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Literature Review: Organization & Writing

Common Organizational Schemes

Literature reviews may group research based on:

  • similarity in concepts
  • similarity of theories of interest
  • similarity of methodology of studies reviewed
  • historical development of the field
  • trends
  • hypotheses tested
  • research results


Not all literature reviews require abstracts, but if your assignment asked for an abstract, your abstract should describe:

  • problem or relation(s) under investigation
  • study eligibility criteria
  • type(s) of participants included in primary studies
  • main results (including the most important effect sizes) and any important moderators of these effect sizes
  • conclusions (including limitations)
  • implications for theory, policy and/or practice

The length of the abstract varies based on your professor's requirements, but generally abstracts are between 150 - 250 words.

Parts of the Literature Review

The introduction

  • Define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern, thus providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature.
  • Point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship; or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest.
  • Establish the writer's reason (point of view) for reviewing the literature; explain the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope).

The body

  • Group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles, case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus quantitative approaches, conclusions of authors, specific purpose or objective, chronology, etc.
  • Summarize individual studies or articles with as much or as little detail as each merits according to its comparative importance in the literature, remembering that space (length) denotes significance.
  • Provide the reader with strong "umbrella" sentences at beginnings of paragraphs, "signposts" throughout, and brief "so what" summary sentences at intermediate points in the review to aid in understanding comparisons and analyses.

The conclusion

  • Summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to the body of knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction.
  • Evaluate the current "state of the art" for the body of knowledge reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study.
  • Conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession.

-From the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Tips for Writing

For a literature review, you want to focus on the analysis of your sources, not on a description of your sources or summarizing what they found.  One of your goals is to convince the reader that your thesis/research question is a good choice using this analysis of your sources.

Writing Can Be Tough

Snoopy types Book One Part I Chapter One Page 1, and thinks, "What a great start!"