How to Best Write a Research Literature Review

A research literature review synthesizes and summarizes relevant literature (i.e., books, journal articles, conference papers, etc.) on a specific subject, theory or topic for further research. Literature reviews are often required components of research proposals, research papers, scholarly articles, theses and dissertations. Organization is a key factor in any literature review because it determines what you want to say about your subject and what direction your research is taking. A review of existing literature can often lead you to a new research idea or a way to further the study of existing theory.

Determine the topic of your literature review. This may come from a class assignment or a research question you composed yourself. It can begin as a broad idea that is narrowed as you get more information, or it can be a very specific question you have about a topic. The literature will guide you in either case.

Search the literature. Most college libraries offer access to journal databases free of charge to students. This way you can read article abstracts to determine the relevance to your topic before you invest time in reading the whole article. You should also use the library's online catalog to search for any books that may pertain to your topic. A well written literature review will utilize many sources and cover the topic thoroughly, so cast your search net wide.

Organize your literature review. Rank articles by how important they are to your topic, or by how well they fit into each section of your paper. Decide if you want to organize chronologically, theoretically or methodologically. An outline can help you determine subsections in your paper so you can organize your literature accordingly. It's also a good idea to have notes about each piece of text you plan on using. What are the author's arguments? Do you agree or disagree with the author? How does this inform your own research? Answering these questions beforehand can help you when you start to write.

Write the literature review. Explain why this literature is important to your research. What does the literature say regarding your research question? Make sure you discuss theory in your review. What theory did other authors employ, and is that theory appropriate for your purpose? If you introduce a new theory to your topic, you must discuss the literature regarding that theory and why it's appropriate for your research. Identify any problems you find with the existing research. This is important because it can lead to new research questions.

Introduce your own research or critique. The nature of your literature review will determine this step. If it's only a literature review, you may just make suggestions for future research. If it's part of a larger work, like a proposal or dissertation, you need to discuss how this literature informs your own studies. Talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the existing literature and how it led you to specific research questions and hypotheses. This is the conclusion of your literature review, so you have to decide how you want it to end. Is it just an ending, or is it leading to something new?


It's important to know exactly why you're writing a literature review. If it's for an assignment, make sure you know exactly what the assignment entails and what your professor expects from you.

Cite all your sources throughout the paper and in the bibliography at the end. You don't want to be accused of plagiarism because you forgot a citation.

Things You'll Need

  • college library
  • access to article databases