Writing a Literature Review

Writing a Literature Review

The following module discusses guidelines and tips for writing a literature review, including models of organization and formatting.

Learning Objectives

  • List and describe models for organizing the information collected in the literature review, including how to make an outline
  • Examine options for style and format of the writing
  • Discuss general tips and guidelines for writing the review


Once the information collected from the literature review has been summarized and synthesized, it is time begin organizing and writing the review. There are many different approaches to organizing a literature review. It may be helpful to begin by reflecting on the type of literature was collected and if it groups itself naturally in manner. Different subjects may also have a logical way in which the information may most effectively be discussed in the review. Following are several models commonly used to organize information for a literature review.

  • Chronological – This approach may be appropriate for topics that have developed and changed over time because it allows the writer to organize the information in stages.
  • Broad to Specific - In this approach, the writer starts with a broad overview of the topic and a presents a wide range of background information. The writing then becomes more and more specific until it focuses on a specific aspect of the subject. This can be a great approach when it is important for the reader to understand the overall context into which the subject fits.
  • Major Models and/or Theories – If there are several models or theories related to a particular subject, the writer may elect to simply outline the models/theories found in the literature in a systematic way.
  • Prominent Authors – If the subject originated with a primary researcher/author whose work was later built upon successively by others, it may be logical to organize the information by prominent author and discuss what each author contributed to the study of the subject.
  • Contrasting Schools of Thought – If there are a small number of schools of thought on a subject, it may work best to outline each point of view and compare and contrast the opposing ideas.
  • Problem/Solution – It may be effective identify problems related to a particular subject and organize the literature by the solutions offered.
  • Process Flow – The literature may focus on a process, and it be best in that case to organize the literature to describe the stages or steps in the process.
  • Comparison to a Hypothesis – If the literature review is being done to support and provide background information for a research project, the literature may be organized by articles that agree with and support the hypothesis for the study and those that disagree with it.

Once an organization strategy has been developed, it is beneficial to create an outline to serve as guide for the writing. The outline does not have to be overly detailed and does not have to fully dictate the writing, but it serves as general roadmap for the actual writing process. The major sub-categories of the outline will be based on how the literature is organized. As the writer begins to assemble the literature into the organizational method selected, he or she may use the outline to take notes and reference articles that will be used and quoted for that section of the outline. After the outline has been created and the sources organized accordingly, it is time to begin writing. Before writing the manuscript, the author will need to find out which writing style/format the journal requires. The most common styles include APA, MLA, and Chicago styles. Reference books are available for each style or format, and it may be a good investment to purchase one. However, the following website links provide the general guidelines for each style and may be useful in helping you get started.


While writing styles vary among individual authors, there are tips and guidelines that may be helpful to follow when writing the literature review regardless of how the literature will be organized. Some of these tips include the following:

  • Early in the review, establish why the topic or subject is important.
  • When citing a landmark or classic study, identify it as such.
  • Distinguish between research findings and other sources of information.
  • Discuss other literature reviews on the topic.
  • If the review is lengthy, provide an overview at the beginning.
  • At the beginning, state explicitly what will and will not be covered.
  • The writer should specify his or her point of view early in the review to establish the thesis statement of the review.
  • Subheadings may be helpful in long reviews.
  • Use transitions to help the flow of the essay.
  • The review should end with a conclusion that provides closure and summarized the argument or position of the author.


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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