Literature Reviews

Create an outline structure of your review in these 5 steps


There are a various ways you can structure a literature review, however most students use a single chapter format. Above all, ensure your literature review is clear, concise and results in a critical review of the literature rather than a list of published work and its authors.

Step 1: Planning and reading

You can’t escape that you will need to undertake a large amount of reading (tip – if you are a slow reader then take a speed reading course). Start with a broad topic range. When you see themes emerge and possible gaps in the existing work, you will be able to focus on increasingly specific literature. This gives you a broader understanding of the research topics you’ve chosen supporting your own work.

Take notes as you go along concerning the topics and literature you discover. Never read an article without making notes – if it’s not relevant then do not read any further than the abstract. This will make step 2 much easier.

Step 2: Summarise

Once you have a topic area and sample literature, you should be summarising what you find. Record the themes, problems and omissions of the current research and the references they were found in. Make short 200-400 word summaries of every topic you wish to cover and use these in step 3.

At this point you should be able to confirm if your research questions and project proposal is worthwhile. If you can’t find enough information or you are struggling to do this step, then it may be worth re-focusing your research or essay question.

Step 3: Map out the flow of your review

Writing down the list of themes you found in step 2 and arrange them into the most logical order. The review needs to flow from one idea to another, although this may not be in chronological order. Identify the key authors and dates ensuring you follow an established referencing system. Make connections and relationships between the topics and make sure you sketch out areas where you want to agree/disagree, highlight gaps or raise research weaknesses.

Ideally create a mind map of the work, use Excel or Word to create a table or stick Post-it notes to a wall. This stage is about writing down and planning what it is you have to do.

Step 4: Writing the review

At a basic level, a literature review is a story of past research in your topic area identifying the key characters (academics), events (major research publications) and general storyline (themes throughout the research).

You need to remember to be critical and include your own opinions on the previous research. As you write the review you need to constantly ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I building a structured case for my own research questions?
  2. Have I been critical in my approach?

If you answer yes to both of these questions you will be on the right track.

Step 5: The next step

Once you’ve finished the critical analysis of the literature you need to summarise what you’ve found and educate the reader about the issues you intend to address in the rest of your report.


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