How to Create a Good Literature Review

How to Create a Good Literature Review

For term papers and research papers, you'll need to write a literature review. If you've never had to do a literature review before, it can seem really difficult. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be complicated or hard to do. You can learn to produce great literature reviews that offer a lot of value to the reader of the paper and provide all the information needed. Whether your literature review is just a couple of pages or you need something that's much longer, the basic method for handling that review is the same. In some cases you'll need to write a specific literature review chapter, which could be 50 pages or more. In other cases, you'll only need to write a few pages as a part of your overall paper. No matter which you're asked to do, you can follow the steps offered here to create a great literature review.

What is a Literature Review?

Before you get started on writing an effective literature review (often called “Lit Review” for short), you need to know what a literature review is and what you are trying to achieve. According to the University of Southern California (USC), the definition of a literature review is: “A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated.”

Let’s break down this definition further. First, a literature review surveys existing literature. That means spending time in the library or in academic databases, reading and evaluating what scholars have already written on your topic. If you are writing about the effectiveness of reward-based training for dogs, your literature review will consist of what other experts have written on reward-based training for dogs.

However, a review of the literature does not simply list all the published sources on the topic. Your literature review will also synthesize what you have learned and analyze weaknesses or gaps in the literature. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin your literature review:

  • What has been studied, researched, and said about the subject already?
  • How has the subject been studied before?
  • What questions remain unanswered?
  • How is your perspective or approach to the subject different?

A literature review can be a stand-alone document. When your review of literature is a stand-alone document it may resemble a traditional research paper in that you are conducting a systematic evaluation of topic and drawing a conclusion from that research. The conclusion you draw will be your thesis statement. However, most often a literature review is part of a larger research paper. It is an opportunity for you to research the subject you are interested in, discover what has already been said or done, and to make a case for why your own research is warranted. The results of your literature review will be used to support or refute your own hypothesis.

How to Write a Literature Review

1.  Decide on a Topic Area to Discuss

Seems like a no-brainer, right? The first thing you'll need to do before you can create your literature review is make sure you know what topic you're going to be working with. Don't worry about narrowing it down just yet. Instead, focus on the larger picture of what you want to address. There is a topic that matters to you – or that has been assigned to you – and you want to see what all you can find out about that topic. As you do that, you'll get a better idea of the specifics of it. Once you understand those specifics, you'll be more likely to see which specific issues within that topic area are right for your paper. Looking at a broad area at first is a great way to explore the topic, though, and determine the subtle sections within it that might be of value for your paper. Take your time, read through the material, and focus in on what will be right for the literature review you're going to create. You want to make sure the literature review covers everything important for your paper, and that it doesn't waste time talking about unrelated issues, even if they are part of the same, broad topic area.

2.  Narrow Down That Area to Specific Issues Surrounding Your Study

Once you've found the right area to discuss and you've read through the relevant material, it's time to narrow things down. You might be surprised how difficult it can be to narrow down your topic area. Even if you're writing a large literature review section that's going to require many pages, you still don't want to ramble or address issues that aren't related to your specific study or paper. Many people struggle with literature reviews because they focus on a broad topic and then have trouble covering it the right way. When you want to cover a topic, it's better to find a narrow focus and discuss that thoroughly, instead of finding a broad focus and glossing over a lot of the details. Literature reviews should be very specific to the papers in which they are found, and they should thoroughly address the information that has been located by other researchers in the past. If the review is not conducted that way, there will be a lot of detail left out and a lot of good information overlooked. It can even make the study confusing. Narrow your focus as much as possible, and then go into detail about past studies that are related to that focus.

3.  Find the Right Kinds of Sources

The kinds of sources you use are also vital to your success when it comes to creating a good literature review. Most instructors will give you guidance on what kinds of sources are acceptable to include in your literature review. Whether or not you get that guidance, make sure you evaluate the quality of each source before you decide to use it. In general, you want peer-reviewed sources that are found in journals. You don't want to use Wikipedia, personal blogs, or anything like that. If anyone could have written it and it hasn't been reviewed by others in the field or published in an industry journal or textbook, it's best avoided as part of your literature review. There are some exceptions, but it's better to stick to what you know will be acceptable to your instructor and what you can back up as being scientific or peer-reviewed in nature. That will help you get a better grade and write a good literature review that will become an important part of your paper.

4.  Determine the Number of Sources You Need

It's possible that your instructor will tell you the minimum number of sources you have to use, but he or she may also leave it up to you. If you don't have a set amount of sources you must use, be careful you don't use that as an excuse to just use a couple sources. A literature review should cover the pertinent literature on the topic, which means you want to be clear on what you're reviewing and spend time finding the sources that address the issue you're going to cover. In fact, this does not mean you need to review all the sources you use in your research report. The literature review will synthesize the most important sources to provide the reader with some substantial background information on the subject. Ideally, you will review sources that both agree and disagree with your point of view or substantiate your hypothesis. While it's not necessary to scour the planet to find every obscure reference in existence and put it into your literature review, you should be thorough in what you include. All major, relevant studies in the present and recent past should be included. Some instructors only want sources from a certain time period, such as not more than five or 10 years old. Barring these kinds of requirements, you can use both recent studies and those that go back a number of years. This can be particularly important if the subject you're discussing has undergone significant changes over time.

5.  Write Your Outline

For a large, multi-page literature review with a number of studies on related topics, you may want to create an outline. This will help guide you as you write your review, and will also help you group your sources into categories so you can write about them efficiently. If you avoid this step, you'll spend a lot of time going back and including sources that you missed, or you'll end up with a literature review that repeats itself or doesn't flow very well from one area of discussion to another. For very short literature reviews that are only a couple of pages, however, you can probably skip this step.

6.  Create Your First Draft

Once you've found all the right sources for the topic you've narrowed down, it's time to write a first draft. Focus on one study or group of studies at a time, and follow your outline. Work through the list of sources and the outline methodically, so you don't miss something important. You want to make sure you address each study and how it relates to the other studies in the group. Your outline will be very valuable to you during this step, and if you've done it correctly you'll finish your first draft with the knowledge that you've addressed every study you intended to talk about. If you did miss something, go back and add it to the group of studies related to it. Then take a short break. Your first draft is a big accomplishment, especially if the literature review is very long and part of a much larger study or paper such as a dissertation or similar work.

7.  Revise and Edit

While your first draft includes all the studies you wanted to talk about, your literature review isn't done yet. You still need to revise it and make any edits necessary. Don't rely solely on your computer's spelling and grammar checker for this step. You'll need to read back through your literature review carefully. Make sure the proper studies are cited, and that you didn't plagiarize by not citing information that came from any of your sources. Check to ensure you have the right number of sources listed, and that all of the sources in your literature review section are included in the bibliography at the end of your paper. Reading your review aloud can also help you catch mistakes you might not notice when you read it silently, like awkward phrasing or an unclear statement.

8.  Incorporate the Literature Review Into Your Paper

After all the editing and revising has been completed, it's time to put your literature review into your paper. When you do that, make sure to read through the entire paper and make sure everything flows properly. You want the review to tie everything together properly. If it seems too choppy where it meets the other information, you may want to write a couple of transition sentences or paragraphs, so your paper is easy to follow and moves forward properly. The better the flow of your literature review and your overall paper, the easier it will be to read and understand. That can lead to a much better grade, overall.

Tips for a Successful Literature Review

  • Don't try to write a big literature review the night before the paper is due. When you're assigned a big paper, start work on it right away – and that includes reviewing the literature and narrowing down your topic.
  • If possible, get someone else to proofread your paper before you turn it in. He or she might catch mistakes that you didn't notice. While it can really help you to have your paper professionally edited, even having a good friend or family member read through it can make a lot of difference.
  • Plan your time so you can turn your paper in by the due date. A lot of people put off doing their papers when they know they still have plenty of time left before the deadline. Before you know it, the deadline will be fast approaching and you'll be in real trouble. Work on your paper some each day.
  • Follow the rules given to you by your instructor. Make sure you use the right citation style and at least the minimum number of requested sources. Be sure your literature review is the right length. Small mistakes can really cost you a lot when it comes to grades.

Literature Review Outline

As with any substantial piece of writing, you may need to begin with an outline of what you are going to discuss in the literature review. The outline will help you organize all the material you have reviewed into categories or themes, and then synthesize and organize the material in ways that your reader will appreciate. If you have a large number of sources in your literature review, it might be helpful to begin by making a list and writing notes on each of the sources. In social sciences subjects like economics, sociology, and psychology, make a note of the research methods, theoretical framework, and other pertinent issues that distinguish each item in the review of literature. In the humanities and arts, including literature, the methodology might be less important than the substantive content of the author’s argument. Experts suggest the following steps in preparing your literature review:

  • Group articles into categories
  • Take notes
  • Create a concept map with thematic categories
  • Transform the concept map into the written literature review

Group Articles into Categories

Suggestions for grouping articles into categories including distinguishing between articles that used qualitative versus quantitative research methods, articles that focus on a specific theoretical framework such as psychoanalytical versus cognitive-behavioral psychology, or articles that emphasize different elements or variables related to your hypothesis (such as gender versus socio-economic class).

Take Notes

When you are working with a large number of articles for your review of literature, it might be helpful to list each one in order almost as if you were creating an annotated bibliography. Jot down important aspects of each study, such as the methods used, and the conclusions drawn. Summarize each article briefly. You might want to also mention any limitations in the study design or weaknesses in the research.

Create a Concept Map with Thematic Categories

This is one of the most important step in outlining your literature review, because this is where you begin the job of synthesizing the literature for your reader. In fact, the essence of a good literature review is synthesis of the data. The best way to organize your literature review is through a visual or thematic concept map. For example, let’s say your research is on how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. You can group the studies in your literature review according to whether the authors explored counseling, pharmacological, or family systems methods of treating PTSD. If you prefer to show the reader how research on PTSD has evolved over the years, then you can instead create a concept map that groups research into chronological categories. Or, you could create concept maps based on the population sampling differences in the literature. For instance, you might want to differentiate between studies that have been done on veterans versus studies performed on female victims of sexual trauma.

Transform the Concept Map into the Written Literature Review

You can use your concept map to help you organize the final literature review. The method you choose to organize the literature review is entirely up to you, and will reflect the goals of your research. The best way to improve your literature review writing skills is to read studies published in peer-reviewed journals to get an idea of how to format a literature review. Some literature review samples can be found here. An outline for your literature review can include an introduction, body, and conclusion like a standard essay:

I.  Introduction

A.  Statistics or other clincher statement to excite your reader and introduce the subject.

B.  Affirmation of why the subject is important to study.

C.  Brief examples of what research has already been done.

D.  Thesis statement. A thesis statement in a literature review can achieve one of two goals:

 1.  The thesis statement succinctly summarizes the conclusions drawn from the review of literature.

Example: A review of literature shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy is more effective than psychoanalysis in treating depression.

2.  The thesis statement affirms why your research addresses weaknesses or gaps in the literature.

Example: The following review of literature reveals substantial methodological weaknesses, warranting a new approach to studying canine psychology.

II.  Body

Here is where the meat of your literature review is presented in clear and logical format, organized according to theme or chronology.

III.  Conclusion

A.  Based on all the evidence you presented in the body of your literature review, present the overarching themes and ideas.

B.  Create a thematic or conceptual bridge from the review of literature to your own research.

Example: Prior research has relied heavily on quantitative analyses, whereas qualitative data from case studies have been largely neglected. This research helps to fill the gap in the literature by focusing on three case studies.

Literature Review Format

A literature review can be formatted in ways that show the reader why your research is important or how it fits into the larger body of evidence. The format of a literature review will also depend on the subject area. In the social sciences, a review of literature can be formatted according to the historical evolution of scholarly understanding of a subject, or formatted according to theme. Although less common, a literature review can also be organized according to the methodology used.

How To Master APA Literature Reviews

The American Psychological Association (APA) is a gold standard in document formatting. Not just in the field of psychology but also in other social sciences, the APA format helps you to understand how to best conduct and compose a literature review in a subject of interest to you. An APA-style literature review will follow all the rules of APA formatting, including how to properly cite your sources.

Sample Literature Review

The following is a sample APA-style literature review. Review this sample and gain a better understanding of what a literature review is and how to write one.

A review of literature reveals that poor nutrition can lead to a number of adverse psychological and physical health effects in children, and that schools with nutrition education programming help to minimize these adverse effects. The literature can be divided into two main categories: studies that measure the physiological effects of school-based nutrition education program, and studies that focus on the academic and/or cognitive performance of children. Research has long established direct correlations between iron deficiencies in particular and poor academic performance (The National Food Service Management Institute, 2001). More recent research examines the integrated effects of implementing school-based nutrition programs to improve student psychological and physical wellbeing.

School-based nutrition programs have been shown to have direct effects on reducing obesity. For example, Bustos, Olivares, Leyton, et al (2016) evaluated a school-based nutrition and education program in elementary schools in Chile. The pilot school-based nutrition program was designed for children between ages 6 and 10, and the researchers traced the results of the program on the same population for a period of two years. Rates of obesity did drop at statistically significant rates where the program was implemented. As a randomized controlled study, the research is highly reliable and generalizable beyond the target population. In fact, the Bustos, Olivares, Layton, et al (2016) research corrects a gap in prior literature on the long-term effectiveness of anti-obesity programs implemented in primary schools.

International research shows how school-based nutrition education programs can be adapted to suit different cultural or linguistic environments. Using data from a 2000 Icelandic study called Youth in Iceland, Sigfusdottir, Kristjansson & Allegrante (2007) surveyed 14 and 15 year olds, with a total of 6346 students participating, 82% of all Icelandic students in that age cohort. Unlike the Bustos, Olivares, Layton, et al (2016) and the Perera, Frei, Frei, et al (2015) studies, the Icelandic study did include academic outcomes as a dependent variable. The research shows that, contrary to hypothesis, good eating habits are not necessarily linked with improved self esteem or improved academic performance.In fact, Sigfusdottir, Kristjansson & Allegrante (2007) found that healthy eating and exercise regimes are linked with experiences of bullying and correspondingly low self-esteem among survey participants. The results of the Icelandic study show that changing attitudes and norms about eating are as important, if not more important, than a nutrition-based education program. Reducing rates of obesity is an important outcome of the school programs, but nutrition education programs also need to focus on other meaningful outcomes like social and psychological health.

Researchers have also measured the effectiveness of school-based nutrition programs by surveying teachers and assessing their perceptions. For example, Perera, Frei, Frei, et al (2015) evaluated teacher perceptions of nutrition education programs in Oregon elementary schools. A total of 106 teachers in 17 Oregon elementary schools participated in the survey, and almost all (97%) of participants supported some kind of nutrition education program. Results of the survey showed that 87% of educators believe that the programs are effective but that ideally, educators need to work more directly with families to improve student nutrition education and actual food choices. Like the Bustos, Olivares, Layton, et al (2016) study, no attempt was made to directly connect poor nutrition with academic performance, but Perera, Frei, Frei, et al (2015) demonstrate the importance of implementing school-based nutrition programs.

Based on this review of literature, it is hypothesized that implementing a nutrition program in schools can help mitigate the effects of poor nutrition behaviors learned at home, from peers, or from the media. Until recently, the effectiveness of school-based nutrition education programs in improving social and psychological health of the students has not been known. Preliminary research does show that school-based interventions can be tremendously helpful in promoting student physical health, which in turn enhances student cognitive and academic performance. The following original research supplements existing literature by testing a pilot project implemented in the community as well as in schools.


Bustos, N., Olivares, S., Leyton, B., et al (2016). Impact of a school-based intervention on nutritional education and physical activity in primary public schools in Chile (KIND) programme study protocol: cluster randomised controlled trial. BMC Public Health 2016(16): 1217.

The National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI, 2001).Mealtime Memo for Child Care: Nutritional and Cognitive Development. [pdf].

Perera, T., Frei, S., Frei, B., et al (2015). Improving nutrition education in U.S. elementary schools: challenges and opportunities. Journal of Education and Practice 6(30).

Sigfusdottir, I.D., Kristjansson, A.L. & Allegrante, J.P. (2007). Health behaviour and academic achievement in Icelandic school children. Health Education Research 22(1): 70-80.


A literature review is one of the most important documents you will ever write because it is used in most areas of study. When writing a literature review, you are summarizing a large body of evidence in your specific field of interest. You are also synthesizing the prior literature for your reader, as you should have discovered common themes. Alternatively, your review of literature might cover the chronological history and evolution of scholarship in a specific subject area. Finally, your review of literature may highlight any weak spots or omissions in the literature to demonstrate why new research is important.

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