How to Write a Literature Review
What is a Literature Review?
As the name implies, a literature review is a paper or a section of a larger paper that reviews the existing literature in whatever topic you're writing about. The idea behind most academic work is that it builds on other work -- and in order to build on, you have to show that you're familiar with this other work and how your research fits with it.
I actually really like literature reviews because my memory is rather like a sieve and lit reviews are a good way to keep track of what I've read, how it connects, and why it matters.
There are a number of ways to writing a decent literature review, but today I'm going to tell you about my scaffolding technique. Or, if you're a giant dork like me, you can call it the Scaffolding Scheme (TM). (Academics love alliteration. And puns, incidentally.) So, how does this technique work?
Scaffolding Your Literature Review
First, identify a manageable number (probably 10 or less) really influential pieces in whatever area of literature you're reviewing. I generally aim for a mix of older, field-establishing pieces, some later shaking-up-the-field stuff, and maybe one or two newer pieces that provide a good framework or overview. (Side note: I usually pick articles or chapters for this. Even if a whole book qualifies as "really influential," a quick skim and a sharp eye can probably help you find the key chapters or sections.)
Next, write a summary of and reaction to each piece, preferably right after you finish reading it. The summary should cover the key definitions, conclusions, contributions, etc. Reaction covers things that strike me as particularly useful or particularly boneheaded. If there are valuable parallels to be drawn to other scholarship,I mention those.
The point of this exercise is to build a scaffolding that serves as the basic structure of the lit review. Lit reviews should strike a balance between quality and quantity. Sure, you want to provide a fairly thorough overview of whatever topic you're reviewing, but most work in any field is not worth writing about in-depth. The quality work becomes the scaffolding. The other work is basically padding.
Basically, if you need to review 50 pieces of literature, you can produce a good lit review by focusing on 10 and skimming the other 40. (The 80/20 rule of literature review writing.) As long as you have a general idea what the other 40 are about, you'll know enough to throw in the relevant citations -- X is an example of, Y is a response to, Z is a commentary on... Most of the time, you don't even need to track those pieces down. Just reading what other people write about them should give you enough of a sense of whether it's a citation worth including or not.
Using the scaffolding technique, I can reasonably write a lit review in about three weeks. It takes about a week to put together the reading list, identify the key pieces, and track everything down. The second week I read one or two of the really influential pieces per day and write the summary/reaction. I usually write 500-1,000 words for each chapter or article I read. The final week is about putting what I've written into a coherent essay. This usually involves a good amount of editing: connecting what needs connecting, cutting what's repetitive, and figuring out what holes need to be patched up.
Advanced Literature Reviewing: Arguments and Frameworks
What separates a good literature review from a great one is whether you're just, well, reviewing literature or whether you're actually making an argument.
How do you make an argument in a literature review?
One way is to pose a problem and then present various solutions, arguing for the best one. The outline for this kind of literature review would look something like this:
- Describe the problem
- Offer various solutions to the problem
- Explain why one (or more) is better than others
Another way is to organize the existing literature into some sort of framework, and then making a case for why we should understand it that way. The framework approach is probably my favorite because my brain always naturally tries to simplify and categorize everything.
The beauty of the framework approach is that you don't even have to come up with it yourself. One of the papers I just finished used a framework from one field to organize literature from another.
What do I mean by framework? Well, it can be anything from a list of different ways people have talked about a concept, to ways they have disagreed about a concept, levels at which they've analyzed it, methods they've used, etc.
The challenge of this approach is that you'll need to have a good grasp of the literature so that you at least know how different readings will fit into your framework. For that reason, the framework approach is great for revising and improving a more basic literature review. Don't be afraid to start with a blank document and copy, paste, edit, and add sections as you need them.
Last week, I rewrote an entire literature review that I had been plugging away on for four weeks in two days. I wasn't happy with the way it was coming together, there wasn't a coherent argument, and there was a whole lot of rambling. So I sat down at a cafe with my notebook and just brainstormed for a few hours. Once I figured out the framework, the paper basically re-wrote itself.
When you're trying to make an argument, it's important to take this kind of time away from your computer so you can really think about the big picture. What are you trying to say? What story are you telling? What's your argument?