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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.


  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.


  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.


OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

  • Roughly how many sources should you include?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  • Should you evaluate your sources?
  • Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

  • Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

  • Chronological: If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
  • By publication: Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
  • By trend: A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed. Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

  • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

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To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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McCombes, S. (2023, September 11). How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved November 26, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/

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Literature Reviews and Annotated Bibliographies

  • What is a Literature Review?

Best Practices: Components, Resources Sites

Best practices: quoting, paraphrasing, etc..

  • Graduate Research and the Literature Review
  • What is an Annotated Bibliography?
  • How to Evaluate Sources?
  • Citation & Avoiding Plagiarism

How to write a Literature Review?


  • Introduction: State your research topic
  • Body/Presentation of Sources Used: A research topic have different angles/viariables/themes. Organize your finding based of those categories.
  • Discussion/Analysis of Literature: Summarize/synthesize major literature that deal with your research topic. Discuss common themes, gaps, etc...
  • Conclusion: Re-state your topic and explain if it has changed after the review and what are the next steps for your research
  • Do not over "quote." If you only quote from every single author you found, then you are not showing any original thinking or analysis. Use quotes judiciously. Use quotes to highlight a particular passages or thought that is exemplary of the research, theory or topic you are researching.
  • Instead use paraphrasing to report, in your own words, what the author was reporting or theorizing.
  • Summarize findings, important sections or a whole article--this is different from paraphrasing since you are not re-stating the author words but identifying the main points of what you are reading in a concise matter for your readers.
  • When synthesizing your findings for the literature review (this is when make comparison, establish relationships between authors' works, point out weakness, strenghts and gaps among the literature review, you still need to give credit to these sources.


Quoting* : "(a) to speak or write (a passage) from another usually with credit acknowledgment. (b) to repeat a passage from especially in substantiation or illustration."

Paraphrasing* : Paraphrase is the “ restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.”  

Summarize *: It’s the process of summarizing a text or paragraph to its the main points succinctly.

Synthesize *: “1. (a) the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole."

*Definitions from Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, http://www.m-w.com <Accessed September 1 st , 2011>

   Useful sites with tips on how to write a Literature Review :

  • Write a Literature Review (UC Santa Cruz)
  • Online Tutorial (North Carolina State University Libraries)
  • Write a Literature Review ( Virginia Commonwealth University)
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting it (University of Toronto)
  • Write a Review of Literature (UW-Madison's Writing Center)
  • Write a Literature Review (Johns Hopkins University)
  • Doing your Undergraduate Project: The Literature Review (ASU Access only): Sage Research Methods
  • << Previous: What is a Literature Review?
  • Next: Graduate Research and the Literature Review >>
  • Last updated: Jun 8, 2023 1:28 PM
  • URL: https://libguides.asu.edu/LiteratureReviews

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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Marco pautasso.

1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France

2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications [1] . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively [2] . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3] . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4] . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5] .

When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue [6] . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.

Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7] . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review [8] . The topic must at least be:

  • interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
  • an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
  • a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered [9] , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

  • keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10] ),
  • keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
  • use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
  • define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
  • do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,

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Object name is pcbi.1003149.g001.jpg

The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies [33] .

  • discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
  • trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
  • incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

  • be thorough,
  • use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
  • look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.

Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument [11] , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.

Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.

There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12] . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias [13] , [14] . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors [15] .

Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18] . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.

While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.

Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps [19] . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

  • the major achievements in the reviewed field,
  • the main areas of debate, and
  • the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.

Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure

Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20] .

How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review [21] . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too [22] .

Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so [23] . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.

Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue [24] .

Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work [25] ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.

In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.

Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties” [26] )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.

Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27] – [32] . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.


Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.

Funding Statement

This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.

The Sheridan Libraries

  • Write a Literature Review
  • Sheridan Libraries
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lit review quotations

Not every source you found should be included in your annotated bibliography or lit review. Only include the most relevant and most important sources.

Get Organized

  • Lit Review Prep Use this template to help you evaluate your sources, create article summaries for an annotated bibliography, and a synthesis matrix for your lit review outline.

Summarize your Sources

Summarize each source: Determine the most important and relevant information from each source, such as the findings, methodology, theories, etc.  Consider using an article summary, or study summary to help you organize and summarize your sources.


  • Use your own words, and do not copy and paste the abstract
  • The library's tutorials about plagiarism are excellent, and will help you with paraphasing correctly

Annotated Bibliographies

     Annotated bibliographies can help you clearly see and understand the research before diving into organizing and writing your literature review.        Although typically part of the "summarize" step of the literature review, annotations should not merely be summaries of each article - instead, they should be critical evaluations of the source, and help determine a source's usefulness for your lit review.  


A list of citations on a particular topic followed by an evaluation of the source’s argument and other relevant material including its intended audience, sources of evidence, and methodology
  • Explore your topic.
  • Appraise issues or factors associated with your professional practice and research topic.
  • Help you get started with the literature review.
  • Think critically about your topic, and the literature.

Steps to Creating an Annotated Bibliography:

  • Find Your Sources
  • Read Your Sources
  • Identify the Most Relevant Sources
  • Cite your Sources
  • Write Annotations

Annotated Bibliography Resources

  • Purdue Owl Guide
  • Cornell Annotated Bibliography Guide
  • << Previous: Evaluate
  • Next: Synthesize >>
  • Last Updated: Sep 26, 2023 10:25 AM
  • URL: https://guides.library.jhu.edu/lit-review


Literature Review - what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done

  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Literature Reviews and Sources

Literature Review Writing Tips

  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings
  • Useful Resources

Synthesize your findings. Your findings are your evaluation of the literature reviewed: what you consider the strenghts and weakness of the studies reviewed; the comparison you did between studies; research trends and gaps in the research that you found while researching your topic, etc...

Across the articles that you read, pay attention to what are the:

  • Common/contested findings
  • Important trends
  • Influential theories
  • Do not over quote. If you only quote from every single author you found, then you are not showing any original thinking or analysis. Use quotes judiciously. Use quotes to highlight a particular passage or thought that exemplifies the research, theory or topic you are researching.
  • Instead, use paraphrasing. Restate the main ideas of a paragraph or section to highlight, in your own words, the important points made by the author.
  • Summarize findings, important sections, a whole article or book: This is different from paraphrasing since you are not re-stating the author words but summarizing the main point of what you are reading in a concise matter for your readers.
  • << Previous: Evaluating Literature Reviews and Sources
  • Next: Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites >>
  • Last Updated: Nov 25, 2021 10:46 AM
  • URL: https://lit.libguides.com/Literature-Review

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Writing: Literature Review Basics

  • What is Synthesis?
  • Organizing Your Research
  • Paraphrasing, Summary, or Direct Quotation?
  • Introductions
  • Conclusions
  • All Writing Guides: Home
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Direct Quotations v Summary v Paraphrasing

  • Introduction
  • Direct Quotations
  • Paraphrasing
  • Common Knowledge


  • Cite when referencing a source and stating someone else's ideas, research, opinions, or thoughts
  • Cite when using an image, media file, document, or just about anything you did not create yourself.

lit review quotations

  • Direct quotation


  • Your thoughts, explanations, and interpretations
  • Common knowledge

This Libguide section was inspired by one at Butler University, who graciously agreed to share their work. 

Source:  Butler University (2015).  Academic Integrity @ Butler.   Retrieved from http://libguides.butler.edu/c.php?g=34302&p=218280

" Quotations must be identical to the original, using a narrow segment of the source. They must match the source document word for word and must be attributed to the original author" (Driscoll & Brizee, 2013).

This quotation is taken word for word from the Purdue Online Writing Lab. Since the OWL's exact words are being used, credit is given to the authors, Driscoll & Brizee, using an in-text citation.  An entry would also be made in the paper's reference list as follows:

lit review quotations


Most of the time, summarizing or paraphrasing is a better choice.  Direct quotes are best under the following circumstances:

  • When the phrasing is unique or strengthens your argument
  • When the essence or meaning of the text would be lost if summarized or paraphrased
  • When you want to invoke the authority of the author, and that authority is emphasized through the author's exact words.


  • Use quotation marks around all words copied from a source.
  • Follow formatting guidelines for using short or long (more than 40 words) quotations.
  • Provide an in-text citation for the source of the exact words you used immediately after the quotation
  • List a complete citation for the source on your references page.


  • Check out the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, " When and How Much to Quote ."


"A summary involves Involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words, including only the main point(s).... Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material" (Driscoll & Brizee, 2013).

The passage above is a direct quotation from the Purdue OWL.  Now take a look at that same passage, which has been summarized, or which restates the most important ideas in the writer's own words.  A summary is usually much shorter than the original passage:

Summaries are short restatements of main ideas.


  • To provide useful background information for your audience
  • When concise, general, broad information is all that is needed


  • Since you are not directly quoting an author word-for-word, there is no need for quotation marks around your summary.
  • Credit the source with an in-text citation;  be aware that APA requests you provide a page or paragraph number whenever available.


Grounds for Argument:  How to Summarize Accurately

Harvard Guide to Using Sources:  When and How to Summarize






"A  paraphrase is a detailed restatement in your own words of a written or sometimes spoken source material. Apart from the changes in organization, wording, and sentence structure, the paraphrase should be nearly identical in meaning to the original passage. It should also be near the same length as the original passage and present the details of the original." University of Houston-Victoria Student Success Center (n.d.). Decide when to Quote, Paraphrase & Summarize.

Paraphrasing is "your own rendition of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else, presented in a new form."   Purdue University Online Writing Lab. (2012).  Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing

lit review quotations

Let's look at how a writer would paraphrase the definition from the Purdue OWL.

When you paraphrase, you take a passage from a source and put it into your own words. The original source must still be cited. Usually, the paraphrased version will be shorter than the original (Driscoll and Brizee, 2013).

Even though the paraphrased version isn't exactly the same as the source quotation, the idea is still the same. Therefore, it's important to give credit to the original writers.

Information in this section provided by Butler University http://libguides.butler.edu/c.php?g=34302&p=218282 and by National Louis University http://libguides.nl.edu/content.php?pid=16608&sid=5360442


  • Paraphrase an author's words by stating his or her ideas in your own words with your own phrasing.  Be sure to change both the sentence structure and wording.
  • Compare your paraphrased writing with the author's exact words to make sure you have not copied phrases or sentences from the author.
  • Always provide a citation for the paraphrased ideas.



  • Both involve a restatement of the original author's ideas and words. 
  • Both require that you, the writer, give credit to the original source. 
  • Both require that what you end up writing sounds more like you than the original author.


  • A paraphrase is a restatement that accurately represents the ideas in an author's original work, using your unique phrasing and vocabulary.
  • A summary condenses the original author's words into just a few main ideas.  It is meant to be short.
  • The main difference lies in purpose.   A paraphrase should focus on communicating the source material in a way that sounds uniquely like the writer who is restating the ideas.  Length is not a concern.  A summary is designed to capture the main idea of source material in brief form.
  • Purdue Owl:  " Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing ."

Leonard Lief Library and Lehman Studios (2014). Just Because You Put It In Your Own Words... Retrieved from



Common knowledge is information that is considered widely known or can be easily verified. 

Common knowledge does not need to be cited.


  • Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
  • Water freezes around 32 degree Fahrenheit.
  • The Great Lakes are located in the Midwest.
  • Steve Jobs was the inventor of many Apple products.


What seems common to you may not be common to everyone, especially if the common knowledge to which you are referring is based primarily upon culture or geography.   For example, anyone who has taken basic American history knows about Thomas Jefferson's contributions to our nation, but someone who has been raised elsewhere and who immigrated to the US later may not have that same background knowledge.   In those cases, it is helpful to refer readers to outside sources for that information so they may pursue the topics on their own.

How to Quote

  • Fewer than 40 Words
  • 40 or More Words
  • When you need to leave out part of a quotation to make it fit grammatically or because it contains irrelevant/unnecessary information, insert ellipses like this  . . .  to indicate the truncation.
  • If you must add or slightly change words within a quotation for reasons of grammar or clarity, indicate the change with square brackets. Exception: It is acceptable to change double quotation marks to single ones when you have a quotation within a quotation; it is also fine to change the first word of a quotation to upper case when needed.

See pages 170-171 of the APA manual for more information.

Because they are an avenue to communicating a specific point, "quotations are effective in research papers when used selectively" (Gibaldi, 2003, p.109).

See pages 170-171 of the manual for more information.

40 Words or More

  • Omit the quotation marks.
  • Start a block quotation on a new line.
  • Indent the entire quotation a half inch from the left margin (but not from the right margin).
  • Double space the quotation.
  • Place punctuation mark immediately after the quotation.

Quoting - Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I quote when there are no page numbers? If the page numbers are not provided, use paragraph numbers in your citation with abbreviation para . E xample: Research has clearly shown that "dogs drool often" (Jones, 2009, para. 2).  
  • How do I indicate I have omitted part of the text?
  • Use three spaced ellipsis points like this  . . .  within a sentence when you omit material from the original work.
  • Use four points like this  . . . .  when you have omitted material between two sentences.

See page 173 of the manual for more information.

How to Cite

  • 1-2 authors
  • 3-5 authors

APA Style requires that you cite an author within the body of your paper in addition to having a full citation on the references page. You can directly quote an author or paraphrase an author.

Paraphrasing versus Quoting

It is highly preferred that you use your own words to describe someone else's work, findings, etc. Although paraphrasing is preferred, you can directly quote from an author as long as you include the author's name, the date of publication, and the page number of the quotation. (Look to the right for more information about quoting.)

See pages 174-179 of the manual for more information.

See page 176 Table 6.1 for Basic Citation Styles.

One Author:  

  • Paraphrasing: Cite author's last name and publication year.
  • Quoting: Cite author's last name, publication year, and the page number(s)*. *On a website? Then cite the paragraph number after para .


Paraphrasing:  Flight is an ability many birds have (Smith, 2011).

Author’s Name is Part of a Sentence: According to Smith (2011), many birds have the ability to fly.

Quoting:  "Many birds can fly" (Smith, 2011, p. 265).

Institutional Author: "For an institutional author, spell out its entire name" (Center for Institutional Authors, 2016, para. 2).

Two Authors:

Use the word and between the authors' last names when citing within the text, and use the ampersand (i.e., &) when citing within the parentheses.

  • Paraphrasing: Cite authors' last names and publication year.
  • Quoting: Cite authors' last names, publication year, and the page number(s).

Paraphrasing:  The research indicated that weather temperature is positively correlated with crime incidence (Davis & Brown, 1995).

Authors’ Names are Part of a Sentence : David and Brown (1995) suggest that weather temperature is positively correlated with crime incidence.

Quoting:  Davis and Brown (1995) stated, "higher temperatures are correlated with an increase in criminal activity" (p. 180).

See pages 174-175 of the manual for more information.

Three to Five Authors:  

Name all the authors' last names the first time you cite them. Use the word and between the second to last and last authors' last names when citing within the text, and use the ampersand (i.e., &) when citing within the parentheses.

Use et al. for any subsequent citations.

  • Quoting: Cite authors' last names, publication year, and the page number(s).


Authors’ Names are Part of Sentence:

First Time:  Research from Lee, Lewis, Taylor, Smith, and Johnson (2015) shows that librarians often have difficulty coming up examples of fake quotes to use in libguides.

All Other Times:  Lee et al. (2015) suggest that librarians often have difficulty creating examples of fake quotes to use in libguides.


Citation at End of Sentence:

First Time:  (Lee, Lewis, Taylor, Smith, & Johnson, 2015).

All Other Times:  (Lee et al., 2015).

***Include the page number after the year if you are using a direct quote.

See page 175 of the manual for more information.

Six or More Authors:  

Only give the first author's last name followed by et al . rather than listing each author's name.

  • Paraphrasing: Cite first author's last name, et al., and publication year.
  • Quoting: Cite first author's last name, et al., publication year, and the page number(s).


Part of Sentence: Torres et al. (2010) argued...

Citation at End of Sentence: (Torres et al., 2010).

How do I cite it when...?

1. There's no author

If there is no author (be sure it's not an institutional author, like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), cite  the first few words of the reference list entry (usually the title) and the year. Use double quotation marks around the title or abbreviated title. For example: ("All 33 Chile Miners," 2010). Note: Use the full title if it is short.

2. Authors Have The Same Last Name

If two or more of your sources are written by authors with the same surname, include the first author's initials with the surname in every in-text reference.

Example:  Among studies, we review M. A. Light and Light (2008) and I. Light (2006) ... 

3. No Page Numbers Are Available for a Quotation

If a resource contains no page numbers, as can be the case with electronic sources, then you cannot include a page number in the parentheses. However, if the source indicates paragraph numbers, use the abbreviation “para.” and the relevant number in the parentheses. If the paragraph number is not visible, cite the closest heading and the paragraph number following it.

4 Citing When Quoting a Quote

APA strongly recommends that you cite the direct and original source. So, if you read something that cites an interesting piece of information, it's best to find that original source, read it, and cite it. This will also prevent you from incorrectly interpreting it. Now, if you need to quote and cite something that is quoted in the source you are reading, there is a method.

Jackson's study (as cited in Smith, 2009) suggests....

You would only need to cite "Smith" in your references page, since this is the author you have read.

5. Citing Multiple Sources At Once

When citing several sources at once, combine them all within one set of parentheses. List them in alphabetical order (by authors' last names) and date order (if necessary), using semicolons between them.

Example:  Many studies have found a significant correlation between writing papers early and getting a higher grade (Day & Dream, 2010; Light, 2008;  Night, Walker, & Sleep, 2015) .

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  • Last Updated: Apr 21, 2021 11:22 AM
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How to Do a Literature Review

Last Updated: March 27, 2023 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Alexander Ruiz, M.Ed. . Alexander Ruiz is an Educational Consultant and the Educational Director of Link Educational Institute, a tutoring business based in Claremont, California that provides customizable educational plans, subject and test prep tutoring, and college application consulting. With over a decade and a half of experience in the education industry, Alexander coaches students to increase their self-awareness and emotional intelligence while achieving skills and the goal of achieving skills and higher education. He holds a BA in Psychology from Florida International University and an MA in Education from Georgia Southern University. There are 13 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 318,154 times.

Some people might think of a literature review as reading a book and then giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down. Nope, not so. A literature review is a review of various pieces of literature on one topic, ranging from series of books to shorter pieces like pamphlets. Sometimes, the literary review is a part of a larger research paper. Its purpose is to prevent duplication of efforts, resolve conflicts, and point the way for further research.

Before Writing

Step 1 Clarify your professor's requirements.

  • How many sources should you include? Does he/she want a specific number of each type? Do they have to be at least semi-current?
  • In discussing your themes, are you just summarizing or critiquing? Some reviews require a thesis, some may not.
  • Should you offer your opinion on your sources?
  • Do you need to provide background information, such as definitions or histories, to aid in your audience's understanding?
  • Is there a page or word requirement?

Step 2 Narrow your topic.

  • Get current. If you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, you can afford to be less concerned with timing (in fact, changing opinions throughout history may be an aspect of your paper). But if you are writing a literary review for the sciences, say, on treating diabetes, information from 5 years ago could already be obsolete. Sort through current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. [2] X Trustworthy Source University of North Carolina Writing Center UNC's on-campus and online instructional service that provides assistance to students, faculty, and others during the writing process Go to source

Step 3 Find a focus.

  • Read between the lines. You're not necessarily looking for explicit content. Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? Are your sources all prescribing to one specific theory? Do you see trends being revealed? This will help you structure your paper immensely, zeroing in on what will give your paper purpose.

Step 4 Construct your thesis.

  • For example, "Current trends in [topic] are A, B, and C," or "The X Theory is assumed by most sources from 1985 on." Stating something like this begs a few questions, making your review more interesting and meaningful: How will trends change in the future? What if the assumed theories are wrong?
  • Again, this is not new information. You are not analyzing the material and coming up with your own, fresh perspective on it. You are simply acting like a computer--noting patterns, holes, and assumptions all your sources are taking.

Step 5 Assess your sources.

  • What are the author's credentials? How are their arguments supported (narratives, statistics, historical findings, etc.)?
  • Is the author's perspective unbiased and objective? Are they ignoring any data to make their points seem stronger?
  • How persuasive are they? Do any of their points leave a bit to be desired?
  • Does their work lead to a greater understanding of the subject? [5] X Research source

Constructing Your Paper

Step 1 Start with a solid introduction.

  • Help the reader along by letting them know what kind of ride they're in for. If you are employing a thesis statement, place it toward the end of your introductory paragraph. At the end, your reader should be anticipating getting into the evidence and bulk of your paper.

Step 2 Organize the body.

  • Arrange it chronologically. If you are dealing with varying opinions by era or changing trends over time, chronological organization may make the most sense.
  • Arrange it by publication. This organizational method fares well if each publication has a different stance. If there is a natural progression (radical to conservative, for example) between the sources, this works swimmingly.
  • Arrange it by trend. If you are noticing patterns in your sources, arranging them by the trends they suggest may be the most obvious structure. Certain sources may, together, suggest one pattern that shifts over time, region, or other variable.
  • Arrange it thematically. This highly depends on your thesis statement and what sources you have chosen. If you are choosing a focus that is more abstract ("Colonialism is depicted as evil," for example), the subsections may be arranged on the different methods employed to put the theme across.

Step 3 Come to a clear conclusion.

  • You may make your conclusion suggestive. Where might the discussion proceed if someone else picked it up where you left off? What are the consequences of the patterns and holes in today's sources?

Step 4 Use evidence.

  • However, use quotes sparingly. The survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. [10] X Trustworthy Source University of North Carolina Writing Center UNC's on-campus and online instructional service that provides assistance to students, faculty, and others during the writing process Go to source Some short ones are fine, sure, but all in all, it should be written by you.

Step 5 Keep your own voice.

  • When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. [12] X Trustworthy Source University of North Carolina Writing Center UNC's on-campus and online instructional service that provides assistance to students, faculty, and others during the writing process Go to source Then, relate it to the context of your review.
  • Some professors may require that you evaluate the sources and conclude which pieces add the greatest contribution to the field. If yours is keen on this, determine your take in the introduction and string it throughout your paper.

Revising Your Work

Step 1 Review the guidelines.

  • Does your instructor require APA formatting? What should your margins be? Headers, footers, footnotes, and page numbers? How do they want your name, headings, and subheadings? How do they want your works cited page?

Step 2 Check for coherent flow and transitions.

  • With everything said as clear as day, does it flow together? Do you transition well not only from paragraph to paragraph, but from sentence to sentence? Be sure your evidence lines up with the support and your arrangement of sources flows logically.
  • Eliminate useless jargon or slang. You may have grown an entirely new vocabulary during this endeavor, but your professor has not. Write a paper that can be read by the masses. Don't make it overly esoteric.

Step 3 Proofread your work.

  • It's best to have someone else go over your work, too. You may have read it so many times you can no longer see you lapsed into Portuguese absent-mindedly. A different set of eyes can locate mistakes you may not have seen, ask questions you didn't realize were left unaddressed, or seek clarification on the foggier points.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Use correct citations. Your assignment will likely specify what kinds of formats you should use for citations within the text. Often, professors are looking for strict use of these formats as part of the grade. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Outline your literature review. It will help you order your thoughts into an organized presentation, making the paper ultimately easier to write. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

lit review quotations

  • Avoid plagiarism. Using your own words will help you avoid plagiarism, which many academic departments take very seriously. Evidence of plagiarism can get students suspended or otherwise disciplined (this includes a failing paper). Make sure to correctly attribute any direct quotes. Thanks Helpful 13 Not Helpful 3

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Write an Abstract

  • ↑ https://guides.lib.uoguelph.ca/c.php?g=130964&p=5000948
  • ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/literature-reviews/
  • ↑ https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003149
  • ↑ https://library.concordia.ca/help/writing/literature-review.php
  • ↑ http://guides.library.ucsc.edu/content.php?pid=364099&sid=2979684
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/conducting_research/writing_a_literature_review.html
  • ↑ https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/study-hub/learning-resources/literature-review
  • ↑ https://www.unr.edu/writing-speaking-center/student-resources/writing-speaking-resources/editing-and-proofreading-techniques
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  • How to Begin Writing a Research Paper
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About This Article

Alexander Ruiz, M.Ed.

To do a literature review, start by finding a variety of reliable sources that all relate to one topic or theme. Then, read through the sources and come up with a thesis statement for your paper. Once you have your thesis, explain how the sources you used back up your thesis in the body of your literature review. You can arrange the sources chronologically, by publication, or even thematically. For help writing an introduction and conclusion for a literature review, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Citation Styles

  • Chicago Style
  • Annotated Bibliographies

What is a Lit Review?

How to write a lit review.

  • Video Introduction to Lit Reviews

Main Objectives

Examples of lit reviews, additional resources.

  • Zotero (Citation Management)

What is a literature review?

green checkmark

  • Either a complete piece of writing unto itself or a section of a larger piece of writing like a book or article
  • A thorough and critical look at the information and perspectives that other experts and scholars have written about a specific topic
  • A way to give historical perspective on an issue and show how other researchers have addressed a problem
  • An analysis of sources based on your own perspective on the topic
  • Based on the most pertinent and significant research conducted in the field, both new and old

Red X

  • A descriptive list or collection of summaries of other research without synthesis or analysis
  • An annotated bibliography
  • A literary review (a brief, critical discussion about the merits and weaknesses of a literary work such as a play, novel or a book of poems)
  • Exhaustive; the objective is not to list as many relevant books, articles, reports as possible
  • To convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic
  • To explain what the strengths and weaknesses of that knowledge and those ideas might be
  • To learn how others have defined and measured key concepts    
  • To keep the writer/reader up to date with current developments and historical trends in a particular field or discipline
  • To establish context for the argument explored in the rest of a paper
  • To provide evidence that may be used to support your own findings
  • To demonstrate your understanding and your ability to critically evaluate research in the field
  • To suggest previously unused or underused methodologies, designs, and quantitative and qualitative strategies
  • To identify gaps in previous studies and flawed methodologies and/or theoretical approaches in order to avoid replication of mistakes
  • To help the researcher avoid repetition of earlier research
  • To suggest unexplored populations
  • To determine whether past studies agree or disagree and identify strengths and weaknesses on both sides of a controversy in the literature


  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you; this makes the research and writing process more enjoyable and rewarding.
  • For a literature review, you'll also want to make sure that the topic you choose is one that other researchers have explored before so that you'll be able to find plenty of relevant sources to review.

magnifying glass held up to cat

  • Your research doesn't need to be exhaustive. Pay careful attention to bibliographies. Focus on the most frequently cited literature about your topic and literature from the best known scholars in your field. Ask yourself: "Does this source make a significant contribution to the understanding of my topic?"
  • Reading other literature reviews from your field may help you get ideas for themes to look for in your research. You can usually find some of these through the library databases by adding literature review as a keyword in your search.
  • Start with the most recent publications and work backwards. This way, you ensure you have the most current information, and it becomes easier to identify the most seminal earlier sources by reviewing the material that current researchers are citing.

Labeled "Scientific Cat Types" with cartoon of cat on back ("Nugget"), cat lying iwth legs tucked underneath ("loaf") and cat sprawled out ("noodle")

The organization of your lit review should be determined based on what you'd like to highlight from your research. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Chronology : Discuss literature in chronological order of its writing/publication to demonstrate a change in trends over time or to detail a history of controversy in the field or of developments in the understanding of your topic.  
  • Theme: Group your sources by subject or theme to show the variety of angles from which your topic has been studied. This works well if, for example, your goal is to identify an angle or subtopic that has so far been overlooked by researchers.  
  • Methodology: Grouping your sources by methodology (for example, dividing the literature into qualitative vs. quantitative studies or grouping sources according to the populations studied) is useful for illustrating an overlooked population, an unused or underused methodology, or a flawed experimental technique.

cat lying on laptop as though typing

  • Be selective. Highlight only the most important and relevant points from a source in your review.
  • Use quotes sparingly. Short quotes can help to emphasize a point, but thorough analysis of language from each source is generally unnecessary in a literature review.
  • Synthesize your sources. Your goal is not to make a list of summaries of each source but to show how the sources relate to one another and to your own work.
  • Make sure that your own voice and perspective remains front and center. Don't rely too heavily on summary or paraphrasing. For each source, draw a conclusion about how it relates to your own work or to the other literature on your topic.
  • Be objective. When you identify a disagreement in the literature, be sure to represent both sides. Don't exclude a source simply on the basis that it does not support your own research hypothesis.
  • At the end of your lit review, make suggestions for future research. What subjects, populations, methodologies, or theoretical lenses warrant further exploration? What common flaws or biases did you identify that could be corrected in future studies?

cat lying on laptop, facing screen; text reads "needs moar ciatations"

  • Double check that you've correctly cited each of the sources you've used in the citation style requested by your professor (APA, MLA, etc.) and that your lit review is formatted according to the guidelines for that style.

Your literature review should:

  • Be focused on and organized around your topic.
  • Synthesize your research into a summary of what is and is not known about your topic.
  • Identify any gaps or areas of controversy in the literature related to your topic.
  • Suggest questions that require further research.
  • Have your voice and perspective at the forefront rather than merely summarizing others' work.
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  • Literature Review Tutorials and Samples - Wilson Library at University of La Verne
  • Literature Reviews: Introduction - University Library at Georgia State
  • Literature Reviews - The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill
  • Writing a Literature Review - Boston College Libraries
  • Write a Literature Review - University Library at UC Santa Cruz
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  • Next: Zotero (Citation Management) >>
  • Last Updated: Oct 11, 2023 12:14 PM
  • URL: https://researchguides.elac.edu/Citation

Introduction to Literature Reviews

Choose a sign-in option, citation and embed code, learning objectives.

At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Identify the purpose of the literature review in  the research process;
  • Distinguish between different types of literature reviews.

What is a Literature Review?

Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review.  At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject.  Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge.  Generally speaking, a literature review is a:

  • “comprehensive background of the literature within the interested topic area…” ( O’Gorman & MacIntosh, 2015, p. 31 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • “critical component of the research process that provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in specifically identified areas of interest.” ( House, 2018, p. 109 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • “written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study” ( Machi & McEvoy,  2012, p. 4 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

As a foundation for knowledge advancement in every discipline, it is an important element of any research project.  At the graduate or doctoral level, the literature review is an essential feature of thesis and dissertation, as well as grant proposal writing.  That is to say, “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research…A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field.” ( Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).  It is by this means, that a researcher demonstrates familiarity with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes credibility with a reader.  An advanced-level literature review shows how prior research is linked to a new project, summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed. ( Webster & Watson, 2002, p. xiii [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )

A graduate-level literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written as an undergraduate, your literature review will outline, evaluate and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own thesis or research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature.

It is a type of writing that demonstrate the importance of your research by defining the main ideas and the relationship between them. A good literature review lays the foundation for the importance of your stated problem and research question.

Literature reviews do the following:

  • define a concept
  • map the research terrain or scope
  • systemize relationships between concepts
  • identify gaps in the literature ( Rocco & Plathotnik, 2009, p. 128 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )

In the context of a research study, the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that your research question  is meaningful. Additionally, you may review the literature of different disciplines to find deeper meaning and understanding of your topic. It is especially important to consider other disciplines when you do not find much on your topic in one discipline. You will need to search the cognate literature before claiming there is “little previous research” on your topic.

Well developed literature reviews involve numerous steps and activities. The literature review is an iterative process because you will do at least two of them: a preliminary search to learn what has been published in your area and whether there is sufficient support in the literature for moving ahead with your subject. After this first exploration, you will conduct a deeper dive into the literature to learn everything you can about the topic and its related issues.

Literature Review Tutorial

lit review quotations

Literature Review Basics

An effective literature review must:

  • Methodologically analyze and synthesize quality literature on a topic
  • Provide a firm foundation to a topic or research area
  • Provide a firm foundation for the selection of a research methodology
  • Demonstrate that the proposed research contributes something new to the overall body of knowledge of advances the research field’s knowledge base. ( Levy & Ellis, 2006 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

All literature reviews, whether they are qualitative, quantitative or both, will at some point:

  • Introduce the topic and define its key terms
  • Establish the importance of the topic
  • Provide an overview of the amount of available literature and its types (for example: theoretical, statistical, speculative)
  • Identify gaps in the literature
  • Point out consistent finding across studies
  • Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic
  • Discusses possible implications and directions for future research

Types of Literature Reviews

There are many different types of literature reviews, however there are some shared characteristics or features that all share.  Remember a comprehensive literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which may lead up to or link to the  research question.  In some cases, the research question will drive the type of literature review that is undertaken.

The following section includes brief descriptions of the terms used to describe different literature review types with examples of each.   The included citations are open access, Creative Commons licensed or copyright-restricted.

Guided by an understanding of basic issues rather than a research methodology, the writer of a conceptual literature review is looking for key factors, concepts or variables and the presumed relationship between them. The goal of the conceptual literature review is to categorize and describe concepts relevant to the study or topic and outline a relationship between them, including relevant theory and empirical research.

Examples of a Conceptual Review:

  • The formality of learning science in everyday life: A conceptual literature review ( Dohn, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • Are we asking the right questions? A conceptual review of the educational development literature in higher education ( Amundsen & Wilson, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

An empirical literature review collects, creates, arranges, and analyzes numeric data reflecting the frequency of themes, topics, authors and/or methods found in existing literature. Empirical literature reviews present their summaries in quantifiable terms using descriptive and inferential statistics.

Examples of an Empirical Review:

  • Impediments of e-learning adoption in higher learning institutions of Tanzania: An empirical review ( Mwakyusa & Mwalyagile, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • Exploratory

The purpose of an exploratory review is to provide a broad approach to the topic area. The aim is breadth rather than depth and to get a general feel for the size of the topic area. A graduate student might do an exploratory review of the literature before beginning a more comprehensive one (e.g., synoptic).

Examples of an Exploratory Review:

  • University research management: An exploratory literature review ( Schuetzenmeister, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • An exploratory review of design principles in constructivist gaming learning environments ( Rosario & Widmeyer, 2009 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

This type of literature review is limited to a single aspect of previous research, such as methodology. A focused literature review generally will describe the implications of choosing a particular element of past research, such as methodology in terms of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Examples of a Focused Review:

  • Language awareness: Genre awareness-a focused review of the literature ( Stainton, 1992 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).


An integrative review critiques past research and draws overall conclusions from the body of literature at a specified point in time. As such, it reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way. Most integrative reviews may require the author to adopt a guiding theory, a set of competing models, or a point of view about a topic.  For more description of integrative reviews, see Whittemore & Knafl (2005) [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] .

Examples of an Integrative Review:

  • Exploring the gap between teacher certification and permanent employment in Ontario: An integrative literature review ( Brock & Ryan, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • Meta-analysis

A subset of a systematic review, a meta-analysis takes findings from several studies on the same subject and analyzes them using standardized statistical procedures to pool together data. As such, it integrates findings from a large body of quantitative findings to enhance understanding, draw conclusions, and detect patterns and relationships. By gathering data from many different, independent studies that look at the same research question and assess similar outcome measures, data can be combined and re-analyzed, providing greater statistical power than any single study alone. It’s important to note that not every systematic review includes a meta-analysis but a meta-analysis can’t exist without a systematic review of the literature.

Examples of a Meta-Analysis:

  • Efficacy of the cooperative learning method on mathematics achievement and attitude: A meta-analysis research ( Capar & Tarim, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • Gender differences in student attitudes toward science: A meta-analysis of the literature from 1970 to 1991 ( Weinburgh, 1995 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).


A narrative or traditional review provides an overview of research on a particular topic that critiques and summarizes a body of literature. Typically broad in focus, these reviews select and synthesize relevant past research into a coherent discussion. Methodologies, findings and limits of the existing body of knowledge are discussed in narrative form. This requires a sufficiently focused research question, and the process may be subject to bias that supports the researcher’s own work.

Examples of a Narrative/Traditional Review:

  • Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference ( Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • Good quality discussion is necessary but not sufficient in asynchronous tuition: A brief narrative review of the literature ( Fear & Erikson-Brown, 2014 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

This specific type of literature review is theory-driven and interpretative and is intended to explain the outcomes of a complex intervention program(s).

Examples of a Realist Review:

  • Unravelling quality culture in higher education: A realist review ( Bendermacher, Egbrink, Wolfhagen, & Dolmans, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

This type of review tends to be a non-systematic approach that focuses on breadth of coverage rather than depth. It utilizes a wide range of materials and may not evaluate the quality of the studies as much as count the number. Thus, it aims to identify the nature and extent of research in an area by providing a preliminary assessment of size and scope of available research and may also include research in progress.

Examples of a Scoping Review:

  • Interdisciplinary doctoral research supervision: A scoping review ( Vanstone, Hibbert, Kinsella, McKenzie, Pitman, & Lingard, 2013 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

In contrast to an exploratory review, the purpose of a synoptic review is to provide a concise but accurate overview of all material that appears to be relevant to a chosen topic. Both content and methodological material is included. The review should aim to be both descriptive and evaluative as it summarizes previous studies while also showing how the body of literature could be extended and improved in terms of content and method by identifying gaps.

Examples of a Synoptic Review:

  • Theoretical framework for educational assessment: A synoptic review ( Ghaicha, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • School effects research: A synoptic review of past efforts and some suggestions for the future ( Cuttance, 1981 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

Systematic Review

A rigorous review that follows a strict methodology designed with a presupposed selection of literature reviewed, systematic reviews are undertaken to clarify the state of existing research, evidence, and possible implications that can be drawn.  Using comprehensive and exhaustive searching of the published and unpublished literature, searching various databases, reports, and grey literature, these reviews seek to produce transparent and reproducible results that report details of time frame and methods to minimize bias.  Generally, these reviews must include teams of at least 2-3 to allow for the critical appraisal of the literature.  For more description of systematic reviews, including links to protocols, checklists, workflow processes, and structure see “ A Young Researcher’s Guide to a Systematic Review [https://edtechbooks.org/-oF] “.

Examples of a Systematic Review:

  • The potentials of using cloud computing in schools: A systematic literature review ( Hartmann, Braae, Pedersen, & Khalid, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
  • The use of research to improve professional practice: a systematic review of the literature ( Hemsley-Brown & Sharp, 2003 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

Umbrella/Overview of Reviews

An umbrella review compiles evidence from multiple systematic reviews into one document. It therefore focuses on broad conditions or problems for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address those interventions and their effects, thereby allowing for recommendations for practice. For a brief discussion see “ Not all literature reviews are the same [https://edtechbooks.org/-xZ] ” (Thomson, 2013).

Examples of an Umbrella/Overview Review:

  • Reflective practice in healthcare education: An umbrella review ( Fragknos, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

Why do a Literature Review?

The purpose of the literature review is the same regardless of the topic or research method. It tests your own research question against what is already known about the subject.

First – It’s part of the whole.

Omission of a literature review chapter or section in a graduate-level project represents a serious void or absence of a critical element in the research process.

The outcome of your review is expected to demonstrate that you:

  • can systematically explore the research in your topic area
  • can read and critically analyze the literature in your discipline and then use it appropriately to advance your own work
  • have sufficient knowledge in the topic to undertake further investigation

Second – It’s good for you!

  • You improve your skills as a researcher
  • You become familiar with the discourse of your discipline and learn how to be a scholar in your field
  • You learn through writing your ideas and finding your voice in your subject area
  • You define, redefine and clarify your research question for yourself in the process

Third – It’s good for your reader.

Your reader expects you to have done the hard work of gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing the literature.  When you do a literature review you:

  • Set the context for the topic and present its significance
  • Identify what’s important to know about your topic – including individual material, prior research, publications, organizations and authors.
  • Demonstrate relationships among prior research
  • Establish limitations of existing knowledge
  • Analyze trends in the topic’s treatment and gaps in the literature

So, why should you do a literature review?

  • To locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
  • To avoid reinventing the wheel
  • To carry on where others have already been
  • To identify other people working in the same field
  • To increase your breadth of knowledge in your subject area
  • To find the seminal works in your field
  • To provide intellectual context for your own work
  • To acknowledge opposing viewpoints
  • To put your work in perspective
  • To demonstrate you can discover and retrieve previous work in the area

Common Literature Review Errors

Graduate-level literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic.  As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing.  We will explore these topics more in the next chapters.  Some things to keep in mind as you begin your own research and writing are ways to avoid the most common errors seen in the first attempt at a literature review.  For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when he/she begins work, see “ Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started! [https://edtechbooks.org/-GUc] ”.

As you begin your own graduate-level literature review, try to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Accepting another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
  • Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
  • Providing findings that are not clearly related to one’s own study or that are too general
  • Allowing insufficient time to defining best search strategies and writing
  • Reporting rather than synthesizing isolated statistical results
  • Choosing problematic or irrelevant keywords, subject headings and descriptors
  • Relying too heavily on secondary sources
  • Failing to transparently report search methods
  • Summarizing rather than synthesizing articles

In conclusion, the purpose of a literature review is three-fold:

  • to survey the current state of knowledge or evidence in the area of inquiry,
  • to identify key authors, articles, theories, and findings in that area, and
  • to identify gaps in knowledge in that research area.

A literature review is commonly done today using computerized keyword searches in online databases, often working with a trained librarian or information expert. Keywords can be combined using the Boolean operators, “and”, “or” and sometimes “not”  to narrow down or expand the search results. Once a list of articles is generated from the keyword and subject heading search, the researcher must then manually browse through each title and abstract, to determine the suitability of that article before a full-text article is obtained for the research question.

Literature reviews should be reasonably complete and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. Reviewed articles may be summarized in the form of tables and can be further structured using organizing frameworks such as a concept matrix.

A well-conducted literature review should indicate whether the initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review.

The review can also provide some intuitions or potential answers to the questions of interest and/or help identify theories that have previously been used to address similar questions and may provide evidence to inform policy or decision-making ( Bhattacherjee, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

Test Yourself

The purpose of a graduate-level literature review is to summarize in as many words as possible everything that is known about my topic.

A literature review is significant because in the process of doing one, the researcher learns to read and critically assess the literature of a discipline and then uses it appropriately to advance his/her own research.

Read the following abstract and choose the correct type of literature review it represents.

The focus of this paper centers around timing associated with early childhood education programs and interventions using meta-analytic methods. At any given assessment age, a child’s current age equals starting age, plus duration of program, plus years since program ended. Variability in assessment ages across the studies should enable everyone to identify the separate effects of all three time-related components. The project is a meta-analysis of evaluation studies of early childhood education programs conducted in the United States and its territories between 1960 and 2007. The population of interest is children enrolled in early childhood education programs between the ages of 0 and 5 and their control-group counterparts. Since the data come from a meta-analysis, the population for this study is drawn from many different studies with diverse samples. Given the preliminary nature of their analysis, the authors cannot offer conclusions at this point. ( Duncan, Leak, Li, Magnuson, Schindler, & Yoshikawa, 2011 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

In this review, Mary Vorsino writes that she is interested in keeping the potential influences of women pragmatists of Dewey’s day in mind while presenting modern feminist re readings of Dewey. She wishes to construct a narrowly-focused and succinct literature review of thinkers who have donned a feminist lens to analyze Dewey’s approaches to education, learning, and democracy and to employ Dewey’s works in theorizing on gender and education and on gender in society. This article first explores Dewey as both an ally and a problematic figure in feminist literature and then investigates the broader sphere of feminist pragmatism and two central themes within it: (1) valuing diversity, and diverse experiences; and (2) problematizing fixed truths. ( Vorsino, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).

Linda Frederiksen is the Head of Access Services at Washington State University Vancouver.  She has a Master of Library Science degree from Emporia State University in Kansas. Linda is active in local, regional and national organizations, projects and initiatives advancing open educational resources and equitable access to information.

Sue F. Phelps is the Health Sciences and Outreach Services Librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. Her research interests include information literacy, accessibility of learning materials for students who use adaptive technology, diversity and equity in higher education, and evidence based practice in the health sciences

lit review quotations

Brigham Young University

lit review quotations

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/rapidwriting/lit_rev_intro .

Literature Review Quotes & Sayings

Literature Quotes and Sayings

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  • M.A., English Literature, California State University - Sacramento
  • B.A., English, California State University - Sacramento

We see, enjoy, and criticize the end result of writers' work, but there's so much more to these pieces than what the public consumes. After all, millions of books get published every year, joining the vast libraries that have been built up over time, but we regard few as classics, greats or masterpieces. So what makes the difference between just another piece of writing and a literary success ? Often, it's the writer.

Here's a collection of thoughts from world-famous writers on what literature means to them and why they pursued the written word as a means to express themselves.

Quotes About Writing and Literature

  • Henry Miller : "Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music-the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself."
  • Ezra Pound : "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."
  • Joseph Heller : "He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it."
  • John Steinbeck : "I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
  • Alfred North Whitehead : "It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression."
  • Henry James : "It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature."
  • C. S. Lewis : "Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
  • Oscar Wilde : "Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it but molds it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac."
  • G. K. Chesterton : "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity."
  • Virginia Woolf : "Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others."
  • Salman Rushdie : "Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart."
  • William Somerset Maugham : "The crown of literature is poetry."
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe : "The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation."
  • Robert Louis Stevenson : "The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean."

Like a Woman Who Gives Herself Without Preference

  • Anatole France : "The duty of literature is to note what counts and to light up what is suited to the light. If it ceases to choose and to love, it becomes like a woman who gives herself without preference."
  • E. M. Forster : "What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote."
  • Samuel Lover : "When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can."
  • Cyril Connolly : "While thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living."
  • What Literature Can Teach Us
  • American Author Maps: Informational Texts in the English Classroom
  • What Is Style in Writing?
  • What E.B. White Has to Say About Writing
  • A List of Every Nobel Prize Winner in Literature
  • Writers on Reading
  • The Writer's Voice in Literature and Rhetoric
  • Virginia Woolf Quotes
  • What Is the Canon in Literature?
  • What Is a Rhetorical Question? Definition and Examples
  • Definition, Examples, and Observations on Writing
  • Handwriting
  • Quotes About Dragons
  • The Basic Characteristics of Effective Writing
  • Keeping a Diary
  • detail (composition)

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Your experience with our writing service is confidential. Literature review writers follow stringent privacy guidelines and work under a non-disclosure agreement. TLS encryption ensures that usage of our writing service is risk-free. You’re also offered tried and true payment methods: Visa and MasterCard.

Additionally to a literature review service, we offer:

  • Full text of sources – a list of the literature used in your writing piece.
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Anxiety Disorders : A Review

  • 1 Department of Psychiatry, New York University Grossman School of Medicine, New York
  • Comment & Response A Review of Anxiety Disorders—Reply Kristin L. Szuhany, PhD; Naomi M. Simon, MD, MSc JAMA
  • Comment & Response A Review of Anxiety Disorders Falk Leichsenring, DSc; Nikolas Heim, MSc, MA; Christiane Steinert, PhD JAMA

Importance   Anxiety disorders have a lifetime prevalence of approximately 34% in the US, are often chronic, and significantly impair quality of life and functioning.

Observations   Anxiety disorders are characterized by symptoms that include worry, social and performance fears, unexpected and/or triggered panic attacks, anticipatory anxiety, and avoidance behaviors. Generalized anxiety disorder (6.2% lifetime prevalence), social anxiety disorder (13% lifetime prevalence), and panic disorder (5.2% lifetime prevalence) with or without agoraphobia are common anxiety disorders seen in primary care. Anxiety disorders are associated with physical symptoms, such as palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Brief screening measures applied in primary care, such as the Generalized Anxiety Disorder–7, can aid in diagnosis of anxiety disorders (sensitivity, 57.6% to 93.9%; specificity, 61% to 97%). Providing information about symptoms, diagnosis, and evidence-based treatments is a first step in helping patients with anxiety. First-line treatments include pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, eg, sertraline) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs, eg, venlafaxine extended release) remain first-line pharmacotherapy for generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Meta-analyses suggest that SSRIs and SNRIs are associated with small to medium effect sizes compared with placebo (eg, generalized anxiety disorder: standardized mean difference [SMD], −0.55 [95% CI, −0.64 to −0.46]; social anxiety disorder: SMD, −0.67 [95% CI, −0.76 to −0.58]; panic disorder: SMD, −0.30 [95% CI, −0.37 to −0.23]). Cognitive behavioral therapy is the psychotherapy with the most evidence of efficacy for anxiety disorders compared with psychological or pill placebo (eg, generalized anxiety disorder: Hedges g = 1.01 [large effect size] [95% CI, 0.44 to 1.57]; social anxiety disorder: Hedges g = 0.41 [small to medium effect] [95% CI, 0.25 to 0.57]; panic disorder: Hedges g = 0.39 [small to medium effect[ [95% CI, 0.12 to 0.65]), including in primary care. When selecting treatment, clinicians should consider patient preference, current and prior treatments, medical and psychiatric comorbid illnesses, age, sex, and reproductive planning, as well as cost and access to care.

Conclusions and Relevance   Anxiety disorders affect approximately 34% of adults during their lifetime in the US and are associated with significant distress and impairment. First-line treatments for anxiety disorders include cognitive behavioral therapy, SSRIs such as sertraline, and SNRIs such as venlafaxine extended release.

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Szuhany KL , Simon NM. Anxiety Disorders : A Review . JAMA. 2022;328(24):2431–2445. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.22744

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‘Napoleon’ Review: A Lumpy, Grumpy Little Man

Joaquin Phoenix is oddly mesmerizing as the French emperor in Ridley Scott’s historical epic charting his rise and ruin.

A man in a tricorn and old-fashioned military uniform is seen up close as a desert with men on horseback is spread behind him.

By Manohla Dargis

When he was in his mid-20s and first visited the studio where he would later shoot “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles is said to have likened the movies to the best electric train set a boy could have. Welles is a defining inspiration for Ridley Scott, who is best known for monumentally scaled historical epics like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” In these movies as well as in his latest spectacle, “ Napoleon ,” Scott plays, to push Welles’s metaphor further, with the biggest train sets conceivable — giant, beautiful, gleaming machines that can, by turns, transport and overwhelm you. He’s a heavy metal guy.

“Napoleon” is a very big movie, as you would expect given that it follows its title subject from the bloody delirium of the French Revolution to battlefields across Europe, Africa and, catastrophically, into Russia. More startling, though, is that the movie is also often eccentric and at times eccentrically funny. You expect refined craft and technique from Scott and the pleasures of spectacle filmmaking at its most expansive. You expect heft, seriousness, not snort-out-loud humor, which I guess explains why, while watching the movie, I flashed on Karl Marx’s axiom about history being first tragedy and then farce.

It opens in Paris amid that convulsion of violence called the Terror, with surging, shouting crowds and the metallic hiss of the falling guillotine blade. Aristocrats are losing their heads (Scott re-creates one execution with gory verisimilitude), and Napoleon Bonaparte — a mesmerizing, off-kilter, lumpish Joaquin Phoenix — will soon profit from the chaos. Before long, the story has jumped forward and now Napoleon is in the southern French port city of Toulon, where he strategically routs the Anglo-Spanish fleet that has taken the city.

Scott establishes Napoleon’s early rise to power with bold imagery and brusque narrative economy, vividly setting the historical moment with scenes from both inside the corridors of revolutionary power — enter Robespierre — and the surging anarchy out in the streets. Napoleon’s rise at this point is largely facilitated by the politician Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), a silky operator with the pacific mien of a patiently lurking predator and an inescapable aristocratic hauteur. Everyone addresses one another as Citizen, which, in Barras’s case comes across as the 18th-century version of performative political correctness. Together, Barras and Napoleon consolidate their positions. Exit Robespierre.

Joséphine (a fine Vanessa Kirby) makes her entrance soon after, catching Napoleon’s notice (her décolletage helps) and ushering in the story’s second plotline. A widow whose husband lost his head during the Terror, Joséphine has been recently released from prison, an ordeal that has left her with short, choppy hair and a very keen sense of self-preservation. It’s not at all clear what she actually sees in Napoleon, other than his uniform, growing reputation and obvious interest in her. She’s (relatively) poor for a society woman and has children, so desperation plays a role, though the movie suggests that what Joséphine truly sees is power.

After Joséphine appears, the movie soon bifurcates into two lines of action, one involving Napoleon’s military campaigns, and the other the couple’s relationship. This kind of dual plot structure is a familiar template of old Hollywood that features two entwined strands — involving adventure and romance — that together bring everything to a close. What’s unusual here is how separate the lines of action remain in “Napoleon” and how they don’t as much interconnect as run on parallel tracks. When he’s not facing off against the Austrians, the British and the Russians, Napoleon is struggling with Joséphine, who vexes him almost as much as the Duke of Wellington (an amusing Rupert Everett).

Written by David Scarpa, the movie tracks Napoleon’s relentless rise to despotic power — he crowns himself emperor — amid political intrigues, bloody battlefields and some occasional hasty rutting with Joséphine, who invariably cuts him down to size. He’s a little man, you are regularly reminded, and his relationship with Joséphine (who soon and understandably takes a lover) makes him smaller. Periodic bits of text function as de facto chapter headings, grounding the story’s chronology and announcing the next conflagration. Historical figures come and go (Paul Rhys plays Talleyrand), but for the most part the movie slides over the complexities of both the revolution and Napoleon’s reign as well as the reasons France has been swept up in endless battles on so many fronts.

The war scenes are extraordinary, vigorous, harrowing and rightly grotesque. The tremendous scale of some of these battles helps give them their visceral power, as does Scott’s complex staging and use of masses of human actors and horses. With cannon blasts, bursts of smoke and the sights and sounds of armies of men thundering over fields toward their deaths, he conveys the frenzy of war, its heat and terror. As the fighting grimly continues, and the body count mounts, the absolute waste of it all becomes overwhelming, which is, I imagine, why Scott seems so uninterested in Napoleon’s vaunted military genius.

“Napoleon” is consistently surprising partly because it doesn’t conform to the conventions of mainstream historical epics, which is especially true of its startling, adamantly unromanticized title character. (The movie also doesn’t always conform to the historical record, and some may take issue with the portrayal of the Battle of Austerlitz.) In the early scenes, Napoleon seems to be another of Phoenix’s taciturn, unnervingly volatile, enigmatically damaged, violent men. The difference is that this Napoleon, with his bloat, scowls and consuming needs, often resembles nothing as much as an angrily petulant baby, one whose cruelty and pathological vanity make the horror he unleashes unnervingly familiar.

Napoleon Rated R for intense scenes of war. Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes. In theaters.

Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic of The Times, which she joined in 2004. She has an M.A. in cinema studies from New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. More about Manohla Dargis


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