Guide to Writing a Literature Review

Guide to Writing a Literature Review

A literature review is a survey of literature available by qualified researchers and scholars on a given topic.  A literature review often serves as an introduction to a research paper by establishing a context for the thesis that the author of a paper intends to prove, or an argument the author intends to make.

Writing a literature review can be useful for a researcher because it gives her or him an opportunity to summarize what he or she has read about a topic and to refine what he or she wants to contribute to the discussion.  Literature reviews are sometimes assigned in college courses because they are a good exercise for doing research on a  particular topic. A literature review resembles an annotated bibliography in the sense that it describes and summarizes other sources, but a literature review is more than a string of annotations. The author of a good literature review describes the current state of research on a particular topic or problem, identifies relationships between different sources and describes how those sources support, complement or contradict one another.

A good literature review does the following:

  • Describes literature that is relevant to the topic under discussion.
  • Describes the current state of research on a given topic.
  • Describes existing controversies or debates surrounding the topic.
  • Summarizes the contributions of other authors and often suggests other avenues of research or questions that might be addressed.

Choosing literature to review:

In choosing which literature to include in your review, consider the following:

  • Relevance: Is the source relevant to the topic you want to discuss? Does it help you to understand the problem you are exploring (what are the causes of global warming) or the research question you would like to answer (how are stepmothers portrayed in English fairy tales and why)?
  • Currency: Is the source current? Does it include data or research methods that are no longer valid or that have been superseded?
  • Significance: Is the source important to discussion of your topic? Is it a "classic" that has regularly and frequently been cited by other authors writing about the topic? Does it challenge or modify a more traditional, established theory or interpretation? Has it opened a new line of inquiry for other researchers?

Organizing a literature review:

There are several organizing principles that can provide structure to your literature review. You might discuss your sources chronologically, or according to genre (i.e. fictional accounts vs. primary sources), according to research methodology, or according to schools of thought.

This guide is adapted from guides developed at the University of Toronto, Central Queensland University Library and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web sites consulted include the following:

Dena Taylor and Margaret Proctor, "The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It" University of Toronto Writing Center:

"What is a Literature Review?" Central Queensland University Libraries:

"Literature Reviews" The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

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Comments or suggestions? Please email Rebekah Ambrose at