How to write 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.

Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analyzing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are five main steps in the process of writing a literature review:

  1. Search for relevant literature
  2. Evaluate sources
  3. Identify themes, debates and gaps
  4. Outline the structure
  5. 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.

    Why write a literature review?

    When you write a thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you will 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 scholarly context
    • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
    • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
    • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

    You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

    The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps.

    Step 1: Search for relevant literature

    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.

    If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

    Search for literature using keywords and citations

    Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic and question. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

    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.

    To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

    You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

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    Step 2: Evaluate and select sources

    You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

    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?
    • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
    • 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.

    The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

    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.

    You can use our free citation generator to quickly create correct and consistent APA citations or MLA format citations.

    Step 3: Identify themes, debates, and gaps

    To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to 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.

    Step 4: Outline your literature review’s structure

    There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

    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.

    Step 5: Write your literature review

    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.

    Dissertation literature review
    If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasize the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).
    Stand-alone literature review
    If you are writing a stand-alone paper, give some background on the topic and its importance, discuss the scope of the literature you will review (for example, the time period of your sources), and state your objective. What new insight will you draw from the literature?


    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 researchersadd 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 transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

    Literature review paragraph example

    The example below is taken from the body of a literature review on the relationship between national identity and nature conservation. This paragraph discusses how humanities scholars have approached the concept of wilderness.

    Early work in environmental humanities tended to take a sharply critical approach to wilderness, focusing on the cultural construction of supposedly ‘natural’ landscapes. The rise of climate change awareness in the 1980s had been framed by narratives about “the end of nature” (McKibben 1989), in which a once-pristine wilderness is degraded by humans to the point of disappearance. In response to this popular discourse, environmental historian William Cronon critiqued the concept of a pure, pristine nature to be preserved from human influence, arguing that ideas like “wilderness” are themselves products of particular human cultures and histories. In his influential essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ (1995), Cronon traces how the ideal of untouched wilderness, anxiety over its loss, and the political will to preserve it has been central to American national identity, entwined with religious motifs and colonial frontier mythologies. Following Cronon, the racial and class politics of wilderness preservation was a theme taken up by several scholars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who researched the material effects of conservation politics on indigenous and rural Americans (Catton 1997; Spence 1999; Jacoby 2001). The US National Park system became the dominant paradigm for analyzing relations between conservation, nationhood and nationalism. However, this approach has sometimes led to a narrowly US-centric perspective that fails to engage closely with the meanings and materialities of “wilderness” in different contexts. Recent work has begun to challenge this paradigm and argue for more varied approaches to understanding the socio-political relations between nation and nature.

    The example combines the thematic and chronological approaches. This section of the literature review focuses on the theme of wilderness, while the paragraph itself is organized chronologically.


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

    Dissertation literature review
    If the literature review is part of your thesis or dissertation, show how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research.
    Stand-alone literature review
    If you are writing a stand-alone paper, you can discuss the overall implications of the literature or make suggestions for future research based on the gaps you have identified.

    When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Our quick guide to proofreading offers some useful tips and tricks!

    Frequently asked questions about literature reviews

    What is a literature review?

    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.

    What is the purpose of a literature review?

    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.

    Where does the literature review go in a dissertation?

    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.

    Is this article helpful?
    Shona McCombes

    Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.


    April 8, 2020 at 12:09 AM

    Good one here


    joe bana
    March 26, 2020 at 5:25 PM

    When you are carrying Research studies, there are different literature that need to be review. How old or what age of such Literature that the researcher may rely upon? In other words, what is the age of literature that may not be reviewed?


    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    March 26, 2020 at 5:50 PM

    Hi Joe,

    There isn't a universal answer to this question – it really depends on your field of study and the topic you're researching. For example, in scientific research, you would normally focus on recent literature; in the humanities, you're more likely to include important older works. But in general, if a source is still considered accurate and contains relevant knowledge about your topic, you can include it in your literature review as long as you have a clear reason for doing so.

    If you're still unsure, it's best to consult with your supervisor on this point.


    Fahad Malik
    March 25, 2020 at 3:20 PM

    Very helpful


    March 24, 2020 at 5:30 AM

    May i ask why a literature review is so important to if i read on the side and if i do not include it in my research proposal and project, does that discredits my research?


    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    March 26, 2020 at 3:24 PM

    Hi Musa,

    Writing up a literature review is important for three reasons:

    1. To give a concise overview of the literature for your reader, who might not have read all the same sources as you have.
    2. To show that you have a thorough understanding of current knowledge on your topic.
    3. To show that your own research will contribute something new.

    Without a literature review, your reader has no way of knowing if your project has a solid scientific basis and justification. Especially in a research proposal, you need to make a convincing case for why your project is worth doing – that means you need to show what's missing from existing research.


    viraj sanjeewa
    March 30, 2020 at 9:24 PM

    Worth full and credible notes which could use to develop rather generate a LR
    thanks lot


    Felicia Dlamini
    March 21, 2020 at 11:47 AM

    Comment This was quite helpful for my research proposal paper .


    March 21, 2020 at 4:02 AM

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    March 19, 2020 at 8:57 AM

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    Mohsin Ahmed
    March 10, 2020 at 5:12 PM

    It was just amazing and really helpful to move forward in the aspect of the literature review. Thank you so much for such a meaningful contribution.


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    John G
    March 1, 2020 at 3:00 AM

    Great resource! Thank you!


    February 28, 2020 at 11:10 PM

    Thank you so much ,it seemed like such a daunting task but now I am so excited to start after reading your guide.It was really helpful.


    Nathan LAIA
    February 25, 2020 at 1:23 PM

    Thank you so much. This really helps me complete my task.


    Elyssa M.
    February 23, 2020 at 8:33 PM

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain how to write a review of the literature for your dissertation so in-depth! This has been immensely helpful. I’m forwarding this article to the rest of my cohort. :)


    February 22, 2020 at 1:58 AM

    Thank you very much. It is helpful!


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    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    March 10, 2020 at 3:34 PM

    Hi Jacqueline,

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    February 19, 2020 at 3:09 AM

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    Muhammad Umer
    February 16, 2020 at 12:47 AM

    this is quite helpful can u guide me about general length of a literature review ?


    Emma Zoomer
    March 4, 2020 at 4:34 AM

    My professor said to make our literature review 5-6 pages, idk if that helps...


    mahdi safari
    February 11, 2020 at 6:19 PM

    It is very helpful I understand all about the literature review!
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    February 10, 2020 at 2:52 PM

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    Muhmeen Ademola
    February 9, 2020 at 10:56 AM

    Thanks a lot for the guide, sincerely it is highly informative.

    My question is how best can one criticize the weakness and strength of prior sources and how can one perfectly cite references especially while aiming at referring to a page in a test.


    February 3, 2020 at 12:00 PM

    Thank you for this information, very helpful as I am about to start writing a lit review.
    kind regards


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    January 30, 2020 at 1:54 PM



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    December 19, 2019 at 7:02 PM

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    December 19, 2019 at 10:15 AM

    what's the process of literature review in the thesis and proposal writing?


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    December 17, 2019 at 7:13 AM

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    December 9, 2019 at 11:20 AM

    How can I use the reference of writer ideas, How can I put it in litrature review or how can I write it ?
    can you show me with example?


    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    December 11, 2019 at 12:56 PM

    Hi Beyene,

    When you reference another writer's ideas in your literature review, you need to either quote or paraphrase and correctly cite the source. The format of the source reference depends on which citation style you are using – you can find lots of examples in our guides to APA, MLA and Chicago style.

    Hope that helps!


    Qays Kh Nsaif
    December 25, 2019 at 2:03 PM

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    Dr. Qays Khaleel Nsaif
    Al Maare'f University College
    December 25, 2019 at 15:05 pm


    January 4, 2020 at 6:46 PM

    thank you for all information

    My questions are:
    1.I want to ask you how to use citation and reference on literature review.
    2.How can you write literature review by paraphrasing that of other people?


    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    January 7, 2020 at 11:23 AM


    In a literature review you should cite your sources the same as you would in any other paper or assignment. This usually includes an in-text citation and a reference list entry, but the exact format depends on which citation style you're following. You can learn more in our guide to citing sources.

    Paraphrasing means taking ideas or information from a source and putting them in your own words. You should paraphrase sources throughout your literature review to explain what other researchers have found or argued, as well as giving your own analysis of the sources.

    Hope that helps!


    February 8, 2020 at 3:51 PM

    Do you prefer more on searching or making your own opinion?

    November 8, 2019 at 2:05 PM

    How about the Research Proposal?


    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    November 8, 2019 at 3:51 PM

    Thanks for your question! In the literature review section of a research proposal, you can take a similar approach as you would in a dissertation literature review: focus on connecting the literature to your research questions, and show how your proposed project will contribute to knowledge in your field. There are more tips in our article about how to write a research proposal. Hope that helps!


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    September 20, 2019 at 11:31 PM

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    September 14, 2019 at 8:27 AM

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    But i want to further more about the thematic review - its meaning and the process of way of dong it.


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    July 25, 2019 at 4:50 AM

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    July 22, 2019 at 6:45 PM

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    July 10, 2019 at 12:19 PM

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    May 21, 2019 at 9:54 AM

    Is this a way how i write research pepar based on literature review??


    Rackson Kahabuka
    May 14, 2019 at 9:34 PM

    The article is useful and adds some crucial guidelines in writing a dissertation.


    March 18, 2019 at 10:35 AM

    Hi Lucy,
    Somebody ask me "what shaped or guided your literature review (LR)?" and I answered, "my LR is guided by my research objectives and research proposal". Is my answer sufficient? Can you kindly give your comment please. Thank you.


    Aylin Oz
    March 17, 2019 at 4:46 PM

    Hi! I've read nearly your whole website, it's brilliant!
    Regarding LR, I would like to suggest one thing I have myself been advised to use by a friend: mindmaps. There are a couple of free apps (such as XMind which I loooove) that saved my life and eased my work so much while typing my LR. It helps you structure your articles by topic for example, I put my references and summed up each relevant article in a topic. This made it sooo much easier to organise my work, my ideas, my structure and my writing because all I had to do was to go back on my map instead of going back to the articles.


    Raimo Streefkerk
    Raimo Streefkerk (Scribbr-team)
    March 18, 2019 at 12:28 PM

    Hi Aylin,

    Thanks for the tip!



    mohamed s. sesay
    July 22, 2017 at 1:06 AM

    nice and exicting but can you assist me with literatures on correctional centres?


    Lucy Vleeshouwers
    Lucy Vleeshouwers (Scribbr-team)
    July 28, 2017 at 7:05 PM

    Hi Mohamed,
    Thank you for your question.
    Unfortunately we can't help you with this question, as it is too specific.
    Sorry about that!
    Kind regards,


    Comment or ask a question.