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

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:

  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.

    Tip
    We’ve also compiled a few examples, templates, and sample outlines for you below.

    What is the purpose of a literature review?

    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

    Examples of literature reviews

    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.

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

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    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.

    Literature review 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 as 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 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.

    Step 2 – Evaluate and select 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.

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    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.

    Tip
    You can use Scribbr’s free APA citation generator or MLA citation generator to quickly create correct and consistent citations. Want to check your literature review for plagiarism? Try Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker for students.

    Step 3 – Identify themes, debates, and gaps

    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.

    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. 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.

    Tip
    Make sure to check out our examples of literature reviews for each type

    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.

    Tip
    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”).

    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

    Conclusion

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

    Tip
    Be sure to 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.

    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!

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    Frequently asked questions

    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.

    What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography?

    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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    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.