviewing. There are different ways of organizing the sources into a review. Some of the main ones include:

    Chronologically approach: This is where you review the articles according to when they were published. It is the simplest way, and you will not be allowed to use this format at advanced levels. The method only calls for you to start reviewing the article published first and work your way to the most recent publication. The best way to use this approach is when your research is aimed at understanding how a particular topic unfolded or developed over time.

    Thematic approach: This is the most commonly used approach to structuring a literature review. It mandates that you organize your work according to themes or categories. This is why we stated earlier that it is important to establish relationships among the different studies and categorize them into topics and subtopics. By structuring your review thematically, you will be able to discuss each of these themes (topics) one section at a time. For instance, if you have two papers about how a high carbohydrate diet can lead to type II diabetes, you will review them in one section.

    Methodological approach: This is where you group your studies based on the research methodologies the authors used, for example, quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methodologies. This is mostly used when you want to question how the different studies were conducted juxtaposed with their findings/conclusions. This method does not focus on the material's content; instead, it is more concerned with the author's 'methods.'


    The conclusion is where you "wrap up" or summarize the key finding you have taken from your research. It is meant to enable your reader to understand why your research matters after he or she is done reading your paper. Therefore, the conclusion of a literature review is more than just a summary of the main ideas covered during your research. It should instead be a synthesis of the main points and highlight new areas for future studies.

    After you are done with your review, ensure that you also include a reference list of all the sources you used at the end.

    Final Thoughts

    Literature reviews are very important for most academic papers, such as dissertations and research papers. To have a great review, you must first identify your study's main focus, find the best/relevant studies that relate to your topic, and synthesize them with clarity. To do this, you must organize your thoughts properly. This is because it is easy for your ideas to be all over the place, making it hard for your reader to follow what you are trying to put across. As such, we recommend you use the thematic approach unless the instructions state otherwise.


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