Literature reviews

Literature reviews often form part of larger pieces of writing, such as reports, journal articles, theses or dissertations, though they may also be stand-alone pieces of writing. This page considers what a literature review is, how to structure one, and provides some guidelines for writing a literature review.

What is a literature review?

A literature review gives a critical summary of the existing research in the field in order to identify gaps and create a starting point for your own research. A literature review is often conducted and written before you embark on research for a thesis or dissertation, and might help you to decide on the direction of your research.

While in places the review may be descriptive, for the most part it should evaluate and analyse. This will be done by:

  • summarising information;
  • finding links or similarities between different areas;
  • finding contradictions or differences;
  • highlighting weaknesses or inconsistencies with the research;
  • identifying a gap in the research.

Structure of literature reviews

The structure of a literature review in part depends on the length. Literature reviews in reports or journal articles may be only one or two paragraphs long, and will therefore be less structured. Literature reviews written as stand-alone assignments or as part of a thesis or dissertation will be much longer, and these types of literature review will be much more structured pieces of writing, with an introduction, main body and conclusion.


An introduction to a literature review needs to accomplish several tasks. These include outlining the topic or issue, in order to provide context for the review; explaining key concepts or terms; outlining how the main body will be organised; and giving the scope, in other words, why certain literature is included and other literature excluded.

Main body

The main body will describe, evaluate and analyse the literature findings. This will usually be done by grouping the findings according to a specific principle. Common principles for organisation are as follows.

  • Chronology. Literature is organised according to when it was published.
  • Theme. Literature is linked according to a theme.
  • Conclusions. Literature can be linked according to the conclusions of the writers.
  • Methodology. Literature may be linked according to the methodology used in previous studies, for example qualitative versus quantitative.

It is often possible to combine these methods of organisation, for example, literature linked by a theme may still be considered chronologically within that theme.

The main body may also review the methods or materials relevant to your own study. This will provide support for your own choice of method. It is likely that the main body with use sub-headings to further organise the information.


The conclusion to the review will summarise the most significant findings of your review and identify gaps in knowledge.

Writing guidelines for literature reviews

There are various points you need to consider when writing a literature review. The first is to make sure you use evidence to back up your points. This can be done by referring to specific writers or studies. In addition, you need to make sure that all information contained in the review is related to the review focus. Because of the potentially vast amount of literature which can be reviewed, it is important to be both selective, by including only the most important points, as well as brief, by summarising the main points rather than paraphrasing or using quotations. The importance of different studies or findings under review can be shown by the amount of space given to them in the review (the more important a study is, the more space it should take up). It is also important to compare and contrast studies in the review, highlighting any similarities or differences in the findings. Sources can be synthesised (linked) if they say the same thing. Finally, you need to be cautious, in other words be sure you do not make claims the evidence does not show.

In short, when writing your review, you should:

  • use evidence – back up points by referring to specific writers/studies;
  • be relevant – only include information related to the review focus;
  • be selective – only include the most important points;
  • be brief – summarise main points, rather than paraphrase or use quotations;
  • show importance – the more important a study is, the more space it should take up;
  • compare and contrast – highlight any similarities or differences in the findings;
  • synthesise – link sources together if they say the same thing;
  • be cautious – do not make claims the evidence does not show.

Example review

An example literature review, as well as exercises for literature reviews, can be found in the book Academic Writing Genres: Essays, Reports & Other Genres, part of the EAP Foundation series of books. You can use the form below to download a sample of the book.


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Below is a checklist for literature reviews. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.

Stage Section Item OK? Comment
Introduction Context The introduction gives an outline of the topic or issue.
Definitions Key concepts or terms are explained, if necessary.
Organisation The organisation of the main body is given.
Scope The scope is given (what literature is included/excluded).
Main body Organising principle Literature is grouped appropriately (by chronology, theme, conclusions, or methodology).
Sub-headings Main body uses sub-headings, if necessary (long reviews only).
Methods Methods/materials relevant to the study have been reviewed.
Conclusion Summary There is a summary of the most significant findings.
Gaps Gaps in knowledge are identified.
Other Evaluation The review evaluates findings (rather than just describing).
Evidence Specific writers or studies are referred to, to support points.
Relevance All information is related to the focus of the review.
Selection Only the most important information is included.
Brevity Main ideas of writers/studies are summarised (rather than paraphrased or quoted).
Importance More important findings take up more space.
Comparison/ contrast Similarities/differences between findings are highlighted.
Synthesis Sources are linked together if they say the same thing.
Caution The findings are not overstated.

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 26 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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