How to write a literature review

This is a comprehensive guide on how to plan, structure and write a literature review for a research study . So read my guide for some useful tips!


Step 1: Be clear about the purpose of a literature review

  • To demonstrate the depth of your knowledge in a particular field.
  • To demonstrate your understanding of the key arguments and debates surrounding a specific topic.
  • To demonstrate your understanding of key theories relating to the topic.
  • To demonstrate your skills of critical analysis.
  • To highlight gaps in existing research in the field.

Step 2: Clearly Identify your subject area and topic for your literature review

  • Firstly develop your methodology and consider your conceptual approach to your study.
  • Read widely first to help you decide on a specific area of inquiry
  • Once you have identified a specific area of inquiry then search for relevant literature to read in greater depth.

Step 3: Perform searches for relevant literature

  • There are several ways of searching for literature which include: a physical search in your chosen library (always ask the librarian for assistance); online searches through a library service via discipline, subject, author or keywords and via search engines such as Google scholar.
  • Use double quotation marks “…” in search engines to indicate whole phrases that may otherwise be separated during the search process and produce less relevant results.


Step 4: Immerse yourself in the literature and make notes

  • It is essential to make notes on the literature during the reading process which you can then use as the basis for your first draft.
  • Be organised – I always create a new sub-folder for my literature review which sits within a main folder that bears the title of my study.
  • Mind maps are useful for plotting out your proposed reading thematically.
  • Reading thematically makes identifying key arguments and debates around a topic much easier than randomly selecting literature.
  • When making notes in your word document, add the reference at the top of your sheet so that you can build your reference list during the reading process.
  • Always write notes in your own words to avoid accidental plagiarism and where you copy quotes for use in the literature review add the citation to save having to go back and search for it later.


Step 5: If you have followed the previous steps this should be straightforward!

  • Organise the review thematically using sub-headings.
  • Ensure you provide cited definitions for key terminology at the beginning of each section.
  • Explain theoretical concepts clearly and use citations.
  • Summarise the key arguments made by authors and explain differences or similarities between their positions.
  • It is useful to group authors together who have made similar arguments which can be done using citations (e.g. ‘It is possible for bloggers to engage in discursive practices which are not overtly political (Kahn & Kellner 2004; Saleh, 2010; Steele, 2011’.)
  • Write your review using active sentences and avoid passive writing (e.g. ‘Smith (2015) argues’ instead of ‘it is argued…’).
  • Make sure you end each section by highlighting any gaps in the literature.
  • At the end of your literature review write a brief paragraph that summarises the key findings and lists the gaps in literature that your study will explore.


Step 6: proof-reading

  • Don’t proof-read your work after you have just written it – sleep on it!
  • Read through your work thoroughly the next day, when it will be easier to spot errors and tidy up your writing by re-phrasing sentences.
  • Use appropriate terminology and avoid colloquialisms.
  • Correct spelling errors and double-check you haven’t missed any citations.
  • You should proof-read your work 2-3 times – not just once!

Lastly, go back to step 1. If you can tick everything off then you have written a great literature review!

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8 thoughts on “How to write a literature review

  1. Hi – was a useful article! Please, how many words are recommended for a PhD Lit review?

    1. Hi Joy, for a primary research thesis of 80-100,000 words, as a rough guide, your literature review should make up around 15%. So for a thesis of 80,000 words that would be 12,000 words for the literature review. That should be sufficient for you to read widely and present a critical analysis of the key literature around your topic.

      Best Wishes

  2. A very useful information, particularly as I prepare to start my dissertation with Literature Review.
    Thanks a lot and hope to learn more from your blog.

  3. Hello Deborah,
    I have found your articles to be very useful. I’m pursuing a DBA study and I am at the research stage.

  4. Hello Deborah! I am delighted and will follow your guide. I have been guiding students in writing but now, I have learnt more. Kudos.

  5. Hello Deborah! Your article is very interesting and it will fill the gap about how researchers should structure their literature review but I have one question about conceptual framework. This is, can a researcher use conceptual framework in qualitative research? How? Please help me!

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