How to Write a Literature Review: Structure, Outline, Format

How to Write a Literature Review: Structure, Outline, Format

Of course, you never want to make complicated things even more puzzling. But sometimes you have to write a literature review either to complement your bigger work (like a research paper) or perform this task as a standalone assignment. 

That’s the type of work you’ll never want to take on by your own choice since it involves a lot of effort from your side. However, it might help you immensely when you are working on a huge project that is supposed to contain an evaluation of the existing materials and your own reflection on the subject. 

But at one point or another, you might be wondering how to write a lit review as you’ve never done that before. Or, perhaps, you are looking for some clues that would enable you to cope with this assignment much easier and faster.

Anyway, after looking through this article, you’ll get a better idea of what this paper should include and how to become a perfect literature review writer.

What Is a Literature Review - Intro to the Topic

This is not a piece of writing that dwells on the plot and characters of the fiction story. A literature review is a synthesis of key sources on a specific topic that demonstrates how they are connected and different. This piece of writing enables you to reveal:

  • common aspects of multiple resources;
  • different viewpoints on the subject matter;
  • gaps or uncertainties;
  • potential tracks for further research.

It’s frequently used as a part of a formidable academic paper (research work or dissertation). It often goes after the introduction before the methods section. Besides, it might be a standalone academic work that gives students an opportunity to get familiar with the topic and scholars who worked on the problem. Young researchers might also write this piece for their own convenience to get a better vision of the subject.

The content will differ as you’ll be writing a literature review for different purposes, and you should always know the aim of writing. 

Smooth Your Way to Writing a Literature Review Outline

You might bustle with writing an essay if you’ve already worked out what ideas you would like to deliver, but not with a literature review. This piece of writing can’t be crafted in a slapdash way, so get ready to put in some effort to frame a deeply-researched lit review.

When you know the ropes and have a clear idea of how to arrange the writing process, this is going to be a painless process. So, find the tips on how to write a literature review below.

Slacken the Topic List

This is the first and the most important step of the whole process as you’ve got to cream off the scope for research and then settle on a topic. Things might be easier when you are writing a paper as a part of your research or another project. In this case, you already have a subject and you’ve got to dig deep and find relevant materials for your review.

However, when you are drilling the skill of composing literature reviews or have gotten an assignment for any class with an aim to study the subject matter in more detail, this might pose a serious problem for you. There are so many options out there but you have no clue which one to choose. And when you haven’t picked a topic, you can’t further the writing process in any way. 

So, before you learn how to write a literature review outline, you’ve got to find out what topic you will be examining through different resources. We would recommend you to select the one that is interesting for you. Also, it would be great if you could come down in favor of the subject you have the basic vision of but would benefit from digging much deeper for more detail.

Get Down to Finding Resources

After you singled out the topic and the scope of your research, you’ve got to think of ways of gathering materials related to your subject matter.

Firstly, craft the list of keywords that would be assisting you in the process. Write down the words or phrases that come to your mind. Then find synonyms for them and other wording to represent the same notion. It might look like a waste of time, but let us assure you that the keywords will dramatically simplify the search process. 

This step should be finalized with a list of materials that match your topic. Use the list of keywords you’ve created and go to:

  • school or college library;
  • local library;
  • Google Scholar;
  • JSTOR.

Look for books, articles, journals, and other academic pieces that fall within the spectrum of your investigation. Before you start reading the material thoroughly, check the abstract and content to make sure it contains relevant data.

Read the Selected Resources with a Critical Hat On

You don’t have to examine all the materials from cover to cover. In fact, your mission is to evaluate how the author adds to the understanding of your topic. So, if you are going through a book, pick the chapter that details the problem you are studying. If the resource is not too formidable, you can thumb it through thoroughly and point out the most critical aspects that are relevant for your research scope. If you are uncertain about writing a literature review example can make a big difference in understanding this paper type.

As you wade through the materials, define the aspects you will be comparing and contrasting in your work. Here are some hints for you:

  • the author’s vision on the subject or problem;
  • what methods they used for research;
  • how innovative the author’s ideas are;
  • how the material interacts with other sources;
  • how findings contribute to the general vision of the subject;
  • strengths and flaws of the scholar’s viewpoint.

At this stage, you should also take care of the future writing process. So, pick quotes you might use in the paper and jot down things that are critical for the analysis.

Make All the Pieces Together

Here comes the ‘funniest’ part. As you go over the resources, you’ve got to organize the materials in a logical and structural fashion. Look at the notes once again and spot:

  • common tendencies in all the materials;
  • are there any popular theories that are more known than others;
  • contradictions that encourage a debate between the authors;
  • publications or ideas that changed the direction of the field;
  • gaps in the studied materials that should be addressed.

These are the key points you should keep in mind. If your instructor suggests another structure or has several additional points, that’s absolutely ok as every professor has their own requirements.

How to Do a Literature Review Outline - Shape Your Paper

You did a lot of work and are almost ready to hit the keyboard with your fingers with the aim of producing a final piece of writing. But wait, there is the final preparation step you cannot ignore if you are determined to craft an effective lit review.

Having no paper structure in front of you can turn the writing process into a mess and complete disaster. You will be cluelessly switching between aspects of your review and won’t be able to state your point of view. Thus, a literature review outline is a must if you want to make sure that all your writing efforts are directed to the right place.

A literature review is not an essay where you introduce arguments one-by-one. This is a complicated assignment that involves the comparison of several resources. Because of this fact, the paper is organized in a slightly different way.

Generally, there are several methods of outlining the literature review. You can use one of them or even mix them to introduce a genuinely in-depth paper. Let us show you some of the most popular approaches to the organization of information.


This is the simplest method of information organization both for the writer and the reader. It enables the author to introduce data from multiple resources in a progressive way, starting from the first traces of the subject matter to the latest mentions. This approach allows the reader to get familiar with the topic in the way it was logically studied by scholars. That is why it works better for the audience that is not familiar with the subject matter.

However, the chronological method of data organization doesn’t mean that you have just to list and retell the key points of the materials. You are still supposed to add critical evaluation to every resource, define turning points, or gaps.


This is a more specific approach as it allows the author to analyze how different theories are similar and different. When you make use of this method, get ready to dig deeper into key concepts of the topic, theories, and models. This is a great way to study the multi-faceted subject that has been researched by various scholars greatly.


Most likely, you won’t be using this approach much as it is less popular and more specific. When you are reviewing resources that use different methods to study the problem, then a methodological method might work for you. 

Your goal is to review what methods have been used to examine the subject matter from different angles. Then, you should pay close attention to the results of the experiment or any other scientific method.


Have you distinguished several topics within your scope of research? Then you can organize data collected from different materials by the general theme. It means that you should group the resources by the messages that add to the topic you’ve highlighted. 

If this sounds too complicated and you didn’t get how to structure your work, you are always free to check a brilliant example of a literature review outline and learn how to organize your piece of writing.

How to Structure a Literature Review - Key Elements

Haphazard writing is a poor strategy for any academic piece. That is why we insist on creating an outline and structuring your work properly to produce a clear and well-organized paper.

Usually, all academic works have a beginning, middle section, and conclusion. The literature review is not an exception. That’s the winning scheme that enables the author to guide the reader through all the critical points of the paper with utmost clarity.

Introduction - How to Start Your Review?

Getting on to writing might be frustrating, especially when you’ve got to produce a complicated written piece like this one. But just stick with the introduction scheme we are offering to you and have troubles with getting off the ground no more. 

So, the introduction should build the foundation for further detailed information. Usually, you introduce the topic and give some tiny bits of information on it to immerse the reader into the subject matter.

Then, you should specify why you are writing this review and why you believe the subject is important for the scientific world. If the topic is too broad, you’d better define what aspects of the subject you’ll be studying in your work.

Announce the logic you were guided with on your way to structuring the paper. Define what criteria you used to analyze the resources and how you grouped them.

Body - Time to Provide More Details

If you followed our recommendations and critically analyzed the resources you were reading and crafted an outline, writing this section would be a breeze for you. In fact, you’ve already done the most challenging part - you analyzed how the materials are connected and what sets them apart, defined their strengths and weaknesses. So now it’s time to put your observations on paper. 

The structure of the middle section of your work will totally depend on how you decided to organize information. If you stick with one method of information organization (please check the chapter devoted to the outline), you should follow its logic. For instance, when you analyze the methodological aspect of the subject, you can start with the basic information and then go over each of the methods the scholars used to study the topic. 

The body structure can get a little bit more complicated when you decide to mix several approaches (or all of them). You have complete freedom of picking the elements and passages’ content, but make sure they are logically connected. One paragraph should be dealing with one aspect of the topic only and review the materials from the analytical standpoint.

Conclusion - How to Wrap Your Review Up?

So, you know how to conduct a literature review, but how are you supposed to conclude it? Sigh with relief as it’s one of the easiest sections of your work.

The final part should summarize the aspects you talked about in your work. It’s important to stay away from the ideas you haven’t introduced in your paper. The conclusion should depict your own findings after the carried research.

Define the gaps and weaknesses of the materials you reviewed. If you see the perspectives for future investigations, you can share your thoughts in this section. Stress the importance of the topic and give your own vision of it. 

The Final Steps to Perfecting Your Review

Even when you did your best to craft the flawless paper, it still requires a final touch. No matter how hard you try, there might be some nuances that you can not spot right away. So it’s always a good idea to run through your work several times and look for any errors or inaccuracies that might spoil the general impression about your lit review. To avoid any possible negative comments from your professor’s side, pay attention to:

  • grammar and spelling - check with free writing tools to spot errors and typos;
  • introduction - make sure it gives enough insights into the subject;
  • topic sentences - assure that they deliver the core message of the passage;
  • transitions - provide smooth, logical bridges between the ideas;
  • wording - ensure that you use academic language in your work;
  • readability - check up on how your writing flows and whether it’s easy on the eye.

But that’s not all. You can’t just craft a paper and format it as you wish. There are certain rules that define how your work should be outlined.

Format of Literature Review - How Your Paper Should Be Laid Out

There are specific requirements for setting the font, font size, margins, spacing, lists, headings, and so on. These guidelines are defined either by the professor or the institution. They might ask you to format your work in one of the commonly accepted formatting styles - APA, MLA, Chicago, or others. They define the above-mentioned aspects of the work formatting as well and the use of references and citation formatting. So, if you do not know how to write a literature review APA style or any other formatting, you’d better check the recommendations individually.

Usually, you’ll have to use a simple font in a readable size like Times New Roman 12 pt or similar. It is recommended to use 1-inch margins for all sides and set the double spacing between the lines.