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 analysing 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 summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, 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 dissertation or thesis, 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 dissertation 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 objectives 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 topic. 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 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.

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’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism. It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference 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 APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

Step 3: Identify themes, debates and gaps

To begin organising 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 organising 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 summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse 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 organise 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 emphasise 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, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, 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.

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 summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

Dissertation literature review

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate 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. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

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.

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 dissertation, thesis, research paper, or proposal.

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 familiarise 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 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.

9 comments

Anna
12 May 2020 at 23:13

My literature is divided in 5 sections: Introduction, methodology, findings discussion and conclusion. Where do I show the gap in literature. Is it in my findings section or discussion section

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
19 May 2020 at 15:09

Hi Anna,

If you're not including a separate literature review chapter, you would usually demonstrate the gap in the literature in your introduction chapter, where you give the background to your topic and introduce your research questions.

Reply

Rima
17 April 2020 at 15:56

Shona you lifesaver !!!!

Reply

Arlene
25 March 2020 at 16:05

I have written my proposal for my MA and about to start my thesis write up.
where do I start and can I use my proposal or do I need to start from scratch?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
2 April 2020 at 13:11

Hi Arlene,

You can certainly use your proposal as a basis, but you should generally expand and revise it as you write your thesis. Check with your supervisor whether you're allowed to copy passages of text directly from your proposal or if it needs to be rewritten; if you submitted the proposal as an assignment for credit, re-using it may be considered self-plagiarism, but universities have different rules about this.

Reply

Dylan
6 March 2020 at 11:16

Hello Shona,

Thank you for the detailed explanation.

So paraphrasing would be the best way to go.

Can I do it like this:

1. Introduction

2. Body
- summary source 1
- summary source 2
- summary source 3
...

3. Conclusion (Highlighting connections or contradictions?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
2 April 2020 at 13:14

Hi Dylan,

A good literature review doesn't just summarise individual sources in turn, but synthesises them – that means that each paragraph should connect the findings of a few related sources rather than just summarising a single source. This article about synthesising literature can help you get started.

Reply

Dylan
3 March 2020 at 13:15

Hello,

I was wondering if it is allowed to use the abstract from a paper to use as a summary for the literature review?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
3 March 2020 at 17:10

Hi Dylan,

No, you should never copy the text of an abstract into your literature review; try to summarise the study in your own words.

If you want to get a quick overview of a study's main findings, the abstract is a good place to start. But it's always best to read the full paper if possible (or, at the very least, read the introduction and conclusion) before including it in your literature review.

If you want to use a sentence or short passage from the paper, make sure to properly quote – but paraphrasing is usually a better choice, as it shows you've read and understood the paper. Remember that the literature review isn't just a list of summaries, but an original text that explains and draws connections between existing research.

Reply

Comment or ask a question.

Please click the checkbox on the left to verify that you are a not a bot.