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Honors Writing Seminar

HONRH 2023

About the Literature Review

"Literature review" is a fancy term for what's, practically speaking, the kind of paper you're already most accustomed to: the kind where you pick a topic, research some sources to develop a position, and then weave them all together into a cohesive essay. Literature reviews, more formally, provide an overview of the literature in a field -- what's the common knowledge and consensus on a topic, and where are there gaps.

It provides a review of the literature: a survey of what experts in the field are saying and have said about your topic. It can also identify knowledge gaps and possibilities for future research. You are not presenting an argument yet.

Simple illustration with article pages representing 4 different sources. Pieces of fruit are placed on each: green apples, red apples, grapes, and a pumpkin. The red apples are circled as stand-ins for a pattern.It should not be written like a book report:

  • "This article by Smith says... [summary]."
  • New paragraph, "The book by Hernandez says... [summary]."
  • New paragraph, "Another article by Jones says..."

You're summarizing the big ideas (not the sources themselves) to the end goal of synthesizing all your research, with your citations sprinkled in throughout to indicate that yes, people are saying these things and look how it overlaps!

Organize by ideas/concepts, not by sources of information. Don't simply summarize one source after another. Look for patterns across your sources.

If we use fruits to stand in for ideas, when you talk about "red apples," you should be pulling in all articles that mention something about red apples. At the very least, those articles should all be used in the same paragraph, but you want to aim for some sentences using more than one, as well. Then (ideally), some of those articles also support the "green apple" idea and the "pumpkin" idea. Sometimes an article will serve one, very specific purpose in your research, and that's fine, too, but they should be the exception and not the rule in your lit review.

Ways to Organize Ideas

  • thematically by concept: most likely
  • chronologically by date of publication
  • ideologically by schools of thought
  • methodologically by research methods used

Professional Example:

Take a look at this professionally published example (link goes to databases; barcode required): notice how sources are frequently integrated and discussed. This one is a more formal lit review and gets into how the authors organized their search; it's also a standalone paper. Of note:

  • Citations can be thick on the ground! It's a good sign when you have multiple sources that you can incorporate into one sentence.

Example of a sentence in a lit review -- 3 citations, one sentence!

  • But you can also delve more deeply into single sources, too.

Single citation intro to a paragraph exploring it more specifically