How to Write A Literature Review

James Neill
Last updated:
08 Aug 2003

What is a traditional literature review?

Goals of a literature review

Developing an outline for a literature review

Task: Write an outline for a literature review

Example outline of a literature review

Tips for writing an outline

Recommended reading

Goals of a Literature Review

Understanding a body of professional literature is much like mapping and analyzing the geography of an unknown island...

As you expand the island of knowledge, you reveal more confidently important features of the previously unknown island, such as:

  • a clear answer to your research question

  • a good sense of what has been thoroughly investigated and in what areas useful new work might be done

  • a broader understanding of the question as it relates to other, related areas of knowledge

  • research hypotheses

  • interesting, new questions

Develop an Outline for a Literature Review


So far you have:

  • developed a research question,

  • defined key terms,

  • stated a research thesis, and

  • identified a target list of 20 key resources.

Now, it is time to knuckle down and begin systematically reading and reviewing the resources.  Be aware that in so doing, you will be lead to ask several further sub-questions and guided to several other sources.


Writing a literature review is like creating a map - the main features must be clear, plus appropriate details should be included.

The research question serves as a lighthouse beacon.


Initially, you need to develop a sketch of your area.  This is the reason for writing a research hypothesis - what do you expect to find out there?  Your annotated reading list is then the list of coordinates that you wish to visit in order to determine the geography of the landscape.  At those coordinates, you will do some indepth reading (i.e., depthsounding) and write notes about what was found.  These notes can then be organized and added to the sketch map, and the sketch map modified to clearly show the main features and relevant details.


In some circumstances, it may be that there is no island to map or the terrain too difficult, etc.  In such cases, the original purpose of the geographical expedition should be reconsidered and the research question modified or dropped altogether.


Ultimately, a literature review is designed to fill in a gap in knowledge.  It describes and helps to organize and interpret a body of professional literature which is not currently well summarized.  Avoid writing a literature review which is redundant.


As your reading of the literature becomes more extensive, you should start to notice themes and patterns emerging.  There may be obvious themes and there may be subtle themes which require you to probe further into the literature. 


Use the developing themes and patterns to help structure your literature review.


Generally try to avoid writing a chronological progression of summaries of research studies.


As you read, be taking notes with sufficient detail to allow you to construct a review without having to always return to the original articles.


Perhaps the best way to communicate your anticipated structure for a literature review is by developing a table of contents.  A table of contents can then be fleshed out with descriptive bullet-points (annotated table of contents).  By subjecting an annotated table of contents (or outline) to review, a novice researcher can receive valuable advice on content and structure of the planned literature review.

The annotated table of contents is the step-by-step map of how you propose you are going to go from your Research Question to proving out a Thesis Statement.  Possible ways of building your table of contents:

1. Create a concept map of the major topics and the subtopics

2. Build a step-by-step, hierarchical list of the points you plan to cover, e.g.,

  • 1st main idea

    - 1st supporting point

    • evidence, argument, or example

    • evidence, argument, or example

    • evidence, argument, or example

    - 2nd supporting point

    • evidence, argument, or example

    • evidence, argument, or example

    • evidence, argument, or example

  • 2nd main idea, etc....

The advantages of doing an outline (or expanded table of contents) are that it:

  • serves as a preview tool that allows your instructor to grasp your thesis and organization at a glance

  • explains the scope and direction of your paper as well

  • helps you to  construct and classify your ideas

  • serves as a final check that your paper is unified and coherent

  • helps you see where you need to revise and edit your writing

The main things I will be looking for are:

  • a funnel structure, which moves from establishing the WHY, the importance of the topic to the specific thesis statement

  • sufficient detail so that  I can follow the logic and sequence of your major points

  • referencing, where appropriate, of key sources

  • inclusion of approximate planned WORD COUNT for major section

Task: Write an Outline of a Literature Review

An outline for a literature review could consist of approx. 7 single-spaced pages, which contain:


Pages 1-2 - Title, Author, Research Question, Key Terms (& their definitions), & Research Thesis (with changes as per feedback on Task 2)

Pages 3-5 - Table of Contents with approximately 3 to 6 major sections and approximately 3 to 6 major bullet points per section describing the content to be included in each section.  Bullet points should be accompanied by relevant references. Provide approx. intended word counts for the major sections.

Page 6-7 - References


Example Literature Review Outline

This is an example of an A-quality literature review outline. 

The main feedback given to the student who wrote this outline was to add to a brief introductory section which explained the context and importance of the research question, mentioned the key terms, conveyed the thesis statement, and provided a general outline of the literature review.  Also, please provide approx. word counts rather than # of pages.


Does pre-exercise hydration status effect carbohydrate utilization of unacclimatized endurance runners in the heat?



I.  Endurance Exercise and Substrate Utilization (3-4 pages)

A.     Explain Mechanism of %VO2 and Substrate Utilization in Endurance Exercise (2-3 paragraphs)

a.       Reference appropriate studies (look in Sports Nutrition book)

b.      Increase VO2 and duration concomitantly, increase CHO utilization

B.     Total Body Glycogen Content (1 paragraph)

a.       Liver (in Nutritional Biochemistry book)

b.      Muscle

C.     Time to Exhaustion (3-4 paragraphs)

a.       Reference appropriate studies (look in Sports Nutrition book)

b.      Glycogen loading increases performance


II.  Hydration Status and Performance in Endurance Exercise (6-8 pages)

A.     Thermoregulation (2 pages) (Burke review and Topics packet)

a.       Sweat rate

b.      Plasma volume

c.       Electrolyte imbalances

d.      Evaporation and conduction

e.       Reference appropriate studies (look in Topics packet)

B.     Body Temperature (2 paragraphs)  (Burke review and Topics packet)

a.       Core temperature

b.      Skin temperature

c.       Muscle temperature

C.     Cardiovascular Function (2 paragraphs)  (look in Burke Review and Topics class packet and notes)

a.       Decrease heart rate

b.      Decrease stroke volume

c.       Cardiac drift

D.     Hormonal Regulation of Hydration (3-4 paragraphs)

a.       AVP (look in Topics packet)

b.      Aldosterone (look in Topics notes and articles in Topics packet)

c.       Catecholamines (look in Febbraio Review article)

d.      Cortisol (look in Topics packet)

E.      Pre-Exercise Hydration on Performance (3-4 paragraphs) (Topics packet)

a.       Effects of hypohydrated state

b.      Effects of euhydrated state

c.       Effects of hyperhydrated state

                                                                           i.      Glycerol-induced hyperhydration

F.      During Exercise Hydration on Performance  (3-4 paragraphs) (Topics packet)

a.       Ad libitum water intake

b.      No water intake

c.       Requirements to maintain euhydrated state

G.     Acclimitization on Thermoregulation and Performance (3-4 paragraphs)

a.       Show studies which compare acclimatized to unacclimatized and performance

b.      Explain why (Topics packet)

                                                                           i.      Increase plasma volume

                                                                         ii.      Decrease stroke volume

                                                                        iii.      Increase cardiac output


III.  Heat Stress and Carbohydrate Utilization (4-6 pages)

A.     Carbohydrate Requirements in Heat

a.       Increased CHO metabolism in heat compared to ambient temperatures (Burke, Febbraio articles)

B.     High Carbohydrate vs. Low Carbohydrate diet

a.       Pitsiladis study comparing 2 diets in heat with time to exhaustion showing High Carbohydrate diet had a greater performance time

C.     Mechanisms Responsible for Increased Metabolism (Febbraio and Topics book)

a.       Reduced Blood Flow

                                                                           i.      Delivery of nutrients to active muscle

                                                                         ii.      Removal of waste from active muscle

b.      Temperature Effects

c.       Hormonal Effects

D.     Hyperhydration Techniques to Remove these problems listed in C (Topics book and Lyons paper)

E.      Glucose Availability in Heat (Febbraio paper)

F.      Muscle Energy Requirements in Heat (Febbraio paper)

G.     Determine Amount of Carbohydrate Necessary to Maximize Performance

a.       Go back to original amounts of glycogen necessary for endurance performance in ambient temperatures (see section I.)

H.     Thesis statement


Total: 13-18 pages plus 1-2 page intro and 1 page conclusion.

Tips for Writing an Outline (or Annotated Table of Contents)
(adapted from Rozakis, 1999)

1. Arrange your notes in a logical order. If you are having difficulty seeing an order, look for clues in the sequence of your ideas or try concept mapping the topic.

2. Identify the major themes - these can be used as draft major headings.

3. Sort your notes to fit under the headings. Revise the headings, order, or both, as necessary.

4. Look for relationships among ideas and group them as subtopics.

5. Try to avoid long lists of subtopics. Consider combining these into related ideas. In nearly all cases, your literature review will be better if you link related ideas.

6. If you can't decide where to put something, put it in two or more places in the outline. As you write, you can decide which place is the most appropriate.

7. If you're not sure that an idea fits, write yourself a reminder to see where it belongs after you've written your first draft.

8. If an important idea doesn't fit, write a new outline with a place for it. If it's important, it belongs in the paper.  On the other hand, is the idea really important?  You might like it, but it may not belong in this literature review.

 9. Accept your outline as a working draft. Revise and edit it as you proceed.

10. Let your outline sit a few days. Then look at it again and see what ideas don't seem to fit, which points need to be expanded, and so on. No matter how carefully you construct your outline, it will inevitably change. Don't be discouraged by these changes; they are part of the writing process.

Recommended Reading

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., Gall, J. P. (2003).  Educational research: An introduction. (7th Edition). White Plains, New York: Longman. Recommended: Skim read Chapter 4 "Reviewing the Literature" (pp. 89 - 121).

Rozakis, L. (1999). Schaum's quick guide to writing great research papers.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  Rozakis' Chapter 10 "How do I Evaluate Sources?" (pp. 73 - 82) and Chapter 11 "How do I Document My Sources?" pp. 83 - 89).