How to Write a Literature Review Student’s Guide

Writing a literature review

Learning how to write a literature review is one of those tasks that every college student faces at least once when working with a research paper or using a synthesis of books and magazines that have been studied during the course. This literature review guide will help you to learn why this academic writing task is important, how to structure things correctly, and what rules must be followed to achieve success.

What is a Literature Review?

When you are told to write a literature review, you should always think about the main task that came before that or the course materials that have been presented in the past, thus leading to this particular task. In simple terms, a literature review will represent a type of academic writing where you must offer analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of available literature related to your subject, a prompt, or a certain topic that has been provided. You should provide a detailed estimation of the information that is available to fully identify your literature review meaning. Don't forget to check your content with a plagiarism detector.

The following research objectives must be met regardless of your academic level, structure, or the subject type that you have to approach:

  1. You must provide a survey of literature that relates to your chosen area of study. The purpose here is to make it an in-depth exploration of your subject where you show that you know how certain parts of information can fit into greater research. Talk about the importance of what has been discovered and provide your opinion, based on facts, quotes, or any other type of evidence.
  1. All the available information must be synthesized into a special summary where you seek similarities or provide information that helps to unite your thesis statement or information that relates to your initial topic or study field. Remember to provide a clear definition of what you aim to achieve and explain how a certain publication helps you to do that or fails to achieve the desired results.
  1. The crucial part of every successful literature review is a critical analysis of information that you discover. This is exactly where you have to talk about various gaps or inconsistencies that you discover based on what you know. It's recommended to discuss theories that have been presented and apply critical thinking to certain points of view. You should formulate, process ideas, and seek those parts that require further research and exploration. Essentially, it is the point of writing a literature review.
  1. As you learn how to write a literature review during your studies, one of the most important things is to keep everything organized according to a certain idea.

How Long is a Literature Review?

It will always depend on what purpose, academic level, and audience you are aiming to reach. When you are working with a thesis paper or dissertations, the majority of literature reviews will be at least twenty pages. Still, when you have to write an essay for your term paper, it can be up to five pages or even less.

Why Write a Literature Review?

The main purpose of a literature review is to get to know the achievements and information presented by the current research related to a certain topic before starting with a new analysis of research. It means that you have to find out everything you can about an already existing research to see the pros and cons of your topic. It helps to understand how to approach things in the future and what shortcomings may be encountered as you explore and write your dissertation or thesis paper.

Literature Review Format Rules (APA, MLA, and Chicago)

APA Format Literature Review Rules:

Once again, the most important part is keeping your review organized around the theme or the main idea that has been chosen. You should discuss how and why certain publications have an important effect on your subject. You must compare, relate, and contrast certain theories, and the things you find out. It's also important to reflect various trends over time with a logical transition. According to the literature review format in the APA manual, you must paraphrase your findings as it has been done below: the latest research has shown based on other species (Jones, 2009; Stanley & Pulsford, 2018).

Your literature review writing in APA format should always be in a separate paper that’s not included in your thesis, the research you do, or dissertation writing as such. The rules state that you should include a brief introduction of your objectives and a conclusion after the literature entries.

Speaking of literature, you may include peer-reviewed, academic journals and magazines, books and e-books related to your subject, various research reports, conferences, doctoral dissertations that have been published before, and other sources that represent academic value.

Here is how to write a literature review APA style:

  • All page margins are set to 1-inch and double-spaced.
  • Times New Roman font, pt. 12.
  • Running head and page numbers must be included at the top right corner.
  • Introduction, body entries, and references parts are essential.
  • Always list the name of the author, followed by a comma and the year of publication in parentheses.
  • The References section starts on a new page and has a bold and centered heading called "References".
  • The entries must be organized alphabetically. 

MLA Style Literature Review Formatting Rules:

Things are mostly similar here to what we have already seen with the APA format, which means that you should include an introduction, the main body with the number of entries that are organized alphabetically, a brief conclusion, or analytical summary of your findings, and the list of references, which makes things complete.

  • Your paper must have 1-inch margins on all sides.
  • The paper should be double-spaced between the entries unless specified otherwise.
  • Page numbers must be included in the top right corner.
  • MLA format requires the inclusion of information about the author, the date when the work has been published, your title, belonging of the journal or book entry, publication data, and link or ISBN that would help to identify the information.
  • The entry citations that you choose must be according to the basic MLA rules.

For example:

... as it has been discovered in the latest survey findings (Mills 2019).


According to Lakers Industrials, the majority of findings have been important for understanding accessibility issues (Smith 21).

Chicago Format Literature Review Rules:

When you are dealing with social sciences, you should use Chicago's "Author-Date" format for writing a literature review. Regarding how to format your literature review entries, the basic rules are followed with the use of paraphrasing unless a direct quote is absolutely necessary. The literature review introduction must be there with basic background information, the body part, the conclusion, and your references list sorted alphabetically. The most common entry example looks this way:

Goodridge, Robin. 2005. The Soundwave Synthesis: Dealing With Autistic Students In A Special Education Environment. London: Penguin Books.

Structure of a Literature Review

The main parts of a literature review will include the following structure that must be followed according to most academic writing tasks. Even as you learn how to write an article review, the same sections will apply, which makes it important to identify the major differences that will be encountered when dealing with a literature review methodology (as an example).

- Introduction.

Your introduction part must present some background information regarding your chosen subject and research objectives. It works as a definition of a topic, which can be either descriptive or argumentative. In certain cases, however, you may come up with a proposal where you ask specific questions or make an assumption. This is where you should mention exclusions by telling what your literature review is not planning to achieve. It's also necessary to state your findings and discuss how much information has been found (if applicable).

- Main Body.

This is where you can organize things according to chronology, thematical aspects, methodology, or based on some theory. Each entry that you include must be summarized through the lens of critical thinking as you address the cons and pros of each research publication. Talk about relevance, depth, accuracy, and address what might have been missing. Make sure that you use logical connections as you write and follow a clear structure.

Let us review the structure methodologies that are most common for literature reviews:

  • Chronological Literature Review Structure.

When you choose a literature review structure based on chronology, you should break down your entries based on when they have been published if you choose to work with a certain timeline. It's especially important when you talk about achievements in your field. It should evaluate how things have changed over a period of time as you research things. Still, it should always depend on your subject. Some entries that you have may address both old and new discoveries and concepts.

  • Thematical Sorting.

As an alternative to timeline writing, you may think about how your topic can be presented based on the depth of discussion regarding a certain theme. If you are researching police violence or racism issues, you can talk about various sources that mention this or that problem to a greater or lesser degree.

  • Methodology Structure of a Literature Review.

This might be one of the most challenging approaches to literature review writing, which is mostly used when writing a thesis paper or dissertation. As the name implies, it talks about presenting certain methods based on a problem or comparison methods. You may also use a cause-and-effect methodology where you discuss how certain publications have affected the subject or books that have been published later.

  • Theoretical Analysis Approach.

This type of literature review deals with a single theory and tries to adjust existing books, journals, conferences, or any other materials to fit what you choose as a theory. In such a case, it may be necessary to present a thesis statement in your introduction section.

- Conclusion.

Basically, it's a summary of your key findings where you sum things up and provide commonalities or important factors that must be included. It’s where you justify your literature review’s purpose and talk about what has been possible to achieve.

- References.

This is where you must provide complete and accurate references and sources for every resource and book that has been used. Follow existing formatting rules for your writing style.

Literature Review Outline

Before you start with a literature review outline, make sure that you choose what kind of methodology you are planning to use by exploring possible examples that we have listed above. Once this part is ready, continue with the following outline:
I. Introduction.

a) Talk about what you would like to achieve with your topic by explaining how it relates to your course, study, why it's important to research, and what kind of data you are planning to use.

b) You should specify what kind of sorting or methodology will be used. It helps to provide your readers with more information regarding what they shall see.

c) Thesis statement or an assumption may be required for certain cases (thesis paper, online dissertation writing services).

II. Primary Literature Review Theme.

a) Discussion of your theme or subject based on books.

b) Sub-themes where you narrow things down related to what you research.

  1. Study 1 (Research question)
  2. Study 2 (Participants)
  3. Study 3 (Your Findings)

III. Secondary Literature Review Theme.

a) A slightly different approach to books and sources that provide another type of sample data. You must review things.

b) Sub-topics that narrow things down and seek commonalities or differences.

  1. Study 1 (explains your methods and the things you seek).
  2. Study 2 (talks about the pros and cons of how everything has been presented).
  3. Study 3 (compares what you could find).

IV. Conclusion.

a) Summing things up.

b) Talking about the cons and pros of your findings.

c) Further research recommendations.

V. References.

a) Your references list with all the sources.

b) Additional appendix information if necessary.

As a way to explain what is a literature review, let’s bring this outline to real-life conditions:

I. The Problem Introduction.

The Study of Autistic Children.

Here is where you must start with a brief introduction of the problem with an explanation of your research methods and approach to writing a literature review:

Dealing with the challenges of childhood education, one faces numerous methods and studies that are both innovative and classic. It poses certain challenges as there are two camps of healthcare specialists and educators where one group sees autism as the problem of incorrect mental development, while another group approaches things as a social communication issue. The purpose of this literature review is to explore both methods and determine the pros and cons of these scientific approaches. Using available scientific sample groups on autistic children, the theoretical methodology has been used for writing guidance.

II. Early Childhood Education Challenges Among Autistic Children.

a) Early Analysis of Childhood Education.

b) Differences in Research Outcomes.

  1. Learning Challenges Encountered.

a) Social Skills.

b) Mental Issues.

c) Parenting Aspect.

  1. The Scientific Sample Group.
  2. Overview of Current Research Findings.

III. Demographic and Family Relations Among Autistic Children.

  1. Other Family Aspects.

Note: This part should include those factors that are not so common for the books and journals that you have researched. If something does not belong to any of your categories, you should mention it in this section.

IV. Community Aspects Study.

V. Individual Behavior Patterns.

  1. Self-control.
  2. Motivation.
  3. The use of medication.
  4. School behaviors.
  5. The most common challenge factor.

VI. Theoretical Basis of This Study.

VII. Concluding Thoughts / Suggestions.

VIII. References List.

As you explore this literature review outline example, notice how our literature review has been structured in terms of an outline. It helps to see what kind of issues may be mentioned when you are dealing with a medical topic. This outline has been turned into a detailed description on purpose to show you how to structure your thoughts and explain how to write a literature review when you have a definite problem.

Writing a Literature Review

Summing things up, let’s review the steps that must be taken when writing a literature review:

  • Study Your Topic In Advance.

It’s one of the most important things you have to do as you start with a literature review. As it’s usually done as a part of greater research, the trick is to study your subject in advance and try your best to narrow things down. It will help you to focus on books, journals, and other resources that will relate to your specific objectives. You must discuss your concerns and doubts with an academic advisor to prevent yourself from trying to cover a greater scope of research literature than may be allowed for your chosen subject.

  • Not Every Source Fits!

Remember that writing a literature review requires the use of peer-reviewed or reliable academic sources. It’s safe to use books that you obtain online or in print. You must use academic journals published at Google Scholar, Jstor, Pubmed, or any other databases that relate to your subject. It means that using something that has been published in a blog will not fit for a reliable literature review unless you would like to explore that kind of information on purpose. As you choose your sources, think about what kind of methods you will apply to provide a piece of evidence as you research your problem.

  • Set Your Research Objectives.

Your literature review is more than just a selection of books and sources where you provide information about what you could discover in each particular case. As you can see from the outlines and samples presented, your literature review must include clear research objectives.

A literature review example:

Teenage violence is a condition that affects over 47% of modern youth. As a type of disorder that affects a person's focus, mood, and studies, there is a strong necessity to examine the reasons and underlying principles that make violent behavior morally acceptable. Different findings have made it possible to bind things to video games, watching violent movies, and dealing with the cases of peer pressure as the primary reasons that lead to negative consequences (King, 2002). In this thesis paper, these factors will be discussed in greater depth to investigate how mental health specialists, educators, social workers, and parents approach this problem. The hypothesis here is that young people who have insecure families or lack emotional attachment to parents have a higher possibility of turning to violence and display additional symptoms like anxiety and depression.

In research that has been offered by Turner (2005), two important aspects have been mentioned that helped set the objectives of this literature review and the problem in question. These questions played the guiding role for choose a theoretical literature review methodology.

  • Structure Your Findings.

It’s one of the most important steps that you have to take once you set your research objectives and form the other parts. You should structure each entry according to your methodology and explain it in each body part based on similarities or other factors that you find important. Remember that your literature review should provide basic information about the author if you see it necessary for a deeper understanding or to add more credibility to your source.

  • Check Your References Page Twice.

Don’t ignore this part and take your time to check things twice. This is where you must provide an accurate list of references. Start by checking your in-text citations if you have used any. It’s generally recommended to use at least two of them per each entry. You have to offer a piece of in-depth information regarding your findings and offer some evidence. Make sure that each quotation that you have (including paraphrase parts) is mentioned and properly formatted in your references list. Check with your style rules for all the spaces and structure issues twice to ensure that nothing is missed!

Important Things to Remember When Composing Your Literature Review

As we came to the end of our literature review guide, there are important aspects that you must remember before you start to write. Let us sum them up as ten important rules that will play a crucial role as you are writing a literature review:

  1. Start by defining your topic and audience.
  2. Take your time to explore and research available literature first.
  3. Don't forget about taking notes as you research things.
  4. Explore similar literature reviews dealing with your subject.
  5. Keep things focused but explain related concepts that you find important.
  6. Keep your writing in a critical form and don't forget about structural aspects.
  7. Provide background information about each entry if necessary.
  8. Read other online reviews to gain more information.
  9. Include your own research, yet remain unbiased.
  10. Choose both old and new studies to provide things in a balanced way.

Most importantly, don't forget about plagiarism risks and always provide due citations and information to help your readers locate each source. Following these simple rules, you will be able to achieve success and write an excellent literature review paper that will stand out from the rest!

Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!

Related Blog Posts

Join our 150K of happy users

  • Get original papers written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
Place an order