How to Write Academic Literature Reviews

Writing a literature review doesn't have to be a daunting task.

A literature review is a type of academic writing, often published in scholarly journals, that discusses a collection of publications about a particular topic. In the course of your studies, you may receive an assignment that involves writing an academic-style literature review. While you might be overwhelmed by this assignment if you have never written a literature review before, reading the instructions carefully and sticking with the basic format for writing a review should lead to completing the assignment without a problem.

Read the literature you’re reviewing carefully. The literature review will basically summarize the key points, arguments and ideas contained in the literature. As you identify these main points, write them down. Keep track of information in the literature that supports what you have identified as the article's key ideas.

Create a thesis statement for your literature review. This statement is one sentence that succinctly summarizes the article's key ideas. For example, a thesis statement for a literature review of a medical study might be “Increased doses of caffeine may be able to prevent type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Discuss the background of the literature you’re reviewing in the first paragraph of your academic literature review. In the case of a medical study, for example, list who conducted the study and where, when it was published and where and what the main point of the study was. Add your thesis statement after this background discussion.

Separate the main points, arguments and ideas you have identified. Using the aforementioned medical study example, key ideas might include things like the dosage of caffeine needed to see positive health benefits, how caffeine is believed to provide benefits, what benefits have been proven and what type of person benefits most from caffeine consumption.

Start writing the body of your academic literature review. Each paragraph of the body discuses one key idea you identified in the previous step. These paragraphs can be organized in your review as they appear in the literature or they can be arranged in an order that you have deemed to be logical because of a certain theme or methodology used in the article.

Add supporting information in the literature review to back up what you have identified as the article's main points, arguments or ideas. For example, you might cite specific studies and research used in the literature to support your paragraph that discusses the potential health benefits of caffeine consumption.

Cite all paraphrased or quoted information drawn from the literature. You can use a combination of the author’s last name, a shortened version of the title, the date or the page number where the information was found. This will depend on the instructions provided to you for the review and the academic writing style you’re using. APA style, for example, dictates that you use the author’s last name and the date -- (Smith, 2008) -- when making a citation.

Conclude your review in the final paragraph. This paragraph discusses your own conclusions and might include suggestions about further research. Continuing with the caffeine example, you might briefly discuss any weaknesses you found in the studies conducted about the benefits of caffeine and then make suggestions about how those weaknesses could be addressed.

  • Sometimes literature reviews have more than one source that is being reviewed. If this is the case, follow the instructions above using all sources and relate them to each other occasionally throughout the review. Be sure to include a paragraph or two that synthesizes the material, explaining how the information from each sources fits with the others.

J. Johnson has been completing freelance writing work since September 2009. Her work includes writing website content and small client projects. Johnson holds a degree in English from North Carolina State University.