How to write a literature review

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How to write a literature review for a research paper

In this post I intend to share with you information on how to write a literature review. Writing a literature review is something I struggled with for a long time.

As a research student, I desperately wanted to avoid this subject because I found the whole process cumbersome. Not only was I expected to do a literature search but to write a literature review afterwards. 

Literature review is one of the most talked about subjects in the academic field. I have used a very basic approach which is easy to understand.

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How to write a scientific literature review

Students in institutes of higher education including universities and colleges find the whole process of writing a literature review quite daunting and inescapable.

For research students, a literature review is what pins down their thesis and gives it a contextual background.

If you go ahead and carry out your research in a ‘vacuum’, without some form of background (literature review) to put everything into context, no one in the academic circles will take your research findings seriously.

Literature Review Writing Is Part of the Curriculum

Conducting a literature review is a prerequisite for completing certain academic modules. For instance, research students in the Humanities Faculty are expected to write a thesis or a dissertation before they complete their degree courses. However, certain masters programmes do not require a thesis or a dissertation.

What is Literature Review? Literature reviews are secondary sources and do not report new or original experimental work.” ‘A literature review is a scholarly paper, which includes the current knowledge including substantive findings, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic.
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Wikipedia Definition

Why a literature review important?

Have you ever wondered why we need a  literature review?

  1. To prove that you know how to conduct a literature search (the material you unearth from your search). As part of your dissertation or research project it is a requirement to do a literature review.
  2. To demonstrate your understanding and ability to do a critical analysis. That is the ability to put your findings into context in terms of your research project.
  3. A literature review for your research plays a crucial role in establishing the work other researchers in your discipline have covered including documented scholarly work.

    Therefore, conducting a literature review connects your work to a broad knowledge base in your field.

    It also underpins the scope of your research while focusing on the methodology and areas that may need future research.

  4. You must also remember to write down your literature sources (referencing). Literature that is already published is an important element of the academic discourse.
  5. Academic discourse refers to the language that lectures, students and all academics used to communicate with each other.

Where do I Come Across A Literature Review?

  1. A literature review can be a part of a larger section.
  2. A literature review can be written on its own as an entire article.

Types of Literature Review

  1. Primary research sources from Books and Journal articles.
  2. Others sources: systematic reviews, reports, google scholar, official websites, theses and dissertations.

How long does it take to Review Literature?

There are many factors that determine how long it will take you to complete a literature review. It all depends on your topic. Some sources of information are within easy reach. Meaning they are easily accessible. For example, from libraries.

Let’s say you are doing web research, it depends on the amount of information you need to read and digest first. Some information is accessed in far away places where you have to travel like visiting archival records offices to retrieve the data you are looking for.

Having excellent planning skills will certainly help you to do the job in a much quicker period. Excellent planning skills will help you counteract any problems associated with accessing libraries, fieldwork initiatives and re-visiting ethical issues.

Without going round in circles, let me walk you through the process of doing a literature review step by step.

Step 1: Picking Your Research Question 

Keywords and phrases will guide your search for relevant literature. How does it work? You start by clarifying the research topic or research question. This will help you identify the keywords.

Step 2: Planning Your Search

Why a Literature Search?

The purpose of a literature search is to identify existing research and information about your chosen topic so that you include that information on your given topic. It puts you in the picture of how your proposed research relates to work previously researched on in your field.

Planning Your Research 

Before you begin your literature search you need to plan so that you are able to identify the best approach to use. Most people use a mixture of approaches including the ones I have listed:

  1.  SystematicTo do your literature search it has to be done in a  systematic way. A thorough search of all types of relevant material which include the database (books, peer-reviewed articles). In your topic. 
  2. Retrospective 
    Focus on the most recent data first going backwards.
  3. Citation
    Use references from official sources. For example, books, articles on the reading list.
  4. Targeted
    Focus your search to a narrow and specific time frame.

How to write a Literature Review?

You end up the process by evaluating your information to ensure that the information you find maintains a certain level of quality and relevance. Depending on your academic discipline, I recommend you use the PROMPT mnemonic (Provenance, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Presentation, Timeliness). 

Using the PROMPT approach will guide you to write a structured approach to critically evaluate your information.


After writing your literature review, you should write a reference list at the end (a bibliography). This is where you write all sources of your information including the sources of images you have used. There are different styles of referencing shown on clickable links below:

  1.  Harvard
  2.  MLA
  3. Oxford
  4.  APA
  5. Chicago 


Is presenting someone’s work material as your own. It is considered a serious thing to do in the academic field. To avoid plagiarism, always take note of where you get your ideas using a proper referencing style (depending on the style of your discipline. 

  • Step 3 – Evaluating and recording your results. 
  • Step 4 – Reviewing Your Search Plan.
    After completing your literature reviewit is a good idea to use it to reflect on your own progress, both in terms of finding information and in critical reading.
  • Step 5 – Synthesizing Your Results.
    To identify areas for further research.

Having analyzed and reviewed your literature, the final thing to do is to analyse your information against the bigger picture. What it all means from a local perspective? What lessons to be learned? Probably identify areas with gaps in literature to use them as opportunities to do further research to fill those gaps. 


To recap, writing a literature review is done in stages.

  1. The first stage involves a lot of thinking and brainstorming to find out what the research topic requires you to do.

    This will help you map up a research plan, the keywords to guide your searches and figuring out your sources of information. Then the search begins. Remember to reference your sources of information as you go along.

  2. This is followed by the evaluation stage and recording your research findings.

    At this stage, you need to state your own research perspective. In addition, give an overall summary of your literature search and highlight any gaps and any conflicting theories. Summarise different authors’ arguments in relation to your topic.

As you write your literature review, you must constantly make references to your research topic so that you remain within its confines.

Please feel free to leave comments below in relation to 5 Steps to Literature Review Writing Advice. I will respond as soon as possible.

2 Comments to “How to write a literature review”

  1. Jake says:

    Hello, thanks a lot, Femia, for writing an in-depth approach to doing a literature review.
    The term literature Review used to confuse me and made my student life miserable. Thanks for explaining it in a very clear and straightforward way.
    It is an area a lot of students can’t avoid, so the best way is to learn how to do a literature review properly to make their academic life easier and to just get on with learning.
    I have bookmarked this post to refer to colleagues.

    1. Femia says:

      Hello, Jake, thanks so much for sparing your time to leave me some feedback.
      I agree with you that doing a Literature Review is unavoidable especially for Research Students.
      The best solution is to master how to do a Literature Review properly.
      Once again, many thanks for stopping by.

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