How to write a literature review

Monday, 25 May 2020.

A literature overview is used to assess and systematically present the available literature on a specific topic. For example, the literature can consist of books and shorter texts from brochures and contains the data from previously published studies. Sometimes the literature review is part of a larger scientific work. A literature review is intended to avoid duplication. Conflicts can also be resolved and goals set for further research. Furthermore, new knowledge can be generated by bringing together and comparing information from different sources.

The structure of literary criticism


The presentation is intended to give an overview of:

  • why you write a comment and why the topic is important
  • Scope of the review: what aspects of the topic are being discussed?
  • the criteria used in the literature selection (e.g. type of sources used, date range)
  • the organizational structure of the audit.

Body paragraphs

Each paragraph should address a different topic that is relevant to your content. It is necessary to synchronize some of the statements in each paragraph so that there is a clear link between the different sources. You need to critically analyze each source to determine how it contributes to the topics you are looking for.

The body of the text can contain the following paragraphs:

  • historical background
  • methodologies
  • previous studies on the topic
  • mainstream versus alternative viewpoints
  • principal questions being asked
  • general conclusions that are being drawn.


Your conclusions should give an overview of:

  • -the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
  • -any gaps or areas for further research
  • -your overall perspective on the topic

How to write a literature review in 12 steps

Step 1

Make it clear what requirements your professor has. You may not receive any further details on the literature review. Talk to your professor about it and find out exactly what is expected of you.

How many sources should you include in your literature review? It is not really possible to take into account all available literature sources on the topic when studying and writing semesters. Discuss with the lecturer how many, and possibly which literature references are being worked on and how current they should be.

Find out whether you should summarize or compare or criticize? Some literature reviews require a thesis for further reasoning, some do not.

Should you provide your own interpretation of things?

Do you have to offer background information for better understanding, e.g. Definitions or the description of processes?

Is there a prescribed number of pages or other requirements?

Step 2

Limit your topic. Limit it as much as possible. Make sure that you continue to have the necessary number of comparable and high-quality sources. If there are too many sources available, limit yourself to partial aspects. Expand the topic if too few sources can be found.

Concentrate on the latest. If you write a literature review for humanities, history, or social sciences, you can afford to worry less about the timing. (In this case, it might be an aspect of your literature review how certain changes in worldview and what would have happened in the course of history). But if you write a literature review for the science of treating diabetes, the information from 5 years ago might be out of date. Sort through current bibliographies or literature reviews in the department to get an impression of how to write a literature review.

Step 3

Find a focus. Unfortunately, you don't just collect sources to summarize what they have to say. You should check which topics and ideas connect your sources. Think of your sources as a group of friends arguing on the same topic. "How to write a literature review". What do they match and where do opinions differ?

Read between the lines. You are not necessarily looking for detailed explanations. Is there an aspect that is still missing? Do your sources all relate to a certain theory? Are trends emerging? This will help you immensely to structure your work and to clarify the intent of your literature review.

Step 4

Building your thesis on how to write a literature review. Now that you have found your focus, it is time to prepare a thesis. Theses within a literature overview differ from the thesis of your diploma thesis. This thesis does not necessarily argue for a particular point of view or view; rather, it will argue a special perspective based on the underlying material.

For example, "Current trends regarding [subject] are A, B, and C", or "X-theory is accepted by most sources from 1985 onwards". Such a statement raises a few questions about what makes your literature review more interesting and meaningful: How will trends change in the future? What happens if the accepted theories are wrong?

Again, this is not new information. You do not analyze the material and do not develop your own fresh perspective in this regard. You act exactly like a computer. You note recognized patterns, missing things, and the conclusions of your sources.

Step 5

Assess your sources. You can have the best of intentions and a winning style of writing that convinces the most stubborn skeptics, but if your sources are not realistic, that won't help. Make sure your sources are evaluated at different levels.

What qualifications do the authors have? How are your arguments supported (stories, statistics, historical finds, etc.)?

Is the author's perspective impartial and objective? Is important data ignored in your own interest?

How convincing are they? Do certain points leave something to be desired?

Does the work lead to a better understanding of the topic?

Step 6

Start with a solid introduction on how to write a literature review. As always, first impressions are important. Your introduction basically provides information on the topic of your literature review, be it purely thematic or by organizational samples.

Help readers by making it clear what to expect. If you use a thesis, add it towards the end of your introductory paragraph. In the end, your reader should be ready to examine the evidence and most of your review.

Step 7

Organize the main part. You have the most options here how to write a literature review. You have a number of sources on the same subject that probably have a lot in common. It is necessary to structure the topic and then transfer this structure to the literature overview.

Sort chronologically. If you have different opinions depending on the era or due to new trends, it makes sense to order them chronologically.

Order based on the publication. This organizational method fits well if each publication represents a different basic attitude. If there is a natural evolution of the sources (radical to conservative, for example), it works like a charm.

Arranged according to trend. If you notice patterns in the sources, you may be able to sort by trends as this is the most obvious structure. Certain sources together could suggest a pattern that shifts over time, region, or another variable.

Sort thematically. This very much depends on your instructions for your thesis and your sources. If you have chosen a more abstract focus ("Colonialism is depicted as devilish", for example), the subsections can be arranged according to the different methods used to convey the topic.

Come to a clear understanding. The last paragraph must round off your work, repeat what was said in the intro, and discuss what you have learned from your research so far.

You can make your conclusion suggestive. How could the discussion go if someone else continues it from here? What are the consequences of the patterns and missing facts of today's sources?

Step 8

Use the evidence. Gather a few sources in your own words to start the debate. Use your own words, backed up by the work of professionals.

Rarely use quotes. A literature review is not intended for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes will do, but in general, they should be written by you.

Step 9

Talk to. No, you don't present your own information on how to write a literature review, but you should still start and end each paragraph in your own words. Your opinion should remain the focus.

If you paraphrase the content of another author's source, be sure to present the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Then establish a relationship to the context of your overview.

Some professors may require that you evaluate the sources and determine which parts make the best contribution. If this is expected of you, start with it in the introduction and incorporate it into your overall overview.

Step 10

Check out the guidelines. Some professors need their own work style. Make sure that you follow not only the rules of content but also the format of the literature review, as well as the rules of formatting.

Does your teacher need some form of academic formatting? Find out all the details and stick to them. (Headers, footers, footnotes, page numbers, your name, headers, etc.) So you will quickly begin to understand how to write a review of the literature.

Step 11

Check for consistent flow and transitions. It is advisable to write clearly and concisely, and it is not always easy to understand this. Take a close look at your work and rephrase where necessary. Be brief.

Does everything flow together? Should the text not only be legible from paragraph to paragraph, but also from sentence to sentence? Is the topic structured and has this structure been logically carried over to the literature review?

Useless jargon or slang should go. Write a work that can be read by the masses. Do not make it too esoteric.

Step 12

Check your work. The hardest part is behind. Now all you have to do is check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Continue proofreading after a pause.

Better ask someone else to check your work. You may have missed errors or asked questions, but did not answer them. There may also be other ambiguities that you are not aware of. By following these directions you will understand how to write a literature review.

Tips how to write a literature review

Use correct quotes. Your instructions will likely contain information about which formats should be used for quotations in the text. Professors often take the consistent use of these formats into account when evaluating your work.

Plan your literature research. It will help you turn your thoughts into a structured presentation so that writing will ultimately be easier.


Avoid accusations of plagiarism. Using your own words will help you avoid accusations of plagiarism, which are taken seriously by many academic departments. If it is proven that you have committed plagiarism, you can be suspended or otherwise disciplined as a student (deprivation of examinations, exclusion from further exams, insufficient or grades). Make sure to write down direct quotes correctly.