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Letter to My Students: Writing a Literature Review

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Dear Students,

An important goal for writing this literature review is to practice thinking outside the box for drafting and revising an essay. We have spoken about the differences between written product and writing process. But it has come to my attention that many of you have still attempted to draft your essays by beginning with the thesis and the introduction.

In longer essays and especially with researched essays, beginning with the introduction may lead to significant frustration. You may not have found your subject yet, especially if you are at the beginning of your research. With that in mind, I offer four photos with helpful hints for completing the Literature Review assignment.

Photo 1: The product is different from the process.

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This first photo illustrates the product. Inside the template are 9 rectangles, each representing a section of the final essay. The introduction will address the connections between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and a third subject that will grow out of your review of the literature. The seven middle sections focus on the summary and analysis of each separate source. Please note that your writing for a single source may be 2-3 paragraphs long. The conclusion is a recap of your essay. The printing on the side of the template indicates that your third topic will be a combination of 5-7 sources that show connections with “Allegory” and “Letter.”

The final essay, as you can see from the template, looks neat and precise. This is the finished product. But the process of achieving that final product looks quite different, as we have discussed.

Photo 2: The process is messy and includes much trial and error.

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Here are the 7 steps to help complete the Literature Review:

  1. Find your sources
  2. Summarize and analyze each source. A summary responds to the question: “What does this source say?” An analysis responds to the question: “What does this source mean?”
  3. a. Find the common theme between sources and b. Between Plato and King and c. write it down!
  4. Choose 5-7 sources from #1 and #2 above.
  5. Arrange sources in appropriate order for body paragraphs.
  6. Write introduction.
  7. Write conclusion.

Photo 3: Use file cards to keep track of your sources.

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Index cards (a 20th-century technology) serve several purposes. First, using handwriting can work kinesthetically to enhance memory. Plato Theatre also was a kinesthetic activity, using movement to connect to “Allegory” and its persuasive appeal to emotions (pathos). Second, the index cards allow writers to file the sources in categories that make sense. Here, I have color coded the different sources. Yellow for books, red for legal encyclopedia entries, blue for articles, green for archival documents, and purple for films. Third, summaries and analyses can be written on the back. Be sure to use additional space as needed. Finally, please note that there are a total of eleven sources here. In other words, use strategic over-thinking for this part of the process. As sources are summarized and analyzed in writing, the third topic for the literature review will eventually emerge.

Photo 4: Sort, arrange, and rearrange the file cards in an order that makes sense. This process will help with selecting the third topic.

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In the end, I chose five sources. Each sources is a historic account of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. I arranged the sources according to points of view. The first source is an article written by a journalist immediately after the March in 1965. The second source (a book) and the third source (a documentary) are records of the events of the March composed by historians. The fourth source (another documentary) and the fifth source (a graphic narrative) focus more specifically on Congressman John Lewis’s experiences of the March. I chose these sources based on my interpretation of Plato and King: that the light of the sun shows us that there is no “alternative truth,”, especially where racism is concerned. Note that I arrived at this connection between sources through abstract thinking and interpretation. From the initial sources (Photo 3), I could have chosen a number of different connections. The experience of emerging from the Cave engages my attention the most, and I found this connection in each of the sources in Photo 4.

Good luck with your work, and please let me know if you have questions or concerns. I will be happy to address them.

Sincerely,

Dr. Susan N. Bernstein

1 Comment
Migrated Account

Thank you for this wonderfully useful piece. I have been dealing with exactly this problem among my community college freshmen, and I plan to discuss your article with them. 

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent publications include “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity, and an entry on ASU-Tempe’s Writing Program, in collaboration with Shirley K. Rose and Brent Chappelow, in Writing Program Architecture, edited by Bryna Siegel Finer and Jamie Farnham-White. An article on graduate education and basic writing is forthcoming in Journal of Basic Writing. I co-coordinated the Stretch Writing Program at ASU-Tempe from 2013-2018.