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Literature Reviews: 5. Write the Review

This interdisciplinary guide describes the basic steps of doing a literature review.

Qualities of A Good Lit Review



A good literature review is NOT simply a list describing or summarizing several articles; a literature review is discursive prose which proceeds to a conclusion by reason or argument.  A good literature review shows signs of synthesis and understanding of the topic.  There should be strong evidence of analytical thinking shown through the connections you make between the literature being reviewed.

Create an Outline, Then Summarize & Synthesize

Draft an outline for your review.  Read more about developing an outline here at the Purdue OWL site.

Summarize & Synthesize

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the topic.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration, noting contradictory studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way forward for further research.

Choose How to Organize Your Paper

Before writing, you should consider a few different ways of organizing or categorizing the literature you've looked at and consider prioritizing the readings, or grouping them by methodology or theme.

1.  Chronologically – Organizing your sources by the date of publication can show how scholarly perspective on a topic has changed over time.

2.  Thematically – Organizing by theme puts all of the sources with a similar focus together, making it very easy to see where differences in perspective emerge.

3.  Methodologically – Organizing by method, much like organizing by theme, puts similar sources together and illustrates what effect method has on final product.  

At a loss for words?

Elements of the Literature Review

There are many different ways to organize your references in a literature review, but most reviews contain certain basic elements.

Objectives - Clearly describe the purpose of the paper and state your objectives in completing the literature review.

Background/Introduction – Give an overview of your research topic and what prompted it.

Methods - Describe step by step how your performed your evaluation of the materials.

Discussion/Body - The body contains the evaluation or synthesis of the materials.  Discuss and compare common themes and gaps in the literature. You may also want to include a section on "questions for further research" and discuss what issues the review has sparked about the topic/field or offer suggestions for future studies that build on your current findings.

Conclusion – A summary of your analysis and evaluation of the reviewed works and how it is related to its parent discipline, scientific endeavor, or profession.

Bibliography - A list of the papers you discussed, aka References.  To learn more about different citation styles, visit the "Manage References and Citations" tab.

Writing Tips

Once you actually begin to write the review, stick to your outline and keep these tips in mind:

  • Consider your audience.  Are you engaging with specialists in one discipline? Or generalists in more than one discipline?
  • When writing for a more general audience, avoid jargon and strive for "plain English."
  • When writing for a very specialized audience, consider using "plain English" anyway.
  • Short paragraphs are easier to read than long paragraphs.
  • Subheadings and subsections can help to underscore the structure of your review.
  • Do more than just summarize the readings.  A lit review is not an annotated bibliography.
  • Resist the temptation to refer to *all* the readings you've evaluated.  To begin with, focus on readings you've identified as essential or representative.
  • Tell the reader how the literature intersects with your project -- how your project complements the existing literature.
  • Be objective.