Writing a Literature Review: Simple Guide

By the time most students apply to college, they are already familiar with all sorts of essays and other academic assignments. However, college is a totally new step in one's educational career, so drafting a quick essay with an intro, a couple of body paragraphs, and conclusion will not be the only task students are expected to tackle.

At one point or another, students will start working on complex research papers and even theses and dissertations of their own. Such lengthy and complex assignments presuppose a separate literature review section, which often poses a challenge to an unprepared student.

Literature Review: What Is It?

Many students confuse a literature review with a bibliography section. The difference is that bibliography (aka references) simply lists all sources students used in their research. A literature review, on the other hand, gives a brief summary of each source. Also, this section of your paper does not necessarily have to be structured alphabetically. Here, the goal is to present an adequate list of sources, directly related to your subject matter. Quite often, students will also have to analyze specific material published within a given timeframe.

Next, a literary review can be either a summary of each given source or its synthesis. The first option is not unlike an abstract for an academic paper — it gives readers a brief gist of the entire work. A synthesis is a bit more complex; instead of summarizing the whole publication, it analyzes information relevant to your particular subject. So, a literary analysis synthesis may require some re-organization (as opposed to simply 'retelling' the material in question).

Literature Review Goals and Objectives

Just like any other section of a lengthy academic paper, a literature review has its purpose. Here, you are to provide a brief and unbiased overview of what other researches have written on a particular subject. Simply put, you are analyzing and synthesizing, without giving any evaluations of your own.

Still, a solid literature review cannot be a free-style retelling of other people's materials. You have to keep your subject, as well as your paper focus in mind; which is why any literature reviews will have a more or less rigid structure you'll be expected to follow. For every source you're summarizing, you are expected to state why this particular publication is important for your work. You also have to focus on the central theme of your paper and present all the analyzed material from this perspective.

Say, for example, if you're writing on racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, all of your sources have to line up to this subject. So, it will either be articles on racism in the novel, on the book itself, or racism in general. The latter ones, however, will need more justification — you will have to explain why you are using general insight on racism rather than focusing on literary analysis of the novel.

Formatting a literature review section

Since a literature review is just one of your paper sections, it should follow the same formatting logic as the rest of your work. Most often, lengthy research papers and master's theses will be formatted in APA style. However, your school or your professor may have other requirements, so you'll have to double-check those before submitting your final draft. Here are some of the points you should run by with your professor:

  • The expected number of sources you should use in this overview
  • The type of sources you should use (in folio books, online articles, journal publications, etc.)
  • The way you present information — should it be an analysis or a synthesis? Is personal critique allowed/required?
  • How detailed should this section be? Do you need subheadings or will a brief summary be enough?

As for the actual formatting rules, we've already mentioned that APA is the most widespread format for lengthy research papers. Here are the basic rules any student has to remember:

Every page has a header with your paper title (in CAPS). If the title is too long, you may be allowed to shorten it up to 50 characters so that it would fit one line in the header

APA style requires a separate title page with student, course, and university credentials

Use simple fonts (Times New Roman 12-point) and double spacing all through your paper

Literature Review Structure

Do not think of your literature review section as a mere collection of sources and their summaries. Most of the time, this part acts as a standalone chapter in your research. So, to present your information logically, you will need some kind of an intro and a conclusion for this part. Of course, it's not a standard introduction and conclusion, but the purpose will be more or less the same.


To introduce one's sources, a student is to start with a topic introduction. Start with a general overview of the subject and proceed to your logic when it comes to choosing the material below. Describe the main organizing principle for your sources (more details on organizational principles below).


There are three main ways for a student to organize one's sources: chronologically, thematically, and methodologically. This choice is up to you; however, you have to choose an option that would make the most sense for your paper. Let's go over them one by one.

Chronological organization

This organizational method is perfect if you want to show how a certain concept or idea has progressed over the years. So, you start with the earliest sources and keep on showing the evolution of the subject in question.

Thematic organization

This method is more common and helps to highlight the subject matter more effectively. To organize your material thematically, you start with a source that is most closely related to your paper hypothesis (or topic). In our example of racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, sources that deal with this particular topic precisely will be mentioned in the first place. Then, you can mention some general literary analysis of the novel. And, only after that, you may move on to the general concepts of racism.

Methodological organization

This approach is mostly used in case studies and research papers — that is, where at least some practical experiments are involved. It may be applied to theoretical papers as well, even though it will not be the most effective choice. The essence of a methodological organization is to sort research papers by data analysis used in these works. If you feel that quantitative research is the best method for your paper, you start with sources that operate quantitative research data.


Once you're done describing the material, you have to answer a couple more questions. These answers will act as your conclusion. The first and most important one is what a student has learned from these materials and how they relate to one's paper topic. Then, you are to restate the topic and describe important points you plan to address in further sections of your work.

More tips from our pro writing team

Of course, writing a literature review is often a challenging task — especially if you have to submit this section before the actual paper (which is often an option if the professor wants to approve your sources and your paper structure first). To come up with a solid review for a research, you will have to study the subject in-depth, think of the main points you are going to analyze in your paper and only then start looking for suitable academic material to review. All of this, as you may guess, takes quite some time and energy.

So, if you lack the time or have any other reasons preventing you from writing a literature review on your own, entrust it to our expert writing team. All of our writers are qualified graduates who will easily handle the most challenging of topics and provide you will a fully original, customized work tailored to your educational requirements.

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