Preparing to Write a Literature Review

Preparing to Write a Literature Review

The following module discusses the steps involved in the process of preparing to write a literature review.

 Learning Objectives

  • List and describe the steps involved in preparing to write a literature review
  • Explain how to identify and analyze the information collected from the sources
  • Explain how to summarize and synthesize information collected from a variety of sources


A literature review requires research and preparation before the writing begins. Once a topic has been identified, the literature must be searched and information collected must be analyzed, summarized and synthesized so that it can be written into the review. The following steps outline the basic process for conducting a literature review.

  1. Identify the topic. The topic may be any scholarly topic of interest or it may be the subject of proposed research. Consider the scope of your literature search and decide whether or not it is necessary to narrow the topic. Develop a list of key words and phrases to use when searching for information on the topic.
  2. Identify appropriate sources and search the literature. Information may come from a variety of sources including books, reference materials, journals, conference papers, dissertations, and the internet. The appropriate sources may be determined by the nature of the topic chosen. Develop a plan for the literature search. An effective literature search saves time, maximizes the quality of the information collected, and ensures that the literature will be relevant and useful. A common place to begin is with online databases through the library. Google Scholar or other academic data bases (i.e, ResearchGate, Zotero, Mendeley, GoScholar,, etc.) are also excellent websites for searching academic literature. Sometimes it can be helpful to begin a search more broadly with a general descriptor and narrow the topic down as the sources are reviewed. Sources should be assessed and reviewed during the search process. It may be necessary to refine the research topic or question or select new keywords if initials searches are not producing the desired results.
  3. Analyze the Literature.Once sources have been collected, the literature must be analyzed and organized. Begin by skimming each article or source to get a sense of the content. Group the sources into categories using the most appropriate organizational structure for the topic. For example, they may be grouped by subcategory or chronologically. Once the sources have organized, review them more in depth and take notes to accomplish the following:
    1. Define key terms.
    2. Note statistics that may be included in the review.
    3. Select useful quotes for the review.
    4. Identify strengths and weaknesses and make other evaluative notes as necessary.
    5. Look for trends or patterns which will require synthesis of material from a variety of sources. Look for a big picture or generalization to develop. Also, note discrepancies among sources.
    6. Identify gaps in the literature. What else would be helpful to know? Is there a reason the gap may exist?
    7. Look for relationships among studies. Categories may emerge and the distinctions may be useful when writing the review.
    8. Stay focused on the topic and only take notes on aspects relevant to the topic of the review. It may even be appropriate to dismiss sources that are not directly related to the topic and therefore, may not be useful.
    9. Evaluate the total collection of sources when note-taking is complete. Are the sources current enough and do they provide enough coverage of the topic? A good rule of thumb is to cover the information on the topic thoroughly from the last 5 years. However, sources more than 5 years old may be appropriate if they are landmark studies and significantly contribute to the body of knowledge on the topic.
  4. Summarize the literature in a table, concept map, or matrix.   Summarize each source to recap the relevant information, identify variables, identify findings and identify theories. It is often useful to put the information into a table, spreadsheet, concept map or matrix to make review of the information easier and to help with the process of synthesizing information from all the sources. For example, tables may be used to define key words and concepts, to list research methods, or to summarize research results.
  5. Synthesize the literature. Using the summary information and the notes, it is now time to integrate the literature through an in-depth analysis. To do this, the writer should identify similarities and differences, identify theme and common threads, examine the intellectual progression on the topic, evaluate the sources and their authors, look for both connections and gaps in the literature, and begin to select the most reliable information from a multitude of perspectives to be included. A literature review is not a summary of sources, but rather an evaluation of the current knowledge on the topic. Therefore, this step is critical to writing an effective review.

Once the literature has been collected, analyzed, summarized and synthesized, it is time to begin the process of writing the literature review. The next module in this series will provide guidelines for organizing the information and tips for the writing process.


Suggested Readings

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews. Review of general psychology, 1(3), 311.
Cooper, H. M. (1989). Integrating research: A guide for literature reviews . Sage Publications, Inc.
Cooper, H. M. (1998). Synthesizing research: A guide for literature reviews (Vol. 2). Sage.
Cooper, H. M. (1988). Organizing knowledge syntheses: A taxonomy of literature reviews. Knowledge in Society, 1(1), 104-126.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. Sage.
Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success. Corwin Press.
Randolph, J. J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(13), 2.
Webster, J., & Watson, R. T. (2002). Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 26(2), 3.

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