Beginners guide to literature review

Also referred to as a traditional or narrative review, a literature review is a study design or process of collecting data from published articles on a particular topic or research question. This kind of paper provides a general image of the existing information about a specific topic. The purpose of the literature review is to critically analyze a segment of published knowledge through a summary, classification, and comparison of past research papers, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles.

Why write a literature review

A literature review highlights specific ideas in a study. By highlighting these ideas, researchers show what has been studied in the field and identify where needs further study by showing weaknesses and gaps in the existing study. The review also shows the reader why the research is useful, necessary, important, and valid.

Who is the Audience of a literature review?

Anyone can write a literature review for different types of audiences. It’s upon you as a writer to know why and for whom you’re writing your paper.

A literature review can have a different structure, length, and amount of information included. They vary from the selective (a very narrow area of study or just a single work) to the comprehensive (a huge amount or range of research areas), and they can also get a part of a larger work or stand on their own.

They can be written for:

  • Journal studies/articles
  • Dissertation/thesis
  • Course assignment
  • Literature analysis

Many literature reviews are written as a chapter for a thesis or dissertation so the reader can understand your research’s importance and know whether it is original. In this case, be sure to highlight the gap in ideas in the topic to convince the reader that there is an opening in that particular area of study.

A literature review in a proposal, try to convince your reader that your proposed project is relevant and worthy. If you’re writing a literature review for a course, your instructor expects you to show that you know what research has been done, giving you a base of ideas. In this instance, you may not focus too much on identifying the gaps in knowledge but instead, show that you understand the main ideas and areas of study.

Type of literature reviews found in journals

There are two main kinds of literature reviews found in journals- those introducing research articles and stand-alone literature analyses. These two types vary in scope, length, and significance.

Literature review introducing research articles

The literature review at the beginning of a journal article introduces research related to the specific area of study and is found in the introduction section. It is usually shorter than a stand-alone review as it should be limited to a specific research area and theories that are directly important to the study of interest. The purpose of this kind of literature review is to give support for the theory, methods, results, and conclusions of the research.

Literature review as a stand-alone paper

A stand-alone literature review provides an overview and analysis of the current state of the important publications in the area of study. The main aim is to evaluate and compare previous research on a research question, analyze what is currently known, and indicate controversies, gaps, and weaknesses in current work to be used for future research. Stand-alone literature reviews are a perfect resource for researchers looking for important ideas on an area of study for the first time.

How to write a literature review

Below are some steps that will guide you as you begin to write your literature review:


The first step is to plan how you will write your literature review. Make your own deadlines for completing the paper. You can write your paper anywhere you feel comfortable. Decide if you’re going to write a literature review and plan how you will complete it.

Select topic

Choose a topic to write about and focus on this topic throughout. Make sure to select a topic you’re familiar with and highly interested in. Choosing a topic, you’re not passionate about may be hard and boring to research. Remember that your readers should find your topic interesting and relevant. Go for a current, well-established topic in your area of interest and one which enough research done before.

 Research and collection of information

Search for information that might be relevant in your area of study. The literature you need to find will depend on your area of study; basically, you will search in library databases and online. It could be books, articles, reports, conference papers, government reports and statistics, and more. To search for information, simply identify your keywords and run them in the database.

Select materials that are most useful

Analyze all the information and select the sources that will be most useful to your review. Remember that you don’t need to check the quality of the articles that you have selected.

Describe and summarize each material

Give the essential information of the materials that pertain to your topic. Prepare a draft of all the relevant concepts. Generally, in literature reviews introducing a study, these concepts and ideas may be short, unlike in stand-alone reviews.

Show how these concepts in the literature connect with your topic

Suppose you’re writing a literature review to introduce an article. In that case, this information may include a summary of the results or prior research methods related to your study’s sections. For a stand-alone study, this might include highlighting the concepts in each article and demonstrating how they show a pattern.

Get Writing

With a detailed outline, you can finally start writing your paper. Include the introduction, methods, results, and discussion. As you write the paper, insert the citations and compile a list of your references at the end of your review.

Once you complete your review, proofread it to spot any mistakes. You can also give it to your friend or colleague and ask them to give you feedback on the overall discussion.

Hassaan Tohid


Dr. Hassaan Tohid MBBS, CCATP, CSOTP is a TEDx Speaker, Entrepreneur, Neuroscientist, Motivational speaker, Trainer, Certified Life Coach, and a Published author.

He has a career with three domains. An entrepreneur, an academic (neuroscientist, and a teacher), and a clinician (Addiction treatment).

As an entrepreneur, he is the founder of California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences and Psychology. Where he leads the organization as the CEO. He is a trainer, a coach, and a teacher. His training includes Public Speaking, Research Writing and Research Data Analysis, Business training and coaching, life coaching, and Sales.

An academic he is a Neuroscientist and delivered a TED talk on his specialty Mirror Neurons and Dissociative Identity Disorder at TEDx UCDavissf and TEDxUAlberta. He has published over 40 scientific articles and written 3 books.

A clinician with substance use disorder treatment specialty. Dr. Tohid graduated as a medical doctor and chose mental health and substance use disorder as a domain of his clinical career.

Dr. Tohid has delivered lectures on the subjects of success, motivation, business, sales, and research writing and publishing in different languages to thousands of medical and non-medical students.

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