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How to Write a Literature Review for Research: Guide, Structure & Template Examples

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A literature review is a critical analysis of published research on a particular topic. It involves reviewing and analyzing a range of sources, such as academic articles, books, and reports. Students conduct a literature review before writing a research paper or dissertation to gain an understanding of the existing knowledge and recognize areas for further exploration.

Evaluating scholarly works is a crucial aspect of academic work because it establishes the foundation for an inquiry and uncovers new information or gaps in studies. Thus, it is essential to develop and structure it correctly. 

In this guide you will find:

  • A detailed definition
  • Main types
  • Elements of a good literary review
  • How to do a literature review
  • Examples of literature review template.

Read on to explore the structure and straightforward steps for assessing existing sources on your topic. 

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What Is a Literature Review: Definition

Before delving further, let’s first define what is a literature review in research. As a researcher, you might need to objectively synthesize, explore, and evaluate existing studies conducted by others. A literature review helps you identify gaps or areas that require further investigation. It boils down to analyzing and making sense of a massive body of knowledge.

It is crucial to be critical during the entire process as it is the most effective approach to engaging with texts. You need to objectively identify their strengths and weaknesses, and convey your positive or negative views.  

In other words, literature reviews are about deducing specific sources and comparing relevant studies to find similarities and differences. This process may reveal new perspectives or offer a thorough outline for further developments in a specific field. It can also inform readers about the relevance and validity of existing documents to the statement of the problem.

You conduct a lit review to get an overview of concepts surrounding your subject, keep up to date with trends in your field, and enhance your credibility. Besides, it offers a solid background for a research paper, thesis or dissertation.

Literature review definition

What Is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

A literature review must highlight your overall knowledge of a research subject and help you develop an argument, mostly by responding to a specific question. It is not just a summary of what you have read. 

Commonly, the purpose of a literature review is to help you:

  • Understand and convey the current state of literature on your research topic.
  • Find adequate documents on your subject to form your perspective.
  • Create a framework for your paper based on research goals.
  • Identify gaps in studies and develop novel research questions.
  • Select appropriate methods by locating tried and tested techniques.

Note that keeping all these points in mind is important to get the most from an evaluation process when conducting the review.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are various types of literature reviews, each with specific expectations in terms of depth, structure, length, and scope. Here are the main ones:

  1. Stand-alone literature review. This type involves a comprehensive analysis of prior research related to a specific question. Here, your task is to evaluate and compare existing studies, identify trends, and recognize gaps, weaknesses, and controversies in the field.
  2. Literature review for a journal article. In this case, the analysis of literature focuses on providing background information for an inquiry being conducted. It is usually placed in an introduction or combined with the discussion of results.
  3. Literature review assignment. Students may be assigned a selective project to familiarize themselves with a theme and studies in their field. The intention could also be to identify gaps in the current knowledge base to suggest new questions, develop a theoretical framework in research, or determine a suitable methodology for future exploration. This type deals with a small part of research on a subject and stands as a complete work.
  4. Research paper literature review. The main objective here is to facilitate scholars in gathering, condensing, synthesizing, and examining current research on a specific issue. This is particularly beneficial to academics who are investigating a new area of study or seeking guidance on topics that have not yet been thoroughly explored.
  5. Thesis or dissertation literature review. This is a separate chapter placed after the Ph.D. thesis introduction and before the dissertation methodology section. It helps the author understand what has already been studied and what gaps exist in the current knowledge. By analyzing the existing research, a researcher can identify opportunities for further investigation and ensure that their study is original and significant.

How Long Should a Literature Review Be?

If the instructions for a task do not specify the required length of the literature review, there are some guidelines to consider. In general, it would be enough to have 20-25% of the total size of your work as an analysis part. Typically, the analysis section of the review should constitute around 20-25% of the total length of the work. However, several factors, such as the project purpose, intended audience, type, and scope, may affect how long a literature review is. For example, a dissertation usually requires an extensive literature evaluation section. The best assessments, however, are usually not less than 2 pages long. 

If you are uncertain about the appropriate length, refer to the table below for guidance.

Literature Review Length in Different Projects

Type of Project

Length of Literature Review

Number of Words

Stand-alone literature review

4-7 pages

1,200-2,000 words

Scientific journal article

3-4 pages

900-1,200 words

Research paper

3-5 pages

900-1,500 words

Master's thesis

6-9 pages

2,000-3,000 words

Ph.D. dissertation

20-25 pages

6,000-8,000 words

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Features of a Good Literature Review

Regardless of your work’s nature, composing a good literature review is a laborious process that many students rightfully find challenging. This is because you may need to go through numerous studies and identify gaps, recognize frameworks, cite sources, and ensure coherence. Therefore, to develop a decent piece it is essential to consider the characteristics described below. The best work:

  • Is more than just a list of relevant studies: you should critically examine others’ ideas and assess how they are presented.
  • Considers a variety of reliable and applicable sources: a scientific literature review should demonstrate that you are familiar with relevant readings on your topic. Thus, ensure you have covered important, broad, latest, and pertinent texts. Such an approach enhances the depth of your evaluation and highlights various viewpoints.
  • Demonstrates an awareness of values and theories underpinning the work: in the first place, you must understand why exactly you are conducting the evaluation. If you don’t know the purpose and function of the process, you will not write effectively.
  • Relates papers to each other by comparing and contrasting them: a literature review in research moves past simple descriptions of what others have written. Rather, it entails connecting, finding differences and similarities, and interpreting concepts.
  • Offers personal reactions and opinions to manuscripts: after comparing, contrasting, and critiquing others’ works, you should present your own interpretation and analysis.
  • Showcases research gaps that your study will deal with and help address.
  • Applies appropriate linking/transition words such as “similarly”, “however”, “also”, “contend”, “conclude”, “argue”, and “assert”: this helps you group together related notions, highlight contrasting views, and introduce others’ opinions or texts while remaining objective throughout the analysis.
literature review characteristics

What to Include in a Literature Review?

At this point, you understand the definitions, purpose, and features of a literature review. Now you need to present information effectively. Like in any other formal paper, your work must have a basic structure comprising an introduction, body, and conclusion. 

But what does it look like? The layout goes beyond these sections because you must also consider how your themes and arguments will be organized. 

Here is a detailed description of the three main parts of a literature review:

  • Introduction Your first section should be brief, direct, and focused. Explain the main themes or topics to be analyzed, the arguments you will present, and the underlying reasons for your claims.
  • Body In this section, conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the selected sources and organize them using a specific approach, such as themes or topics. Make sure to present your arguments clearly, linking them to studies that support or contradict your assessment. Remember to include viewpoints that disagree with your position to strengthen your evaluation. Cite the works of various authors you are critically analyzing, and limit the use of direct quotes. Instead, paraphrase and include references.
  • Conclusion Summarize your literature review by highlighting the conclusions drawn from your analysis. You can restate gaps in knowledge, explain how your study will address them, and recommend future research needed on the topic.

Look at the example of the literature review template below to learn more.

Literature Review Template

How to Structure a Literature Review?

Once you are ready to begin writing a literature review, it is necessary to think about how you will organize information. This helps avoid the risk of your work turning into a loose sequence of summaries instead of a logical and integrated analysis. 

A literature review structure should be chosen based on the style used in your body section. Here are the major approaches you can use:

  • Thematic This approach involves organizing your analysis around themes, topics, or issues. It is particularly useful when focusing on a single overarching subject and enables you to highlight critical debates within sub-themes.
  • Chronological Literature reviews using this format organize studies based on when they were published, typically moving from older to newer works to explore the topic's development over time. It is important to analyze sources by considering any debates and turning points that influenced the subject and offer your interpretation.
  • Methodological This design focuses on the methods other researchers used. A review of literature using this layout considers the perspective from which a particular theme was examined or the procedures used to answer a specific question. It may use qualitative, quantitative, or other strategies within these two broad techniques.
  • Theoretical A theoretical approach involves a systematic and critical examination of existing theories, models, and frameworks related to the research topic or question. This approach helps to establish the context, identify gaps, and provide a foundation for your own research.
Approaches to structuring a literature review

How to Write a Literature Review?

If you are still wondering how to write a literature review for a research paper, thesis or dissertation, this guideline will help you get started. While you have learned about important elements such as structuring and organization, you may still need guidance on how to establish your foundation for creating your review. 

The following sections provide easy-to-understand explanations on how to write a lit review.

Below are 7 steps you must follow to develop a decent paper.

How to write a literature review in 7 steps

1. Select a Topic and Narrow It Down

As you begin reviewing literature, it is vital to get your focus correct. Depending on your field of study, the selected topic must be:

  • Relevant and important Explore a crucial concern in your field so that people will be interested in your work and you will have sufficient material to base your project on.
  • Interesting This is essential because learning how to write a good literature review starts with being inquisitive since you can’t investigate something that doesn’t arouse your curiosity.
  • Well defined this helps you include only relevant publications to make your paper helpful.
  • Narrow Your theme must be specific yet researched enough to allow for an in-depth analysis. Broad issues usually necessitate a large number of studies, which will be impossible to explore meaningfully.

2. Search for Pertinent Literature

After having selected a topic for your research literature review, you need to search for studies. As you do this research, you'll want to take note of the keywords and phrases that appear frequently in the articles. These keywords can be used to create a list of search terms that you'll use to find additional articles on your topic.

To ensure that your search terms are effective, you should try to identify the most important keywords and phrases related to your topic. These might be the names of key researchers, conceptual frameworks, theories, or techniques related to your topic. Consider the headings that the documents have been tagged with and words occurring in abstracts and titles. You can then organize your phrases into blocks based on the main ideas.

Once you have identified the relevant keywords for your scientific literature review, it's time to search for articles. To do this, you'll need to choose at least two credible databases to search for good articles. Popular options include:

But there may be other databases that are more appropriate for your specific topic.

When searching across different databases, it's important to use a uniform search strategy. This means combining your search terms using "OR" and "AND" to create a block of related terms. You can then type this block into the basic search box or use the advanced search feature, enclosing the terms in parentheses. This makes it easier to find specific articles.

For example, consider these keywords:

Since the generated results may contain irrelevant or unreliable sources, ensure that you select only dependable ones. This is a key skill to develop when conducting a literature review because it allows you to choose the best articles to support your arguments.

3. Analyze and Choose Relevant Sources

After completing your search for articles and selecting databases, it's time to review the sources and choose which ones to include in your lit review. Focus on studies that are relevant to your topic and meet any other inclusion criteria. 

To determine whether an article is relevant to your project, you'll need to read it carefully and grasp the arguments presented. Take notes as you read, recording interesting facts, main points, and any thoughts you have about the article. This will help you remember which author made which arguments, your impressions of the article, and any relationships you identified between different sources.

As you read, try to answer these questions:

  • What is the main argument of the article?
  • How does the author support their argument?
  • What is the research question or objective of the study?
  • What research methods were used, and were they appropriate for the research question?
  • What were the main findings or results of the study?
  • Were the results statistically significant, and were the conclusions supported by the data?
  • Are there any limitations or weaknesses to the study that should be considered?
  • Are the authors qualified to conduct this research?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest or biases that may affect the study's findings?
  • Is the article well-written and easy to understand?
  • Are the sources cited in the article reliable and relevant to the topic?

Remember that you can only start to write your literature review after going through all your manuscripts. Therefore, creating a rough draft is essential as this gives you a general idea of the volume of available material available.

While conducting a literature review, you must examine the quality of all sources critically. This typically entails using a checklist or table to evaluate aspects such as methods, results, and presentation. An example of a template to assess sources for a literature review is provided below. It contains questions and criteria that assist in locating bias, errors, or flaws.

Template for Literature Evaluation

Template for Evaluation of Existing Literature

4. Group the Sources by Categories

To write a review of literature, you need to sort your sources. After reading and evaluating your articles, you should have a general idea of the main achievements, major debates, themes, trends, and outstanding issues/questions. The next step is to organize your sources into logical categories.

Good research literature reviews are systematic and consistent. You may choose to arrange your sources by topic, research methodology, geographic location, or other relevant criteria. It's also helpful to use subheadings within each category to further organize your sources.

As you group your sources, be sure to consider how they relate to one another and to the overall research question or topic. You may find that certain sources address multiple themes or issues. In this case you'll need to decide which category is the most appropriate for each source.

Remember that the purpose of organizing your sources is to provide a clear and coherent structure for your literature review. By grouping your sources into logical categories, you make it easier for your readers to follow your arguments and understand the connections between different sources.

Here is an example of how to group sources by categories.

Example of how to group existing sources by categories

5. Build Connection Between Your Ideas and the Literature

To complete this step of the literature review, you need to connect your research, arguments, or ideas to the texts you've gathered. Begin by using your research question to identify connections between your sources and insights into your findings.

Match your key concepts with the central points in each article to establish associations between topics. Be aware that you may see differences or contradictions between readings.

To ensure that you're ready to write your literature review, use your key concepts as headings in your notes to easily locate articles that address specific themes. Observe and make explicit the relationships that emerge between your arguments and the manuscripts. These connections will be useful when structuring your work and selecting the papers to include in your project.

6. Write a Literature Review

At this point, you can start a literature review because you have already synthesized relevant works in your mind and recorded the details. With that information in mind, it is time to begin composing the actual analysis and thoroughly creating each of the components of a literature review. 

Initiate the process by highlighting your topic and your overall argument or view. 

Just like any other academic essay, your project must be well-structured and contain an introduction, main part, and conclusion. Consider the following explanations on how to write a literature review for a dissertation, thesis, or research paper.

Literature Review Introduction

The introduction section should provide the necessary background information and clarify the purpose of your analysis. 

Begin by broadly announcing the topic and providing contextual details of major concepts and terms, such as what is already known about the subject and how the field has developed. Next, provide specific and relevant information about the issue and explain why it is important or why readers should engage with your work. Finally, describe the organization, scope, and aim or highlight the key points that will be discussed.

Look at the following example to see how you can write an introduction for a literature review.

Literature Review Introduction Example

Lit Review Body

The body section of your literature review is where you analyze relevant studies related to your topic. It is essential to organize your analysis coherently and logically. 

Identify important sub-topics and structuring them to support your arguments. Using subheadings under major themes can help to order and focus your work effectively. 

While writing the body of your literature review, you should critically examine texts.  This involves recognizing gaps, points of agreement or disagreement, and key subjects. 

You can structure this section chronologically, thematically, theoretically, or methodologically, depending on your research question and the nature of your sources. Remember to use reliable and accurate references to support your arguments.

Consider this example:

Example of a Literature Review Paper Body Section

Literature Review Conclusion

The concluding section of a literature review should show how you addressed the topic or achieved your purpose. You should then mention the major arguments you examined before identifying their implications in the broader field. Remember to recommend any applicable future research.

Also, keep in mind these things when writing your literature review conclusion:

  • Avoid in-text citations.
  • Do not include new information.
  • Highlight main ideas raised in the body paragraphs.
  • Give your general view of the studies and explain your conclusions and underlying reasons.

Here is a sample literature review conclusion.

Literature Review Conclusion Example

7. Proofread and Revise Your Review of Literature

Once you are done with reviewing your literature, give yourself some time off and then come back to edit it. Attend to its narrative and flow by ensuring that all parts fit together and transition smoothly from one paragraph to another. Improve any poor connections, revise to enhance clarity, or re-write sentences to eradicate construction mistakes. You can then give your scientific literature review to a colleague or friend, who is not an expert in the field, and ask their opinion about the message of your overall paper. Also, seek responses from your supervisor if possible. Use any feedback you get to better your project further. At this point, you understand how to do a lit review. Additional tips are provided below.

Literature Review Format

Besides following the aforementioned steps, you must also consider how to format a literature review. Be sure to check with your institution or target journal about style guidelines and the specific rules of your work’s layout. 

Each style has instructions regarding the major sections, in-text citations, and a literature reference page. 

For example, an APA paper format is based on an “author-date” approach, in which the author’s name and publication year are cited inside the document. A reference list is included on your paper’s last page. APA literature review format is dominant in the sciences, psychology, and education fields. 

In contrast, an MLA format paper follows a “researcher-page number” style accompanied by works cited page, which is common in the humanities. 

A Chicago style paper requires footnotes or endnotes with a bibliography section for all sources. It is mostly used in fine arts, history, and business disciplines.

Literature Review Examples

At this point, you are ready to start writing your review. Before proceeding, it is advisable to consider an example of literature review in a research paper, thesis or dissertation in your field. Thoroughly read the samples you find to get familiar with aspects such as organization, argument presentation, and referencing sources correctly. This is an effective way of learning ways of framing and structuring your work. Additionally, going through how to write a literature review example helps you understand what is expected in this task. Also, when reading these samples, pay attention to the academic language used. Look at the following free examples:

Literature review example (APA 7th Edition)

Literature review for research paper example

Thesis/dissertation literature review example

Tips on Writing a Literature Review in Research

Now that you have a well-rounded idea about how to write a literature review, read the recommendation described here as they remind you of essential points. Before proceeding, remember that you should include sources that are associated with your work directly. This helps you avoid frustrating and distracting readers or making them lose sight of your purpose. Also, once you start writing your review, stick to the previously created outline and keep these tips in mind:

  • Analyze Do not just list studies, rather, examine them critically to find similarities, differences, relationships, or contradictions.
  • Time management Take your time to select a topic, gather literature, evaluate, read, and write. The last part should take about half of your time, while the remainder is for the other tasks.
  • Revise Anticipate revising countless times before delivering a final version.
  • Presentation A literature review in a research paper, thesis or dissertation must be specific and provide concrete examples. For example, rather than “this” use “this result”. First-person references should be avoided because they signal unsupported arguments. Everything written should have a reason. Also, use short paragraphs as they are easier to read. Additionally, structure your work with headings, subheadings, and subsections to make it flow.
  • Paraphrase Avoid relying too much on quoting directly from sources or one researcher. Rather, paraphrase and compare authors between themselves and with your ideas.
  • References Give credit to every outside idea or language by citing their work in your paper.

Literature Review Checklist

Now that you are through with composing your literature review, it is essential to be sure that your work is ready for delivery or publication. Therefore, you must take your time and reflect on the following questions to ensure that every section is covered thoroughly. Consider this final checklist:

Final Thoughts on Writing a Scientific Literature Review

We have provided you with all the necessary information on how to write a review of literature. Follow our step-by-step guide to identify the right keywords, evaluate sources, and select credible and relevant articles. Make sure to structure your writing clearly and logically using the key components of a literature review that we have outlined for you. 

To help you further, we have included examples of literature reviews for you to check. With these simplified requirements, you are ready to start practicing and creating your own literature reviews. Remember, practice is essential to mastering this type of writing, so keep it up!

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FAQ About Literature Reviews

1. What is a literature review in a research paper?

The literature review of a research paper is a type of academic essay that analyzes and evaluates previous or existing studies on a topic. It aims to survey readings, synthesize, and digest the obtained information. It also critically explores the data by identifying gaps in knowledge, demonstrating limitations in manuscripts, examining contradictions, and determining areas for additional research. The final piece is presented logically.

2. Where does a literature review go in a research paper?

A literature review generally comes after an introduction and before the methodology chapter of dissertations. Here, it is used to analyze relevant scholarship about a topic, ground your research paper in a specific field, and inform your data collection methods and analysis procedures.

3. How to start a literature review?

Start a literature review by describing the background of what you will analyze in your body paragraphs. There is no need to be comprehensive here. Rather, show that you clearly understand your paper’s scope. In particular, begin by conveying the established ideas and knowledge on the subject being explored to your audience.

4. What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography?

The main difference between the two is that literature reviews focus on providing an overview and analysis of existing research on a particular theme. They aim to identify the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and draw conclusions. In contrast, the purpose of an annotated bibliography is to collect sources for a specific project and offer summaries of what they are about.

5. What is the importance of a literature review?

A literature review is important because:

  • It establishes a rapport with your readers They will trust you because you have examined and analyzed facts appropriately.
  • Helps researchers deliver original work The entire process of conducting the assessment assists you to evade repeating something done by someone else.
  • It improves your research focus Synthesizing and analyzing studies can guide and shape your investigation in new directions by providing novel insights and views on a theme.
Article posted on:Mar 15, 2023
Article updated on:May 6, 2024


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