Notes on Literature Surveys

A literature survey is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It's usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the literature survey into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.

A literature survey must do these things:

  1. Be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
  2. Synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
  3. Identify areas of controversy in the literature
  4. Formulate questions that need further research

[Dena Taylor, University of Colorado.]

A literature survey, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick themes to focus the organization of your survey.

[The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

Writing Tips

Use sentences like, "Simpson suggests that the universe may in fact be doughnut shaped [1]. Others agree with this possibility, including Hawking [2]. Syzlak and Gumble apparently were the first to publish such a claim [3], but their research is highly speculative."

Refer to the papers in a clear and unambiguous way, such as "Smith, et al. found that ... [4]." Avoid saying "the authors", since it is not clear who you mean. Do you mean the authors of the last paper referenced, or are you talking about yourself? The same thing applies to "paper"; "this paper" could mean the one that you wrote.

Avoid to always begin a paragraph with a person's name. Use conjunctions such as "whereas, "however", similarly".