Molly’s guest edublog: How to write a literature review

Guest blogger: playwright, satirist, and stand-up writer, Molly Bixby, offers her take on literature reviews

Literature reviews for your bachelor’s or master’s program are a far cry from your fifth-grade book report.

Don’t feel dumb if you don’t know what a lit review is.  Higher ed should require a course called Literature Reviews 101 as early as possible for every student. 

Maybe you were taught basic concepts of the lit review and how to design one, but your instructor didn’t teach it in a way you could understand.

When a professor or TA presents something new and complex in a monotone voice with all the excitement of a toilet running all night, well, good luck staying awake, much less retaining any content. 

You may only now be learning the term “literature review”–as you write your thesis for a master’s degree–which might seem to you like too little too late.

I hope the following conversation between two college students will help you understand and remember the basics of a literature review.


What’s a lit review?  Meet Jarod and Jenny

Jarod, a tall, handsome psych major, strolled up to a round table in the college student union and plopped down his heavy book bag. It landed on Jenny’s right foot.

“Ouch! Ya JERK!” Jenny said as she laughed and slapped Jarod’s shoulder. Jenny and Jarod were, so far, just friends, but it was obvious to even the most casual observer that the attraction was mutual.

“Hey, I’m not doing anything tonight. You?” Jarod asked, as he poured salt on the top of her hand, wooing in a primitive way.

“Well,” Jenny said as she blew the salt into Jarod’s shiny, thick hair, “I have to write a ‘literature review’ of some sort as part of my final thesis, but that should only take about fifteen minutes if I pick a short book about whatever psychology topic I decide to grab out of the textbook.”

“Whoa! Wait!” Jarod dropped the flirting and added genuine concern. “A lit review is a very time-consuming step in your thesis. You don’t just write a review about a book.”

Jenny blushed. “It is a book review, though, right? I mean, I wrote tons of book reviews in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They’re simple.” Even though Jenny said that to Jarod out loud, she was already worried she had just made a fool of herself in front of the guy she liked.


A literature review is a book report–times 30 or 40

Jarod reassured Jenny. “A book report, a literature review….they sound like they would be exactly the same, don’t they? Well, there is a tiny thing they have in common. A literature review is a book report–times thirty or forty.”

“Yikes!!! I have to read that many books?”

“Well, you don’t necessarily have to read whole books.  And not all of your sources need to be books, either.  You can use journal articles, white papers, and other sources.


Your professor will ask you to list tons of sources from professional literature. Be sure to:


1.  Get articles written by credible researchers who have already analyzed the topic that relates to the thesis you want to prove…or improve upon.


2.  Make a bibliography and wade through the best of the best on your topic.  


3.  Build upon theories already established by researchers. 


“I will make a huge bibliography, then. That’s harder, but not like walking on water.” Jenny smiled at Jarod.

“Well…that’s just the start. The bibliography is just in your notes. When you weed through all of your sources and pick the best ones, you then need to write the lit review.


How to organize and write a literature review

Jenny got flustered.  “This could take forever to do!  Maybe I should just withdraw from school!”

“Jenny, don’t panic.  Here’s what you do:  


1.  Review all of the sources you’ve collected.  That means skim/read your sources!  


2. Once you understand the research you’ve collected, describe how these past discoveries are connected.


3.  Explain how you concluded what you did.  Add a different spin to your work. Try to conclude something that others haven’t.


4.  You can also talk about how earlier studies were limited in what they did. Explain what you plan to do differently to deal with those limitations in your study.


5.  In fact, addressing a limitation in a past study can be the slightly different spin you offer! Make constructive criticisms of past research designs.


Jenny shrieked. “This is just too much, Jarod. So, what now?  Go online and find tons of bibliography sources tonight?”


Examples of sources that are not scholarly

“Jenny, I know you hate the library, but go there anyway.  

Avoid WikipediaAnyone can claim anything as fact on Wiki, even though the people at Wikipedia seem to be cleaning it up to become more credible. The content is written by…anybody. That’s why Wiki is frowned upon as a credible source.


Don’t use anything from Ask.Com or Yahoo Answers, either. Those people will tell you that a jellyfish eats more than a peanut butter fish.


****Get the best and most sources you can from databases.  Learn to use them!  Then wade through them.  


How to read sources, form ideas, and build connections

Jarod tried to reassure Jenny,  “Now don’t freak out…but you need to actually read your sources.  I don’t mean read them word for word, but at least skim each article, pamphlet, book, etc., until you decide what you’re going to try to prove. 

Remember, try to add something new to what the experts have already done. It’s an ego trip, kind of, to find something others may not have correlated, but you have correlated!”

“So,” thought Jenny aloud, “…in this case, my class is psychology. You’re saying I need to think of something new to say about psychology that all of the greats haven’t already thought about? How can little ol’ me do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Jarod challenged. Almost everything has psychology behind it. Name something.”

Jenny poked her finger into the factory-made hole in the expensive jeans Jarod was wearing. The new jeans were made to look worn, with a hole on the thigh. “How about this hole, Dr. Freud?” She taunted.

“Well,” Jarod said, “I could go with Freud, actually, and talk about how he thought so many things were phallic, but I think I would go with Pavlov’s dog.  

Yes! Pavlov’s dog and its correlation to fashion trends. The dog learned to salivate when it heard a bell because it knew the bell meant food was coming. If I wear these jeans, both females and males say to me, ‘Hey, I love those jeans!’ but I notice their eyes go to the hole in the denim. So, like Pavlov’s dog, I like that, and I want to buy new holey jeans each time I get eyed.”

“Oh, psychology and fashion! You’re right, Jarod! There must be tons of things that I could theorize to be related to psychology!”

“Yes! But, if your prof wants you to write a literature review, just think of your third grade math teacher who always said, “You must show your work!”

The purpose is not to make you want to jump off a bridge but to show that you truly understand the works of those who paved the way for us.


How to write the thesis statement:  Start broad, end narrow (the inverted triangle approach)

“Do I need to start with the same thesis statement that my final thesis will start with?”

“No way, Jenny!  Here’s what to do:


1.  Start with a broad area and narrow it down.


2.  No thesis statement should ever be too broad. In fact, you can take that upside-down triangle and move from the broadest of the great thinkers to the smallest point you created and flip it over.


3.  In other words: start your final paper with your point. Then use points that are broader to show how you plan to support that point in your thesis paragraph.”


 Need more help?  

“Jenny, here’s a cool link to The Writing Center at UW-Madison if you want to learn more about lit reviews.”

“You’re so smart, Jarod. You never make me feel dumb, either.”

“Well, you can’t know something you aren’t taught. If you don’t learn it on your own or by a caring person, well…I once knew a guy with a developmental disability who at age 70 still didn’t know how to toilet himself because his impatient trainer stopped trying halfway through.” 

Jenny laughed but then looked at Jarod sideways. “Are you saying I don’t know how to toilet myself?” She had a little nervous giggle.

“No! Ha ha ha! I’m saying that you’ll do a fabulous job now that somebody who cares about you has just….told you how fabulous you are.” He looked down, nervously, cleared his throat, and added, “You need to read more about lit reviews now, though.  And get your stockpile of expert writings from a database and/or other credible sources so you can get your thesis done.  

Then maybe we can talk about the sex appeal of holes in $75 jeans firsthandedly.”


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