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Literature Reviews

This guide defines and explains the literature review process.

Crafting a thesis

The literature review process allows for such a great amount of reading by the time you have finished collecting resources and taking notes over the connections between them, you should have come to some sort of an opinion or conclusion about the topic and the pieces which you read. Your literature review as a piece of writing should allow you to present your conclusions in a way that allows you to answer your research question and argue your opinion. 

When drafting your literature review, you should organize the discussion of the literature so that you develop your argument and prove your thesis. 

Outlining your literature review

According to Ridley (2008), a literature review should have three main parts:

  1. an introduction which explains the organization of your review
  2. a body made up of paragraphs labeled with headings and sub headings which map out your argument
  3. a closing which summarizes your arguments 

The Introduction 

Machi and McEvoy (2016, pg. 141-142) suggest that the introduction to your literature review flows through six main parts: 

  1. The Opening: Draw the reader into your topic by introducing the ideas in an interesting way. Provide an example, use a narrative, or suggest the debate at the heart of your research question. 

  2. The Study Topic: Provide a succinct and specific description of your topic. Identify and define key ideas while describing perspective from which you are writing in two or three paragraphs. 

  3. The Context: Discuss the environment which has created a need for this research in the first place. Mention debates or concerns surrounding the topic. 

  4. The Significance: Provide justification for the study or exploration. Suggest what value your writing has on the larger discussion surrounding the topic.

  5. The Problem Statement: Present the research question in two or three sentences. Then, explain why the question is being asked if needed. 

  6. The Organization: Provide the reader with an outline for how the literature review is organized. 

The body 

The body of your literature review will span several paragraphs and pages. This section is the bulk of your writing which discusses the connections and gaps in the literature in an effort to argue your thesis. You will design a logical framework in which to discuss the literature you read. No matter now how present your research, you will work to achieve two goals: sharing the background for the topic and the conclusions of your study of the literature.  The background section of your body, which will span many paragraphs and pages, will discuss what is known about the topic through the topic while providing your analysis. The final few paragraphs explore the conclusions of the study where you present your thesis, discuss your claim, provide evidence, and prove your ideas. (Machi and McEvoy, 2016, pg. 142). 

The background 

It is very difficult to suggest a specific organization for every literature review. How you decide to organize your ideas will largely rely on the information you found and the connections which can naturally be made. There are many ways to organize the body of your writing. Weissenberg and Buker (as cited by Riley, 2008, pg. 83) suggest three types of organization:

  1. Distant to close: Discuss sources which present information most distantly related to your study or thesis before discussing sources most closely relate to your study or thesis.

  2. Chronological: Discuss the oldest sources first before discussing those most recent. This can allow you to present the topic as it has progressed over time. 

  3. Compare and Contrast: This type allows you to focus on the trends, themes, or methodologies of the sources. 

The conclusion of the literature review

In this section of the body, present the thesis or conclusions drawn from your literature review. Present your arguments and justify your claims through a critique of the literature. Suggest gaps in the literature and justify those conclusions  (Machi and McEvoy, 2016, pg. 142-145). 

The closing

In this section, provide a summary of the literature review. State your thesis and the arguments supporting the thesis in a concise manner. Describe or explain how the thesis answers the original research question. Then, discuss the implications your study may have on future research on this topic. 

Style of writing for a literature review

Here are some universal tips for writing your literature review: 

  • Use section headings and titles as this allows your reader to trace your argument and evidence. 
  • Write using active voice  (Machi and McEvoy, 2016, pg. 151). 
  • Make sure your verb tense and point of view are consistent throughout. 
  • Paraphrase and summarize the sources discussed instead of using direct quotes. 
  • Actively synthesize your sources.  


Example of tone:

Check the Writing Tips to the right and the Resources/Assistance tab at the top for detailed advice on writing a literature review. Another page, "Finding Examples of Literature Reviews", will help you locate actual literature reviews with information on your topic.

The most important thing to remember when writing the review is to group your resources by the main ideas or points you want to cover. Let's say you were reviewing the use of social media in the workplace. You might want to group research studies that found negative aspects and discuss them altogether, for example:

A number of studies have focused on negative aspects of social media in the workplace. Gaudin (2009) shared statistics regarding the impact that Facebook use had in lowering employee productivity. Additional studies examined employee struggles to maintain work-home balance (Derks, Duin, Tims, & Bakker, 2015) and serious issues such as cyberbullying (Hall & Lewis, 2014).

Then you could contrast these studies with ones that found positive outcomes from using social media in the office, for example:

Despite ongoing concerns regarding social media use in the workplace, studies of a number of businesses have pointed to what are clearly positive aspects of such use. Researchers reported numerous benefits, including better communication between employees and administrators (Barker, 2008), facilitation of intergenerational collaboration (Majchrzak, Cherbakov, & Ives, 2009), and encouraging a culture of innovation (Dahl, Lawrence, & Pierce, 2011).

References to the sources cited in the above example

Barker, P. (2008). How social media is transforming employee communications at Sun Microsystems. Global Business & Organizational Excellence, 27(4), 6-14. doi:10.1002/joe.20209

Dahl, A., Lawrence, J., & Pierce, J. (2011). Building an innovation community. Research Technology Management, 54(5), 19-27. doi:10.5437.08956308X5405006

Derks, D., Duin, D., Tims, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2015). Smartphone use and work-home interference: The moderating role of social norms and employee work engagement. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 88(1), 155-177. doi:10.1111/joop.12083

Gaudin, S. (2009, July 22). Study: Facebook use cuts productivity at work. Computerworld. Retrieved from

Hall, R., & Lewis, S. (2014). Managing workplace bullying and social media policy: Implications for employee engagement. Academy of Business Research Journal, 1, 128-138.

Majchrzak, A., Cherbakov, L., & Ives, B. (2009). Harnessing the power of the crowds with corporate social networking tools: How IBM does it. MIS Quarterly Executive, 8(2), 103-108.

Synthesis matrices

A synthesis matrix helps you record the main points of each source and document how sources relate to each other. Below are examples of sample completed matrixes and blank forms for you to fill in. 

Begin with a Synthesis Matrix -- Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)

From this site, you may access: 

Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources
Writing a Literature Review & Using a Synthesis Matrix
How to use a matrix to summarize and synthesize research
Download Word matrix
NEW: Download Excel Matrix

Common Assignments: Literature Review Matrix -- Walden University Writing Center

Literature Review Matrix 1 -- PDF sample
Literature Review Matrix 2 -- PDF sample
Literature Review Matrix Template (Word)
Literature Review Matrix Template (Excel)