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April 29, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 3 — The Literature Review

Okay, so, you’ve identified a journal to target with an article submission, analyzed a model article, and written the provisional conclusion to your article — now it’s time for step 3, writing your literature review. Literature reviews are an easy thing to malign, as they seem simultaneously pedestrian and Herculean. How can you possibly cite all of the relevant literature? And how can you make a literature review anything more than an uninteresting list of ‘necessary’ citations?

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Before I address those questions, it’s important to point out that a solid literature review does a lot of work for you as an anonymous author; a good literature review can allay many reviewer concerns and make a ‘revise and resubmit’ into an ‘accept with revisions.’ If you can position your work in its relevant fields — which are presumably fields relevant to the journal you’ve selected — even if there are problems with your presentation of evidence, the thoroughness of your analysis, or the structure of the manuscript, it should be obvious to the reviewers and the editor that there’s significant merit in your scholarship. Which is all to say that a solid literature review makes evident that you know the field and that your work is worth a reviewer’s time, even if the article isn’t in tip-top shape.

So there are two rules moving forward: write what you know, and keep it short. With those in mind, let’s talk about structure first:

In many respects, what you’re doing is duplicating content from your conclusion — at least in terms of citations. And you’ll be following a similar model, in that you’ll start by addressing literature in the subfield or geographic area of interest, and then shift registers into more theoretical territory. All told, your literature review should probably be between 3-5 paragraphs long, and usually only 3-4 paragraphs (if it gets too long, it either comes across as too anxious or too grad-studenty). I don’t think there’s a real prescription on which order these paragraphs should come in, but they should be organically arranged, and move your reader from your introduction into your cases — so it often makes sense to review topical or geographically-similar literature as the last paragraph (which I’ll explain more shortly).

Paragraph 1 starts with relevant literature in your subfield. Who are the people most immediately related to your topic? You should have already considered who these people are in writing your conclusion, but now’s the time to name them and to put them into direct conversation with your concerns. And, in so doing, what you’ll also be pointing out is how your work is different from theirs. So, for example, if I’m writing about sleep for a medical anthropology journal, this is the paragraph about how other people have approached sleep within anthropology and related fields.

Paragraph 2 then start to scale up and position your article in more theoretical literature, often most closely related to your field. So, following my example, this might be the paragraph about medicalization or some other medical-anthropology related concern. It should show your reader that you know the relevant theoretical literature in your field, as well as an awareness of the debates in the field and how you’re adding to them.

Then, paragraph 3 moves to the even more macro level in thinking about the theoretical aspects of your argument. So, continuing my example, this might be about subjectivity or temporality or whatever — something that’s of more general interest to readers in your discipline. Again, it should make evident to your reader that you have a clear sense of the debates and leading figures in the field, and these people may or may not be reflected elsewhere in your literature review.

Paragraph 4 scales down to regional literature, as a way to segue into your empirical evidence. But, if you’re writing for an area studies journal, you’ll probably flip the subfield and regional paragraphs (so 1 & 4 can be flipped). It’s important for this last paragraph to serve as a transition for your audience because it’s often the last or second-to-last paragraph before your case presentation begins — so keep that in mind as you structure them for your audience. If it’s for a subfield journal, this paragraph often includes things like: ‘when medical anthropologists study [context X] they focus on things like [phenomena A, B & C].’ And then you say something like: ‘Rarely do scholars focus on [your topic], and doing so shows that [reiterate thesis].’ If you’re writing for a regional journal, and this is your first paragraph, it tends to follow the same format, although it often starts with ‘Scholars of [context X] have highlighted the importance of [phenomena A, B & C].’ Which is followed by something like, ‘By focusing on [your topic] we see how concerns about [phenomena A, B or C] is complicated by [your approach].’

Bear in mind that your article manuscript will probably be sent to one or more people that you mention in your literature review. If an editor is looking for peer reviewers for you and they don’t know specialists in your field or who work on your topic or in your geographical area, it’s standard practice to look at someone’s bibliography and pick reviewers through citations. It’s not going to be the biggest names in the field, so it’s likely to be the people who work in your topical area, and probably more junior people (who agree to do things like peer review articles). Given that, it’s important to be even handed in your literature review — don’t pick any fights, unless you’re ready to pursue them.

Let’s get back to my two rules, mentioned above: write what you know and keep it short. A short, 6,000-8,000 word article manuscript, probably has room for 25-30 bibliographic entries. Most of these are going to be listed in your literature review and introduction. That means — doing simple math — that you’re citing about 8 people in each of the paragraphs listed above.

You might be tempted to spend a week of your life identifying recent scholarship relevant to your literature review — but don’t. You won’t get dinged for not knowing something published in the last 24 months (even by the person who wrote it, most likely), but you will get funny looks for avoiding to mention key texts published within the last 5-10 years. You should be familiar with this older stuff, and it might have even been the basis for your qualifying exams. So, write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know — if there’s something really critical, your reviewers or the editor will point it out to you. And, plus, you’ll have time to freshen up on your reading while the article is out for review…

And, as I’ve suggested throughout, keep it short. Four paragraphs is plenty long enough, and 25-30 citations is going to cover most of your bases. Try and write your literature review in a day. Maybe there will be a couple missing citations, but you should be able to regurgitate key citations and their respective summaries pretty quickly — it’s only about 700 words, after all. You can always go back and add more later, once you work through the whole manuscript. (I’ve come to believe that there should be no citation surprises: if you’re going to cite someone in your conclusion, cite them in the literature review too.)

There are exceptions to this generic form — like arguments against the literature, where the whole article is a deep rehearsal of the literature and its problems as based on your research — but the exceptions are generally for later in one’s career, when you’re ready to make enemies and defend yourself… And you have a reputation that allows you to make such grand claims.

Back to where I started: hopefully a literature review no longer feels like a Herculean task. It should be short, and it should be based on what you already know. Now, as far as not being dull? That’s a more difficult thing to gauge. It’s okay if it’s a little boring, because it’s relatively short and readers are ready to be bored for a page or two. But if you’re putting the literature together in compelling ways — generally in asking questions of a topic or set of theories that have yet to be asked (which can be as simple as focusing on a topic that hasn’t been attended to closely) — then you should have a highly readable and maybe even exciting literature review. It takes time, so plan on your first few literature reviews being a little more on the ‘necessary’ and a little less on the exciting side of things.

The next step? Your evidence.

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