A review of the literature surveys the scholarship and research relevant to your research question, but it is not a series of summaries. It is a synthesis of your sources. This means you cannot write a review of the literature (which we’ll call a “lit review”) by composing a summary of each of your sources, then stringing those summaries together into a paper. This is a diagram of what a lit review is not:
How is a lit review organized, then? We like this quotation from Temple University’s Student Success Center, which describes how a synthesis is different from a series of summaries:
“Writing a synthesis is like building a quilt. Imagine yourself taking each of your sources, tearing them into their component parts, reassembling the most interesting and important pieces from each into some new and beautiful design, stitching those parts together with your own prominent transitional and analytical thread…. A synthesis isn’t simply one summary after another after another; the creative work of a synthesis is in reassembling the sources and presenting them from a new perspective.”
As the writer above says, in a lit review you pull your sources apart and put the pieces back together in a new way. The structure of a lit review looks more like the diagram below. As you see, the “backbone” of the lit review is made up of the topics your sources are discussing.
Each section of the lit review is focused on a topic, and the relevant sources are discussed within the context of that topic. For example, if your lit review discusses barriers to healthcare for older adults, you might have a section focused on transportation barriers. Within that section of the lit review, you would discuss the sources that provide information about transportation barriers to healthcare.
A Process for Organizing Your Review of the Literature
So how do you identify those topics and build that structure for your lit review? We suggest you follow a four-step process in which you select, arrange, group, and order the material from your sources:
Once you have created these groups of ideas, approaches, or themes, give each one a label. The labels describe the points, themes, or topics that are the backbone of your paper’s structure.
Now that you have identified the topics you will discuss in your lit review, look them over as a whole. Do you see any gaps that you should fill by finding additional sources? If so, do that research and add those sources to your groupings.
Once you have an assertion for each of your groupings, put those assertions in the order that you want to use in the lit review. This may be the order that has the best logical flow, or the order that tells the story you want to tell in the lit review.
Once you have completed step 4, you have the outline of your lit review!
Some writers work more intuitively, jumping right from reading their sources to step 3 or even step 4. But if you are working with a lot of sources, or if you want to break this large task down into a set of smaller steps, this process helps you manage your sources and externalize your thinking at each stage of the process.