How to write a great literature review using the power of three

Writing a literature review can be one of the hardest parts of getting a PhD. For me, writing a 50-page prospectus was actually more challenging than writing a 280-page dissertation. In honor of my sending a polished draft of my full dissertation to my adviser last week, I decided to share some wisdom about this rather arduous task.

I’ve made an infographic to help me explain. Please pardon my (lack of) graphic design skills. While this model isn’t pretty, it really is how I came to visualize my literature review. This is most applicable to those of us in the humanities and social sciences, but I hope that people in the sciences may find it useful as well.


All research begins with a question. By the point that you’re actually sitting down to write a literature review, you have probably spent quite a bit of time exploring and fine-tuning your research question. Describing your specific investigation is probably the most straightforward part of writing a good literature review.

But when writing for an academic audience, you can’t just write about your own research. You need to clearly explain why your research is important and how it differs from previous work. To do that, you need to

a) provide an overview of previous work and

b) show how your research methods and imperatives have been shaped by the prior research.

Even if you have a topic that few scholars have written about before, as was the case for me, you still need to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework by citing previous works.

The problem that many of us encounter is that by the time we reach the stage of actually sitting down to write a lit review, we’ve read so much that we have no idea where to begin. We may have spent so much time studying the trees that we’ve lost sight of the forest, to the point where we can spout off mountains of details about the key monographs and articles that influenced us, but can’t provide a succinct answer to the question of “how does your work contribute to the field?” To write a successful literature review, we need to answer that question.

Writing a literature review requires us to step back from the trees and start to survey the forest. Think about all of the works you’ve read related to your topic; you can even make a list if this helps you remember. Then, look through this list. Common patterns and themes will start to emerge. Now, your goal is to identify three fairly distinct subtopics that your work addresses. Some works will fall under multiple subtopics, as in a venn diagram, but it will still be helpful to think of these subfields as distinct. To use the example of my own dissertation, I identified three subfields critical for my research: women in medicine, U.S. transnational history, and gender and imperialism. Obviously, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Many of the works on transnational history discussed gender or imperialism, for instance. This is okay. What’s important is that you break up the huge body of research you’re looking at into manageable chunks.

If you can’t think of three distinct subfields, then two will work as well, but I really don’t recommend attempting to discuss more than three. That much fragmentation can cause its own problems.

Once you have your three subfields, take them on individually. Try to answer the following questions for each subfield individually

  • What general trends are there in this body of scholarship? Do researchers tend to assume particular methodologies or theoretical perspectives? How has this changed over time? What has this body of scholarship contributed to our understanding of your general subject?
  • What are some issues that are not addressed in this body of scholarship? Are there any weak points, or perspectives that have not been explored?

Now, you are going to tie these questions together and relate it to your project. How has your scholarship been inspired by this body of literature? (It’s important not to skip this one!) What does your project do that is innovative?

All of these issues should be addressed in detail and with heavy citations. You can discuss individual works when it is appropriate to do so. It’s even okay to quote scholars directly, as long as you are engaging in direct conversation with them.

Once you do this for all three subfields, you will have elucidated many ways in which your work is unique and contributes to existing scholarship. In your conclusion, your job is to knit all of the subfields back together and explain why your research will contribute to the larger discipline or disciplines. You don’t need to have a set conclusion for your research yet, but you should be able to demonstrate why it’s worthwhile to conduct this research in the first place. The fact that no one else has written about a subject does not, in and of itself, compel a dissertation committee to approve your topic. Telling them why your work will impact the field will do that.

I hope this guides you in writing a literature review. Are there any other useful strategies for writing lit reviews? Please share them in the comments.