Literature Review Essentials: Identify Themes -->

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Literature Review Essentials: Identify Themes

Academic and scholarly writers often find themselves in situations where they must write literature reviews. This genre of writing is useful for academic writers because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate what research has already shown or what gaps exist in the literature. Literature reviews are also often the starting point of demonstrating how your research fits into a larger body of work. At the capstone stage, writers at Walden compose literature reviews, but more and more, students in coursework are writing these kinds of documents too.

Over the last year, I’ve had several students write in to our chat or paper review services asking for help figuring out how to organize literature review body paragraphs. So today, let’s discuss how to organize and outline a literature review thematically.

Title Slide: Canyons and Blue Sky

Literature Reviews vs. Annotations or Summaries

Literature reviews should be organized thematically because the purpose is to show, overall, what the literature has demonstrated. The goal is not to give the reader a summary of each article. That’s what an annotated bibliography is: a series of summaries and analyses of sources, one listed after the other. With an annotated bibliography, readers are looking to have these questions answered: What is each source about, what’s the criticism of each source, and how is each source applicable? An annotated bibliography takes each source one by one and engages with one source per paragraph.

In contrast, the literature review is different since it’s not actually the sources that matter; instead, it’s the synthesis that matters. Readers, when going through a literature review, are looking to have these questions answered: In this body of literature, what were the main themes that arose, and what do these sources say about these themes? How do these sources overlap, and where are there gaps in the literature? A literature review synthesizes the ideas in sources and engages with several sources per paragraph.

So, the first step to writing a thematic literature review is to be sure you’re actually writing a literature review and not an annotated bibliography.

Planning and Outlining to Organize Thematically

In order to write a literature review, writers must do a lot of planning. Without proper planning, it will be hard to determine what the major themes are that have arisen in the literature, and the review might become disorganized and require significant revision. So, to help you stay on track, here’s a method for how you can approach your literature review at the planning stage:

1. As you begin to read your sources, do some critical reading to decipher: What are the major themes and ideas that you are seeing in the literature related to your topic? Take notes as you read, perhaps by highlighting sources with various colors based on emerging themes, or by making notes in the margins, or by writing down themes you’re seeing in a notebook. Try a few methods and then use what works for you.

2. Once you’re noticing a few themes, start to create an outline, organized by theme, where you have the theme at the top and then list out each source that had something to do with that theme. Ideally, you’ll eventually have several themes in your outline with several sources below each theme. This will help you structure and organize by themes and plan body paragraphs. Here’s how this might look:

Theme 1: Name or description of theme, which will eventually be made into a topic sentence
  • Author Name (Year), Paraphrase of relevant material related to the theme
  • Repeat as needed for all the sources you’ve found that deal with this theme
Theme 2: Name or description of theme, which will eventually be made into a topic sentence
  • Author Name (Year), Paraphrase of relevant material related to the theme
  • Author Name (Year), Paraphrase of relevant material related to the theme
  • Repeat as needed for all the sources you’ve found that deal with this theme
Continue as needed, depending on how many themes you have identified in the literature and how many sources have information to contribute to the themes.

3. Continue to read through your sources to (1) identify themes in the literature and (2) identify which sources have information and ideas that contribute to those themes. You may need to re-read sources to catch things missed in the first read, and as you read and re-read, your outline will continue to grow. Note too that it’s okay if a source is listed in the outline many times. Sources will naturally address many themes, so it is expected that a source will appear a few times throughout a literature review, particularly if the source is complex and covers many relevant topics.

Once you have gone through these steps to sift through your research, determine the themes, figure out which sources relate to which themes, and create your outline for your literature review body paragraphs, you have a solid foundation for the drafting of your thematic literature review. From here, you can start to draft body paragraphs and sections that address various themes in the literature.

Give this strategy for outlining thematic literature reviews a try, and let us know how it works for you in the comments section of this post. We look forward to hearing your stories!

Jes Philbrook is a Writing Instructor and the Coordinator of Doctoral Writing Assessment in the Walden University Writing Center. Jes has been helping graduate students write literature reviews for the last seven years, since she started working with nursing students who frequently were assigned literature review assignments. In her free time, Jes likes to take walks around lakes, plan trips and adventures, and cook delicious and wholesome food.

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  1. This was very helpful Jes! Thanks a lot.

    1. We're glad you found this post helpful, Eniale!

  2. I am having difficulties locating an example of a completed literature review outline. Where would I find additional examples? Thank you.

    1. Hello! While we don't have a sample completed literature review for you to look at, you will find partial examples using some of the links here: We offer a few different resources included webinars, podcasts, other blog posts, and more.