Literature Reviews

A literature review, or lit review, surveys existing scholarship and can be either part of a larger document or a stand-alone piece. While literature reviews take many different forms, they also share common elements.

What Does a Literature Review Do? 

Graphic of a book with different content icons coming out of it (music note, microscope, DNA, scissors)
Image credit
  • Gives credit where credit is due
  • Lends academic credibility to the writer
  • Presents a context and conversation to situate your own work
  • Locates gaps in what’s been said in prior scholarship
  • Provides a theoretical framework for arguments
  • Creates a narrative through relevant bodies of scholarship

That last point is crucial: The most effective literature reviews tell a story about how your research contributes to existing scholarship. The literature review will take your research question as a starting point and address its key components; in other words, the literature review is bounded by the scope and goals of your research.

Strategies for Organizing Your Literature Review

There are multiple ways to organize a literature review, with the most common being:

  • Thematic: organized by topics, themes, and shared resonances. Themes can be organized based on theoretical frameworks, hypotheses, agreements and disagreements, methods, specific lenses or approaches, etc. Sections of the thematic literature review often take the form of “branches”: this group of people studied or believe X, this group studied or believe Y, this group studied or believe Z.
  • Chronological: organized by time of study or publication. This approach is rarely useful except in “before-after” circumstances where a schism occurs in the field. It is most often used as a secondary organizational approach within an overarching thematic structure.

No matter which strategy you use, everything in your literature review needs to speak back to the research questions and/or gap you’re seeking to address. The elements of your literature review also need to speak to each other.

What Are Common Pitfalls?

  • Listing studies / sources
  • Isolating studies / sources
  • Taking sources out of context
  • Providing an overly detailed description
  • Lacking purpose
  • Lacking a clear, manageable scope

Strategies for Synthesizing Sources

  • Paragraphs should have topic sentences that reflect a larger idea.
    • Pro tip: If you’re beginning a paragraph with an author’s last name, you’re likely not effectively synthesizing sources.
  • Reference more than one study per paragraph to put sources in conversation. Keep in mind, though, that some scholarship may be foundational to your research and so will carry more weight than other texts.
  • A literature review is a narrative. The sources you select to include, analyze, and evaluate will tell part of this narrative.
  • You literature review is not “neutral” or “objective.” What you’re providing readers is the story of the literature you need to tell to situate your contribution.

Getting Started

  • Look at patterns you’ve collected from thick note taking.
  • Construct outlines from those patterns that you might organize by theme.
  • Look at sample literature reviews from your field and in the genre of writing that you’re producing.

Check out the Library’s resources about organizing and keeping track of your sources.

Related Links: