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.

Writing a literature review involves finding relevant publications (such as books and journal articles), critically analyzing them, and explaining what you found. There are five key steps:

  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.

    Research question example
    What is the impact of social media on body image among Generation Z?

    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 if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

    Keywords example
    • 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:

    You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

    • AND to find sources that contain more than one keyword (e.g. social media AND body image AND generation Z)
    • OR to find sources that contain one of a range of synonyms (e.g. generation Z OR teenagers OR adolescents)
    • NOT to exclude results containing certain terms (e.g. apple NOT fruit)

    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.

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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.

    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.

    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.

    Example of trends and gaps
    In reviewing the literature on social media and body image, you note that:

    • 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.

    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).

    Chronological

    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.

    Thematic

    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.

    Methodological

    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

    Theoretical

    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.

    Introduction

    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?

    Body

    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 transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

    Example of a paragraph in a literature review

    Body image issues have been widely associated with social media usage, particularly in young women. The relation between media depictions and body image concerns is well-established; a meta-analysis by Grabe, Ward and Hyde (2008) concluded that exposure to mass media is linked to body image dissatisfaction among women. However, in an era of rapidly changing digital technologies, the mass media paradigm is no longer adequate for understanding how people engage with images, and the findings of older studies like this one may not be generalizable to younger generations. In light of this changing landscape, researchers have become increasingly interested in the specific effects of social media. Perloff (2014) theorizes that the interactive aspects of social media may influence its impact on body image, and mentions that young women are among the most active social media users. Several empirical studies have focused on Facebook usage in adolescent girls (Tiggermann & Slater, 2013; Meier & Gray, 2014) and in young adult women (Smith, Hames, & Joiner, 2013; Fardouly et al., 2015; Cohen, Newton-John & Slater, 2017), while a systematic review by Holland and Timmerman (2016) confirmed a relationship between social networking and body image for both women and men. Across these studies, there is consistent evidence that body image issues are influenced not by social media usage in general, but by engagement with the visual and interactive aspects of these platforms. Nonetheless, there is a lack of robust research on more highly visual social media (HVSM) such as Instagram and Snapchat that have gained more recent popularity among younger generations.

    Conclusion

    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!

    Free lecture slides

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    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.

    115 comments

    gitali borpatragohain
    July 14, 2020 at 9:22 AM

    I found the write up very much helpful. As I am in the writing phase of my mphil dissertation ,now my concept is clear about literature review.

    Reply

    Thushara Rodrigo
    July 20, 2020 at 5:20 AM

    This is a really useful article.I started the reading this with nothing in mind.this equipped me with a beautiful framework on writing a literature review for my sssignement.Thank you.

    Reply

    Nahla
    August 9, 2020 at 10:13 PM

    It is valuable information and soo pracical topic

    Reply

    Tay
    July 13, 2020 at 5:43 PM

    do you include literature reviews while formulating theories? If yes at what point

    Reply

    BO Sengtin
    July 12, 2020 at 8:14 AM

    I cannot thank you enough for this helpful description of the literature review writing. I am so happy after reading this, and I hope I can write a good literature review by following it steps.

    Reply

    Muzi Dlamini
    July 8, 2020 at 3:18 PM

    Hi may i ask how do i determine the topics to review in literature when writing my thesis

    Reply

    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    July 21, 2020 at 4:29 PM

    Hi Muzi,

    It's a good idea to start by narrowing down a specific research problem and writing a problem statement. By doing this, you can identify the most important concepts and terms, and use these to start building a list of keywords for your literature search.

    Your aim is to get an overview of what research has been done on the same problem, what other researchers have found, and what is still missing from knowledge. That helps you decide the best approach for your own research.

    Hope that helps!

    Reply

    Mih Julius
    July 4, 2020 at 8:49 PM

    I found the article very resourceful and has clarified some of my worries.
    Please can you help me indicate how to handle intext citations when dealing with so many sources at the same time?
    I am grateful

    Reply

    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    July 21, 2020 at 5:19 PM

    Hi Mih,

    The exact rules for in-text citations depend on the citation style you're following, but you can usually cite multiple sources in one set of parentheses at the end of a sentence when relevant.

    For example, an APA in-text citation with multiple sources looks like this: (Brown & Brody, 2009; Porter, 2004; Swaen, 2015).

    Reply

    wycliffe k
    June 30, 2020 at 12:19 AM

    So helpful

    Reply

    Rena F
    June 24, 2020 at 1:17 AM

    I'd literally be lost with out you!!! Thanks so much, this was informative and easy to understand. I feel better prepared to type up my literature review.

    Reply

    Timothy Marquis
    June 15, 2020 at 12:45 AM

    Very educative. Thanks for the efforts

    Reply

    chisomebi
    June 3, 2020 at 12:11 AM

    thank you so much. this piece was really helpful. I'm about to start my literature review journey and this team has made it a lot easier.

    Reply

    Bashiru Mohammed Adewale
    June 1, 2020 at 8:13 AM

    Nice and informative piece indeed.
    Thank you so much

    Reply

    Thiago
    May 31, 2020 at 1:43 AM

    Excellent! Absolutely brilliant:)

    Reply

    Paia Junior
    May 30, 2020 at 1:13 PM

    This is so helpful thanks

    Reply

    Amisha
    May 29, 2020 at 5:04 PM

    Excellent piece of writing.

    Reply

    Bright
    May 26, 2020 at 5:08 PM

    Very helpful

    Reply

    Oluwaseun
    May 23, 2020 at 6:49 PM

    This is very simple and helpful. God bless the initiator(s).

    Reply

    Barbara
    May 12, 2020 at 12:21 PM

    I don't do this usually.. but this site is amazing! Super helpful ! I love the step by step concept, the examples, it really helps students a lot..

    Thank you for whoever created this.. you just saved my life <3

    Reply

    Jake
    May 25, 2020 at 11:13 AM

    Hi there, this site is cool

    Reply

    Ranta
    May 12, 2020 at 11:45 AM

    Thanks for the information, hope it will help.

    Reply

    Bhavna
    May 10, 2020 at 8:06 PM

    Hello.
    Really helpful since i am currently writing my LR

    Reply

    hana
    May 9, 2020 at 6:27 PM

    found this when im struggling to write my literature review without much useful guidance from the lecturer.. thanks a lot !!!!!!!

    Reply

    Hedwig
    May 7, 2020 at 4:04 PM

    Thank You so much. This has really helped me.

    Reply

    hau
    May 1, 2020 at 11:37 PM

    This is a great source of information. however, I still find it difficult to start turn what I have read into writing. Is there any way to start? thanks

    Reply

    Victor Daodu
    April 9, 2020 at 10:56 PM

    Hello ma,
    Thanks for the clarification
    Does your literature review solidly depends on your aim/objectives of the study?

    Reply

    PROJECT TOPICS
    April 8, 2020 at 12:09 AM

    Good one here

    Reply

    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?

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    Peter
    May 11, 2020 at 1:06 PM

    How do I cite your article on literature review in scribbr.com?

    Reply

    Shona McCombes
    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
    May 19, 2020 at 7:12 PM

    Hi Peter,

    It depends on which citation style you're following. You can use our guides to learn how to cite a website in APA, MLA, or Chicago style.

    Reply

    Fahad Malik
    March 25, 2020 at 3:20 PM

    Very helpful

    Reply

    Musa
    March 24, 2020 at 5:30 AM

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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    Felicia Dlamini
    March 21, 2020 at 11:47 AM

    Comment This was quite helpful for my research proposal paper .

    Reply

    Medha
    March 21, 2020 at 4:02 AM

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    Reply

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    May 5, 2020 at 6:44 PM

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    Thanks

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    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. :)

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    Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
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    Emma Zoomer
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    February 3, 2020 at 12:00 PM

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    January 7, 2020 at 3:44 PM

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    December 28, 2019 at 9:29 PM

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    December 21, 2019 at 12:15 AM

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    justice
    December 19, 2019 at 7:02 PM

    very insightful ...thanks so much. as a novice to social research, beneffited greatly and will definitely write better literature review

    Reply

    Vincent
    December 19, 2019 at 10:15 AM

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

    Reply

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    December 17, 2019 at 7:13 AM

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    Reply

    Beyene
    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?

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

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

    It was very amazing information, i is good for Review and Reseach writing.

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

    Reply

    soteur
    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?

    Reply

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

    Hi,

    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!

    Reply

    Xian
    February 8, 2020 at 3:51 PM

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

    Watson
    November 8, 2019 at 2:05 PM

    How about the Research Proposal?

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    M
    November 8, 2019 at 12:01 AM

    Great overview. Thanks!

    Reply

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    November 4, 2019 at 12:05 PM

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    Kate
    September 20, 2019 at 11:31 PM

    Thanks for a good explanation!

    Reply

    Hoina
    September 19, 2019 at 11:06 AM

    Very easy to understand and follow. Thanks a lot.

    Reply

    Rishi Ram Khanal
    September 14, 2019 at 8:27 AM

    very nice. It's clear, to the point and beautiful source of knowledge. it helped me a lot.
    But i want to further more about the thematic review - its meaning and the process of way of dong it.

    Reply

    lucia
    September 11, 2019 at 2:49 PM

    simple and explicit,it really did help me.tanks

    Reply

    johanna mmule maluleke
    September 5, 2019 at 7:08 PM

    thank you very much the information helped me to understand .

    kindly regards

    j m maluleke

    Reply

    Charity Chikopa
    August 23, 2019 at 5:28 AM

    Yes this article at least it has helped

    Reply

    Zia_ud_Din Siddiqui
    July 28, 2019 at 7:14 PM

    Wonderful indeed!
    Time saving and to the point. No complexity but simplicity.
    Highly thankful!

    Reply

    Crownofglory
    February 23, 2020 at 11:28 PM

    Thank you very much.

    This is so helpful.

    Reply

    Godiva Uko
    July 25, 2019 at 4:50 AM

    Thanks. very useful!

    Godiva

    Reply

    H. Marvelous Richards
    July 22, 2019 at 6:45 PM

    Thanks, I find this information very helpful to to my academic works in research and writing as whole. It is my hope that you give a clear sample formats so as understand the step by step concept. Once more thanks.

    Reply

    Ubong Umoren
    July 13, 2019 at 12:58 PM

    Great article! Just a glance and I know it will be very helpful! Thank you so much guys!!

    Reply

    sakhile mbeje
    July 10, 2019 at 12:19 PM

    This website helped me a lot. Therefore, I am grateful

    Reply

    Shamima
    May 21, 2019 at 9:54 AM

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

    Reply

    Rackson Kahabuka
    May 14, 2019 at 9:34 PM

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

    Reply

    SABRI BIN EMBI
    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

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

    Hi Aylin,

    Thanks for the tip!

    Cheers,
    Raimo

    Reply

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

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

    Reply

    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,
    Lucy

    Reply

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