How to Write a Literature Review
Moving Beyond Proving What You Know
Writing a good literature review is an art form. It is more than just a collection of smart people saying smart things; it is a carefully crafted composition that necessitates a clear organization to support your analysis. In this post, I will discuss how to structure your literature review so that it is both informative and engaging, using a couple metaphors that can help us make sense of the process. By the end, you will have a better idea of how to organize your literature review in a way that draws the reader in and adds to the ongoing scholarly conversation in a meaningful way.
I work primarily in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, so keep that in mind if you work in the sciences or more quantitative fields. Please share your thoughts in the comments on whether or not these approaches apply to your respective fields.
The Cafe Metaphor
The pressure to prove your knowledge and expertise can sometimes make literature reviews feel like a defensive genre. This pressure is particularly strong when grappling with imposter syndrome and perfectionism, which are common among graduate students and other junior scholars. I’ve seen many folks struggle with their articles or dissertations, as they often approach them with the mindset of needing to prove how much they know by citing all-the-scholars. Consequently, the writing becomes more about showcasing that they know a lot rather than utilizing the literature review to curate a nuanced conversation among scholars.
Instead, think of a literature review as stepping into a cozy cafe, pulling up a chair among friends, and immersing oneself in a mesmerizing conversation about life. Each person at the table contributes their perspectives; some talk too much, and others have lively disagreements with one another. You might have to defend your own position here and there, but not defensively. All the while, your mind brims with excitement as the conversation unfolds. You begin to make out the threads and commonalities that weave through their thoughts. As you actively engage in the conversation, your own views gain clarity, allowing you to leave feeling energized.
By adopting the cafe metaphor, we can shift literature reviews from a defensive mode into an invigorating experience that propels your work forward. It becomes an opportunity to join an ongoing conversation among scholars, where our own contributions grow through the synergy among ideas.
For more on scholarly conversations, see this post:
The cafe mindset begins with reading and continues through the organization and writing of the literature review. Now let’s discuss a few approaches to organization.
Determine Which Approach(s) Best Supports Your Topic
Wendy Belcher’s How to Write A Journal Article in 12 Weeks is a treasure trove of insights for the various elements of a journal article, including lit reviews. I have used this book for my own work, teach elements from it when I talk about research writing, and recommend it to every graduate student I meet.
Belcher explains that literature reviews are frequently organized using one of four approaches or a combination of them. The key is to choose a structure that best aligns with your research question, objectives, and existing literature. By aligning the structure with your research goals, you can effectively guide the reader through the relevant literature and provide a clear understanding of how your study fits within the broader scholarly landscape.
She outlines these categories:
The contextual approach provides a broader context for your topic by focusing on texts that explore the historical, social, or cultural aspects of your research area. So, a historian studying the impact of World War II on post-war economic recovery would include works that delve into the historical, social, and cultural dimensions of the post-war period.
The methodological approach focuses on incorporating texts that provide insights into the research methodologies and techniques employed in your field. For example, a psychologist investigating the impact of mindfulness meditation on stress reduction would include works that discuss various research methodologies used in studying mindfulness.
The theoretical approach incorporates texts that offer conceptual approaches or explanatory frameworks relevant to your research. For instance, a sociologist exploring gender inequality in the workplace would include works that present theoretical perspectives and frameworks for understanding gender inequality.
The directly related approach focuses on incorporating texts that analyze and make arguments about the same topic or sources as your own article. So, a literary scholar examining the representation of identity in postcolonial novels would include works that directly engage with similar topics or related arguments.
If you do not already have a copy of Belcher’s book, I highly recommend getting one because she has a lot of great advice for literature reviews and other aspects of writing.
The Owl at Purdue also explains various organizational categories that are somewhat similar to Beltcher’s.
Synthesize, aka the Symphony Metaphor
Once you determine your approach, you have to start thinking about how ideas fit together within that approach. A literature review is more than just summarizing individual sources; it is a synthesis of scholarly works and research relevant to your argument or research questions. It does not have to be dry and can instead connect ideas creatively, as if unraveling a complex story. Rather than stringing together a series of summaries, consider the literature review as a process of deconstructing your sources and reassembling the most important elements into a new and cohesive framework. (For two helpful visuals on summary vs. synthesis, see this post.)
When you synthesize, it is like you are the conductor of a symphony, and each source is a different instrument. Imagine that all of your sources are in a concert hall talking about your research topic. Each source adds its own melody, rhythm, and tone, creating a conversation that helps us learn more about the subject. As the conductor, it is your job to lead and mix the different voices so that they sound good together. This creates a symphony of knowledge that keeps your readers interested and teaches them something. The result is a well-balanced collection of ideas and points of view that shows the depth and complexity of your research and leaves a lasting impression on your readers.
Some literature reviews assume their structure is obvious, with authors implicitly or explicitly saying, "I will discuss the X, Y, and Z bodies of literature."However, going beyond a dry and segmented approach to organization is important. Instead, consider how to integrate each section into the larger context of your topic and argument. How can you make a logical progression from one section to the next?
Like any other part of a paper, a literature review needs an introduction, several paragraphs of main content, and a conclusion. This ensures that the reviewed literature flows cohesively and logically, facilitating the reading experience for the reader. Your project's coherence and impact will increase as you logically build upon previous ideas and insights.
This includes the use of transitional phrases and paragraphs to link the various sections of your literature review together. The connections you make between sections of the review are easier to follow with the aid of these transitions. Ultimately, create a literature review that adds to the overall coherence and impact of your research project by thinking about the logical connections between different subsections and using bridging sentences and paragraphs.
Think of literature reviews not just as a way to prove what you know but as a chance to have a thoughtful discussion on a subject that matters to you with your peers. Communicating with your peers requires that you structure your review in a way that makes sense and synthesizes the ideas upon which you are building your own work. By structuring your literature review thoughtfully, you create a space for dialogue and contribute to the ongoing scholarly discourse in your field.