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Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: Writing A Literature Review

What is a Literture Review

Note: This description of the elements of a literature review is geared toward researchers in the arts and humanities. Additional information on conducting literature reviews is available in Dr. Robert Labaree's libguide on organizing research in the social sciences.


A literature review is a discursive essay that critically surveys existing scholarship on a particular topic in the field. A literature review essay is a required part of a dissertation. Undergraduate students are sometimes asked to write a literature review essay as part of an assignment to help them delve into topical research. Literature reviews are also included in grant proposals.

Components of a Literature Review Essay

When organizing a literature review essay, remember to weave in the following components as needed:

  • Criteria for selecting and excluding sources for your literature review;
  • Citations to the works under review;
  • Summary of the main ideas, arguments, theories, or methodologies of each work under review;
  • Critical evaluation of how each work fits into the development of scholarship on the topic at hand, whether it breaks new evidentiary or theoretical grounds, or provides notable nuaned reading. In academic papers and dissertations, critical evaluation constitutes the bulk of the literature review essay.

Organizing a Literature Review Essay

There are several common ways to organize a literature review essay. Often literature review essays are a hybrid:

Historic: If the history of publishing sheds important light on the trajectory of scholarship on your topic, it may be useful to organize your essay chronologically by date of publication. Are earlier authors cited in subsequent publications, and if so, which ones?

Thematic: Has your topic undergone thematic reinterpretation, and how have the themes been treated by the works under review?  Is there a methodological context, such as iconographic, sociological, political, religious? Do any of the works offer a methodological reevaluation or recontextualization of evidence? It may be worthwhile to check the bibliographies of the sources you are reviewing to see who else is cited, and whether there are previous authors and works that are commonly cited by the literature you are reviewing.

Theoretical: Has the topic been influenced by theoretical developments, such as structuralism, feminism, historicism? How do the works under review contribute to, amplify on, or reorient the theoretical discourse? It may be worthwhile to check the bibliographies of the sources you are reviewing to see who else is cited, and whether there are previous authors and works that are commonly cited by the literature you are reviewing.

A literature review essay written as a chapter of a dissertation ought to be as exhaustive as possible, given the parameters of the dissertation topic. You should be clear in stating the criteria for including and excluding sources.

Remember that you are writing an essay. It should have a theme that is reflected in the opening paragraph/section, a body that provides a well constructed critical summary and synthesis of works under review, and a conclusion that may reflect on the current state of scholarship, and, if appropriate, note developing scholarly trends.