8 Steps To Writing A Qualitative Literature Review


Literature reviews are not the most exciting things to write (IMO).

I often get so lost in the reading and research that there is often no energy to actually write the review.

And exactly what are you supposed to put in a literature review?

Do you include EVERYTHING that has EVER been written on the subject?

What do you include? Leave out?

Do I need a conceptual framework? A theoretical framework? What’s the difference again?

It can all be so frustrating and irritating.


Let’s take a deep breath.

Today, I’m going to walk you through what to do.


In this post, I will:

  • Give an overview of literature reviews and the 3 main things you need to know.

  • Explain the difference between conceptual and theoretical frameworks.

  • Identify the 8 steps to take when writing a literature review.

Literature Review

A literature review should provide an overview of concepts that will be discussed in your study. It should better prepare the reader for your study and results. The literature review sets the context, the stage of your study.

Three things to consider when writing your literature review:

  1. Write a synthesized synopsis of current literature; not a list of everything that has ever been written about said subject.

  2. The review should include 3-5 important concepts the readers need to understand in order to be properly setup for your study and findings.

  3. Include any theories that you will use in data collection and data analysis.


Where people get confused is when the terms of conceptual framework and theoretical framework are used instead of the term, literature review.

Some Definitions

Concept (Constructs)- abstract or generalized idea about an object or phenomenon.

Ex - Activism, Self-Esteem, or Anxiety

Framework - a basic structure, boundaries, guidelines

Conceptual Framework provides a general structure of concepts that help inform the boundaries of your study. It is the 3 or 5 topics your readers need to understand in order to better understand your results.

Theoretical - concerning theory

Theoretical Framework:

  • Is there a particular theory that relates to your study that helps guide your individual understanding of your study, data collection methods, and/or data analysis? It generally provides an overview.

  • You may be applying to a specific context to see if you get similar results.

  • The theory (theories) may also explain relationships between concepts.

  • The theory can be a part of your literature review or it can be separate. You will make the decision.

8 Steps To Writing Your Literature Review

I have identified 8 steps to follow when you are writing a literature review. I used this when completing chapter 2 for my dissertation. These steps helped me to write the most painful section of the dissertation.

  1. Get A System

  2. Gather Literature

  3. Read, Read, Take Notes, and Read Some More

  4. Outline The Mess

  5. Write It Out

  6. Include Theoretical Framework

  7. Send to Your Advisor and Celebrate

  8. Review Feedback and Go Back to Step 2

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Get A System

I think it’s helpful to figure out your organization system before you begin reading. This will help make life so much easier in the long run. You will be reading so much information and you may think that you will be able to keep everything in your head. At some point, it will become overwhelming and everything will just disappear out of your head.

I started off using Refworks and it just wasn’t working for me.

I would suggest a spreadsheet or a plain document where you begin your reference page.

The spreadsheet will track each thing that you read by it's citation and any notes that you found while reading. You will see sections Primary Construct and Secondary Construct. Remember, construct = concept (see above for the definition). These sections will become imperative when you begin writing your literature review.


Here is an example of using a document. I used Evernote because I can have access to it wherever I go . Feel free to use whatever you are most comfortable with.


When using the document method, I also had a different document for each of my constructs.


What will you use to organize your literature?

Step 2 - Gather Literature

Find a reference librarian.

You will try to do this alone and ultimately you will come back to the first sentence.


Go find a reference librarian.

They LOVE searching for information and know all tricks and hacks to getting all of the articles.

Also, don’t be lazy. If an article does not have the pdf attached, order it through the interlibrary loan system. The article (or book) will come fast enough. Limiting yourself to just what you instantly have access to will severely hinder your literature review.

Figure Out Online Database

I would also suggest that you ask the reference librarian to give you a crash course on your school’s library’s online database system. You may have had a long presentation during orientation or your first class. Trust me, you want to go through it again. One-on-one training is so much different than class training.

Where To Save Documents

Save your pdfs and readings a specific place. I suggest Google Drive or Dropbox. Again, you can take it everywhere with you.  This also saves storage on your personal device.

Naming Documents

Additionally, how you name your documents is also important. One suggestion, 1st Author’s Last Name, Year, First few words of title (Ex. hooks.1992.BlackLooks). Organizing your documents by name will help make the search process easier later when you need to review a specific article.

Unlikely Places to Search

Lastly, it does not hurt to do a search on Google Scholar and Google. You never know what you may find.

Step 3 - Read, read, take notes, and read some more!

Read each article, book, or document.

Avoid the urge to highlight the entire article because you think it’s all important. It’s not.

When you are new, you think EVERYTHING is important. The authors are saying everything you want to say exactly the way you want to say it. This is especially true when you are new to research or the topic.


Here are few things to do:

  • Create two new word documents and label them Literature & Methodology.

  • The Literature document is where you will write down citations that you find when you are reading the introductions and literature reviews of the articles you have found. You will come back to this list and find these articles at a later time. This will help you avoid going down the rabbit holes and distractions.

  • The Methodology document is similar. You will write down any cool methods you find or methodologies that you may want to explore when you begin to write this section. Remember, come back to it later.

  • Focusing on one task at a time will help you be more efficient.

  • Pay special attention to findings and discussion sections of the articles. This information will inform your literature review.

  • Most important: Give yourself a deadline. At this date, you will STOP reading and begin writing. You will write even if you have not finished reading. This is a process. There is no ultimate endpoint. Please refer to my last article (LINK). Reading is never done. However, if you never stop to write then you don’t progress. Fuck perfectionism, just write!

Step 4 - Outline The Mess

Picture of handout

  • What are the 3 - 5 topics that seem to come up over and over as you were reading?

    • Also, refer to your research questions for guidance and the terms you used when searching for materials.

    • These 3 -5 topics should be broad and still relate to your topic.

    • Example: Evaluation of a Bystander Education Program

      1. Principles of Bystander Education

      2. Five-Step Model of Bystander Intervention

      3. Evidence to Support Bystander Interventions

    • Example: The Comparative Impacts of Social Justice Educational Methods on Political Participation, Civic Engagement, and Multicultural Activism

      1. Service Learning

      2. Intergroup Dialogue

      3. Lecture-Based Diversity Course

  • For each concept, what are 3-5 things that are important to say about this?

    1. These are main ideas

    2. Repeat often throughout existing literature

    3. May also provide something contradictory to repeated points

    4. May not be as clear until after data collection and analysis

    5. How does this concept relate to your study?

    6. How does it fit/not fit for your study?

    7. Any critiques?

The outline does not have to be perfect. Just put whatever words come to mind. You can always change it later. It’s going to be okay.

Step 5 - Write It Out!


Begin to write your literature review following your outline.

  1. Start with your organizing sentences. Just used what you wrote on your outline for these sentences.

    • (Concept 1) is (Main Idea 1), (Main Idea 2), and (Main Idea 3). I will conclude with a critique of the current literature related to (Concept 1) and explain how (Concept 1) relates to my study.

  2. Brain dump everything you know about this topic.

  3. Read through the brain dump and organize it according to your first sentence.

  4. Edit the section for mechanics, word choice, etc.

  5. Go to the next section

  6. Remember: we are not trying to be perfect, just making progress

Step 6 (Bonus)- Theoretical Framework

Are there any theories that explain the relationship between concepts or that you will use in your study?

  • Provide an overview of the theory.

  • A concise explanation of major points (think elevator pitch).

  • Explain why it is relevant for your study - why are you using it?

Step 7 - Show to your advisor/major professor. Celebrate while you wait.


Step 8 - Review feedback and start back at step 2.