Skip to main content

Writing a review of literature

This page describes the steps involved in writing a review of literature at the postsecondary level. 

Learning outcomes

  • What is a review of literature? 
  • What function does it play in the research process?
  • How does one set about writing a review of literature?
  • What is the structure of a review of literature?
  • Library support

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a synthesis of the existing knowledge on a topic. Drawing from multiple sources, literature reviews demonstrate your familiarity with the information, evaluate it, identify areas where research is lacking, and present it concisely for the reader.

A literature review:

  • Identifies the gaps in the existing literature on the topic.
  • Reviews the existing research on a topic.
  • Situates your research in relation to the previous research in the area.

Steps in writing a literature review

  • Find and read peer-reviewed journal articles on your topic. 
  • Paraphrase and organize this information into a table, matrix, grid, mental map, or method that works for you. 
  • Use the organizer to identify the themes that are the basis for your literature review.
  • Write your first draft of the literature review based on the table.

What is the appropriate scope and depth?

How do you know when you have enough peer-reviewed journal articles in your review of literature? How many articles is too many? How many articles is not enough? 

The type of program you are studying (e.g. Masters degree, PHd, etc.) will affect the breadth and depth of your search for literature. 

As you read articles, you will start to read the same ideas repeated in peer-reviewed journal articles, which is known as saturation. When you reach saturation on a topic, that means that you have explored the literature on the topic and may have reached the end of the topic. 

Work closely with your subject librarian to find many peer-reviewed journal articles and start annotating them.

Annotating your articles

When annotating articles, answer these questions:

  • What was the goal of the study? 
  • What was the methodology? 
  • Who were the participants? 
  • How were they recruited? 
  • How did they collect data? 
  • What were the results? 
  • What do these results have to do with this field? 
  • Does this study fit into a theme in the research? How does it fit?

Elements of a literature review - standalone paper

When drafting your review of literature, make sure you have:

  • The context of the study
  • The purpose of the research (purpose statement)
  • 3 to 5 solid themes from the research
  • Identified the gap in the research
  • Your research question(s)

Review of steps

  • Decide on your topic.
  • Consult with a librarian in your field, if possible, about databases, key journals, and keywords.
  • Identify your keywords.
  • Search for and download your articles.
  • Type up the references for the articles you have chosen. Use a citation management software. 
  • Make a bibliography of the articles collected.
  • Note: If this is for a master's or doctoral thesis/dissertation, get this reading list approved by your supervisor and committee before continuing. 
  • Write 8 to 10 sentences summarizing each article, what they did, their results, what method of data collection was used, and how the article supports your research. 
  • All ideas must be paraphrased and cited. This is very important. 
  • End by identifying the gap in the literature. This will be the focus of your paper. 
  • Draft/revise one or more research questions.


  • Explain the context of the research
  • Explain the significance of the problem – why is this an issue? 

Review of literature

Show how the articles are interconnected. What patterns do you notice across the articles? Use patterns to form your themes. From here, critically evaluate the articles:

  • What is the same?
  • What is different? 
  • What is missing?

Think about methodology, validity and reliability. You should critique the research and from there, develop headings organized by theme. 


  • Summarize the major themes found.
  • Identify the gap in the literature. What has not been studied? Where can a contribution be made?
  • Identify the connection between the gap in the literature and the inquiry question. 
  • Lead into the thesis with your research question(s).


Paraphrasing is essential when writing literature reviews. The writer needs to explain other people’s ideas in their own words and give credit to the original writer in an in-text citation.

Paraphrasing and summarizing

Rather than being about words, paraphrasing is about ideas.

Instead of focusing on replacing specific words in a quotation, think deeply about the ideas that the original author is explaining. Paraphrase at the idea level, not at the word or sentence level. 

Once you understand the ideas, you can zoom out and explain the most important idea(s) in your own way and give credit to the author in an in-text citation. 

Example of a paraphrased passage

Lorimer-Leonard’s (2013) work shows that validation of prior knowledge can have a profound impact on a newcomer’s success. Learners use cognitive and metacognitive strategies to plan for learning, choose strategies, reflect on learning, and assess their learning (Anderson, 2008), and to regulate their learning (Griffiths, 2008).

Steps for effective paraphrases and summaries 

Check your work against the original.

  • Have you copied the vocabulary or the sentence structure? Restart!
  • Have you changed the meaning of the original or given any wrong information? Revise!
  • Add an in-text citation at the end of every sentence in which you discuss other people's ideas.