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Literature Reviews

General information on how to organize and write a literature review.

Taking steps to build your Lit Review

Literature reviews, like most research, are not linear, so you'll most likely find yourself revisiting each of these steps multiple times as you complete your review. It's a journey, not a recipe.

Step 1. Define your project.

From your broad topic, refine your research question by describing the focus and scope of your thesis. Be specific. Your research question should be specific enough to lead you to the relevant literature. Brainstorm related ideas and fields. Choose your methodology or methodologies.

Develop a working list of keywords and refer to it often. This list of keywords will expand and evolve as you continue your research.

Stumped? Brainstorm with your librarian for useful subject terms.

Step 2. Do preliminary research.

If you're just starting out in the field, look for books first or journals that are well-known in your area. Try the library catalog for items local to UNO and use Worldcat to search for items available worldwide from our sister institutions. If you find something at another library that looks promising, request it via Interlibrary Loan. UNO Libraries might not have everything you need to be thorough in your research!

To gather articles, go to the library databases with your list of keywords and related fields. Start with databases in your field, but be sure to look at databases in related fields. Import appropriate articles directly to Zotero or RefWorks. Explore and note the keywords assigned to the best articles, and use those for subsequent searches. Keep notes (electronically or in a notebook) to refer back to throughout the writing process. Read and critically evaluate these sources, making quick notes in Zotero or RefWorks.

Step 3. Refine your focus and take a deeper dive into the research.

Now that you have a broad idea of the state of the field, identify the most important scholars and works. Use Google Scholar to determine who has cited the most important works. Read critically, and identify how your work fits into the scholarly conversation. Evaluate at a deeper level. You're starting to look at significance now, rather than quality.

Step 4. Group and synthesize the literature.

Identify schools of thought and experiment with the organization of your literature review. You don't have to include everything you have found during the course of your literature review in the chapter, but include enough so your reader understands the history of the field (or fields related to your thesis) and how your work relates to that history. Make sure you are analyzing the scholarship, not simply describing it.

Step 5. Place the literature in context as you write the chapter. 

Determine where your thesis fits within the literature as a whole. How does your work fill the gaps you've identified in the scholarship so far? As you write, make this point clear to your reader. Be ready to rewrite your literature review as you progress through your thesis or dissertation. There may be references you did not include in your first draft that become more important to include as your complete your study.


Reid, M., Taylor, A., Turner, J. & Shahabudin, K. (n.d.). University of Reading Study Advice team & LearnHigher CETL (Reading). Starting a literature reviewUndertaking a literature reviewDeveloping your literature review.

Teaching and Educational Development Institute of the University of Queensland for the Queensland Higher Education Staff Development Consortium. (1997). Making sense of the literature.