Writing Your First Lit Review in Grad School

Real shot of my bookshelf…please ignore the graphic novels

Something I always notice among pundits on TV is a consistent claim that they’re being original. “No historian has ever talked about this” or “Historians have tried to bury this” are common claims.

Of course these claims are utter BS. Historians of those particular fields could rattle off dozens of works that address the very subject this pundit claims no one talks about. That’s because unlike pundits, professional historians, and professionals in other fields, have to prove their work is original. They do this by carrying out literature reviews – that is, by reading all the available work in a given field and coming to some general conclusions about where that field stands. Then you have a clear idea of where your own work fits in that field. 

In history, we call this practice historiography, but the point is overall the same – reviewing all the relevant work and situating your own work within it.

This practice is really drilled into us in grad school. Most of your coursework will involve conducting lit reviews in various topics. In my experience, most of my final papers during coursework were roughly 20-page lit review papers. For a full-time student, that’s 3 lit reviews per semester. 

In talking with newer grad students, or undergrads considering grad school, I find a lot of confusion around the lit review. What is it? How do you write one? Are you just repeating what a bunch of other scholars said? I hope with this quick guide, I can remedy some of that confusion. I’ll shed some light on my experience writing lit reviews and give you some tips and tricks to successfully write your own.

Why is a Lit Review Important?

If you’re in graduate school, the expectation is that you’ll eventually make some original contribution in the field you’re studying. But before you can do that, you have to know that field inside and out. 

A lit review establishes your authority in a field. It demonstrates that you’ve examined a topic as fully as possible and know where its shortcomings are. Presumably, you’ll fix those shortcomings with your own work.

I can’t speak for other fields, but in history, the question we always get is, “So what?” Why is your work important? What does it tell us that we don’t already know? That’s where a lit review (historiography) comes in. By writing an effective rundown of all the relevant work in your field, you’re demonstrating that your own work is filling a gap that needs filling. 

And trust me, everyone from journal editors to potential employers will want to know why you’re filling that gap. It’s the whole crux of your professional work. So that’s why this practice is drilled again and again in class work. Getting good at it in your first year of grad school will be a huge help in the future as you develop your thesis topic and make your own original contributions to your field. 

Finding Your Sources

Define your topic clearly. A huge part of writing a good literature review is starting with a clearly-defined topic you’ll explore. If you start too big, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, and if you start too small, you won’t have enough sources to make a good argument. So search for a happy medium there. 

Here’s a good example. You’re interested in the American Civil War. Great topic, but impossible to write a literature review for. Years ago I read that there were approximately 70,000 books written on the Civil War, so that number probably approaches 100,000 today. Point is, there are tens of thousands of books on the Civil War, and you simply can’t write a literature review of the field overall. Even professionals who specialize in the Civil War don’t read all those books. You need to whittle that topic down.

So you’re also interested in race relations. Good, now we’re getting somewhere. Race and the Civil War is a great topic that’s more well-defined. But it’s still huge. Will you be focusing on slaves? Free blacks in the North? Free blacks in the South? Native Americans? There are still too many questions here to make this your lit review topic.

But you also like military history. So you define your topic as: “The experiences of black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War.” Great! You’ll probably have to narrow that down even further, but you’ve whittled the topic enough that you’ve got a manageable starting point for your project.

Do this for every topic you’re writing a review in. Don’t start too big or too small. Aim for a topic that won’t overwhelm you, but one with enough information to fill a 20 page paper.

Search for the key work in the field. Now that you’ve got your topic figured out, you have to start tracking down the work you’ll use for your review. This is harder in some fields. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which work is actually authoritative and which is overlooked. Some tricks I’ve found to locate the key works are:

  1. Look for other literature reviews. Journals occasionally publish review essays in certain fields, and these essays are a huge help in locating the work you should be looking at. Search JSTOR or another database for review essays or historiographies that can help point you in the right direction.
  2. See what other scholars are citing. Footnotes and bibliographies in other books or articles are treasure troves for finding important sources. Scholars carry out their own lit reviews and often discuss the relevant literature in their work. If you’re seeing a particular book or scholar cited/discussed consistently, that’s a good indication it’s something you should check out. Note that this is true even if scholars are citing this work and disagreeing. The fact that they’re specifically trying to refute a particular scholar is an indication that this scholar made an impact that subsequent scholars have to grapple with.
  3. Ask someone in your department. Never feel ashamed of asking for help! Your department is full of professional scholars. Someone is bound to know some important work in the field you’re looking at. I know if someone asked me about business history in the Gilded Age, they’d soon walk away with a dozen books to read. Start with asking the class professor for suggestions. If they aren’t familiar with the field, they can likely point you to someone who is. Don’t be shy about checking your department website and sending a few emails to professors or grad students who might help. Even if you only get a few book suggestions, this is still an important starting point. 

Constructing Your Review

Organize your reading list. You don’t want to lose track of your reading list once you’ve compiled it. I recommend opening a Word document and listing all the works there. Then plug in relevant information as you work through your reading list. 

Get the main thesis from every work on your list. There may be varying requirements on the number of works you have to use for your lit review. But whether it’s 5 or 10 or 20, you should always start by getting the main thesis of every work. You should be able to sum it up in a sentence like, “X argues that Y.” 

Note: Some books might only talk about your particular topic briefly. In that case, make sure you discern what the author says about your topic specifically, rather than just the argument of the book as a whole.

Get 2 or 3 examples for how each work proves its thesis. You should never just say “X argues Y” without an example. Look at the specific examples they use to demonstrate their argument. Look at the sources that support those examples. Also jot down if these examples do indeed demonstrate the argument successfully – this will be important later on.

Break the works down into categories. The books and articles you’re using for your lit review probably approach a topic in several different ways. You should organize your review around these various approaches to structure your paper. 

Let’s stick with the example from before, black troops in the Union Army. One way you might organize this review is 1) authors who argue black troops were essential to the Union victory 2) authors who argue black troops were not essential to the Union victory. I’m sure that can be broken down further, but this general example shows how you can start organizing your review.

Critique the works. The point of a lit review isn’t just spitting out information on what various authors say. You’re meant to engage with that literature, and that means making some fair criticisms. What could an author have done better? Do his/her examples not prove the point? Have they used some unreliable sources? These are things you should point out in your review. 

Draw general conclusions about the field. Remember that the overall point of a lit review isn’t just spitting out information. You have to go deeper and actually discern the state of the field. Based on your review, you should be able to draw some conclusions on where the field currently lies. Is there consensus on a particular topic? Or is that field still full of disagreement? 

Suggest where the field might go. Based on your conclusion, you should also be able to suggest other avenues of study. This is where you’ll start distinguishing yourself as your graduate career progresses, because you’ll start actively intervening in the fields you’ve critiqued. Have scholars missed something? What part of the story is still untold?

For now, since this is your first lit review, you don’t have to worry about being deep or profound with your suggestions for where the field might go. You’re just starting out. A few thoughts for what areas might require further study is fine.

Quick Tips to Remember 

  1. A lit review isn’t just about regurgitating what authors say. A thesis should still guide the paper.
  2. Cite all sources!!!!
  3. Keep your professor informed of what you’re doing. Not all professors require you to consult with them on your topic idea, but you still should. A lot of credit rides on your final paper, and you want to make sure it’s done correctly. 
  4. Remember your first lit review isn’t your thesis or dissertation. Don’t put the weight of the world on it. I’ve written lit reviews I’ve never looked at again. It’s just part of the practice.
  5. That said, save everything your write! This goes for everything in grad school but especially your lit reviews. Referring back to these essays can be a huge help when you’re doing your comprehensive exams or looking for thesis sources.

All that said, I hope now you’re ready to take a crack at writing your first literature review in grad school!

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