Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

5 Steps to Writing a Hassle-Free Literature Review

When you're tasked with writing a lengthy academic study such as a journal article, thesis or dissertation, a literature review will likely be a part of that process. The literature review portion of your research is perhaps one of the most difficult sections to write. A well-written literature review will provide a summary of the scholarly sources you've used in your research. It will also summarize the current knowledge and scholarship surrounding the topic you've chosen to study in more depth, including any patterns, themes, or gaps that are in the research. If the research you plan to conduct will fill any of these gaps, the literature review should mention that, as well.

Depending on the type of writing that will be required, your literature review could be a separate chapter, or it could part of the introduction or part of the theoretical framework. In some cases, a literature review might be written on its own as a survey of scholarly knowledge on a topic. However, in either case, here are the five steps to writing a hassle-free literature review.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly knowledge that has been published on a certain topic.
A literature review is a survey of scholarly knowledge that has been published on a certain topic. Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash.

Step 1—Narrow your topic

One of the first and easiest mistakes to make when writing a literature review is to start with a topic that is too broad. Since the literature review will provide a foundation for your research, it needs to be narrowed enough to provide a solid one.

For example, let's say you want to research the topic of childhood obesity. Obviously, there will be hundreds of scholarly sources that focus on that topic, so trying to summarize all of them would be not only difficult—it would be useless for the purposes of your own research.

However, you can break that topic down even further to narrow the scope of your research. For example, instead, you could research "childhood obesity and social development among middle-school-aged children." With this narrowed topic, the scholarly research you find will include all (or most) of the important keywords of your research: childhood obesity, social development, middle school. That makes your search for pertinent, relevant research a much easier task.

Step 2—Gather your sources and pick the right ones to use

Now that you have a narrowed topic, step two will be much easier than it would have been otherwise. In this step, you find recent, relevant research that includes your keywords and informs your knowledge on the topic. While reading the most recent scholarly articles or books, you'll begin to notice certain studies or theories that the authors consistently refer to as a foundation for their own study. This is usually a good indicator that you should include those previous studies and theories in your own literature review, to provide your readers with a summary of the most relevant ideas surrounding that topic.

To put it simply—determining which sources you will include in your literature review is really a matter of: 1) knowing how to identify the important, foundational ("landmark") studies that have been conducted and 2) knowing how to identify current, relevant studies.

Landmark studies

If you're researching in a field you've studied extensively already, you're likely to already know the relevant research that is important to note, otherwise known as "landmark studies." For example, in the field of Education, the early childhood development research of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and John Dewey are foundational in almost any research related to a child's development. Therefore, many literature reviews will mention them and briefly summarize what they added to the scholarly knowledge foundational to the topic.

Current studies

While it's impossible to read everything that's published relating to a topic—even a narrow one—you can find the relevant research by noticing the attention it's getting and the number of times it's been cited in other studies. You can use several websites to discover how many times an article has been cited and this article provides easy links and instructions on how to do this.

However, just because an article or book has been often cited doesn't mean you have to use it for your own research. You can find other relevant articles by looking through abstracts and determining if the research is both credible and useful for your own. You should also use this opportunity to see if there is perhaps a gap in the research—something that needs to be explored that hasn't been thoroughly explored by other researchers. Or, is there a different approach you want to take in your own methodology that will close a gap or answer a question that is still out there in the scholarly writing available on your topic?

Step 3—Find connections, patterns, disagreements, pivotal changes and gaps

Now that you've determined which sources you plan to use, you can begin reading over them in more detail to look for connections, patterns, disagreements, pivotal changes and gaps in the literature. It's important at this step to find trends that keep showing up as you read, as well as themes that arise. You'll also want to note where different researchers agree or disagree, and why there is a discrepancy in their understanding or hypotheses.

You might also find that a certain past study changed scholarly discourse in a major way. That would be a pivotal moment to note in your literature review, since it is foundational in the overall scholarship surrounding the topic.

Finally, you want to find and acknowledge any gaps you note in the literature. For example, for our "childhood obesity and social development among middle-school-aged children," you might find that none of the research you've come across seems to take into account comorbidity of obesity and mental health issues in middle-school-aged children. Therefore, it's a gap in the research that you can address in your literature review and potentially fill in your research.

It's important that you, as a researcher, find and acknowledge any gaps you note in the literature.
It's important that you, as a researcher, find and acknowledge any gaps you note in the literature. Photo by Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash.

Step 4—Determine how you will organize your literature review

Now that you know which sources you plan to use to compile your literature review (and thus, inform your own research), it's important to organize the summary of these sources to make your analysis easier for your reader to follow.


This is one of the easiest and most popular ways to organize a literature review. It's easy to do because you simply mention each source in the order it was published, beginning with the earlier, landmark studies. However, the problem with this organizational structure is it's easy to just list your summaries, one after the other, without pointing out any patterns or themes that occur among them. You'll need to focus on showing how the scholarship has changed and evolved over the years, as well as mention any important turning points that might have occurred.


Since the sources you have been reading have all resulted in a theoretical analysis or hypothesis, you can organize your literature review from a theoretical standpoint, showing how the framework was built. If there is a certain theoretical approach to your topic of study that you prefer above others, this might be the best way for you to organize your literature review.


Thematic organization of your literature review is the best way to approach it if you want to point out various themes that have come up in your exploration of the topic. For example, returning to our previously mentioned topic, "childhood obesity and social development among middle-school-aged children," we might find multiple themes that arise, such as "forming friendships," "self-confidence," "bullying," and "family bonds." If we want to study the topic within these four themes or parameters, a thematic-organized literature review will be the best bet.


Methodological organization for your literature review will focus on the various methodologies used in prior studies and mention each based on that factor. For example, you might first look at quantitative studies that were done on the topic, then look at qualitative ones, comparing the results of both. Or, you might first analyze literature that shows empirical methodologies, then analyze a more theoretical approach.

Step 5—Write your literature review

Now that you've gone through the other steps, this should be the easy part. As you write, remember that your task is to summarize and synthesize all relevant scholarly work on your topic, while also analyzing any gaps, patterns, inconsistencies, or themes that emerge.

Note that as you write, you need to remain as critical and objective as possible in your overview of literature. If you feel that there were biases and you have a substantial case to make with it, include your analysis on that fact. If you feel that certain studies had stronger methodologies or frameworks than others, mention that, as well. The point of a literature review is to let your reader know that you have researched your topic in depth and have a credible, solid foundation from which to continue that study or pose hypotheses connected to it.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.