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Literature Review Step by Step

When Thinking about a Literature Review

A Literature Review is a piece of discursive prose. It should not be a sequence of summaries and evaluations of each article. Think of the literature review more as a narrative, in your own voice. Sources must be integrated to the overall story you are telling.  Consider the following ways to organize your review:

By themes, issues.
By varying perspectives on a topic of controversy.
Chronologically, limiting to a defined time period.

Main Components of a Literature Review


  • Describe the topic and provide a basic definition.
  • What does the topic include and exclude? Find a focus.
  • Why did you select the literature you did?

Include in the Main Part of Review

  • Historical background.
  • Definitions in use.
  • Mainstream ideas vs. alternative theoretical or ideological views.
  • Principle questions being asked.
  • Current research studies and discoveries.
  • Methodologies.


  • Summary of main areas of controversy vs. accepted theory
  • ​Your narrative
  • General conclusions
  • How does your theory or topic proposal fit in to the literature overall?

The above adapted from Write a Literature Review,  by Johns Hopkins Library

What to Include, What to Exclude

Criteria for including and excluding published material is ideally done at the beginning of the process. However it is open to ongoing refinement as you become more familiar with the topic, and you will apply these criteria continually as you sort through material.

 It is crucial to managing your sources. Otherwise they may balloon out of control. If you have spent time clearly defining your topic, it will make the inclusion/exclusion decisions easier.

You will want to keep track of the decision criteria, and include it in the introductory description of your review.

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