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The Language of the Literature Review

By far, one of the most well-attended, requested workshops that I present on is the Literature Review. I title the session "You Want Me to Do What? Strategies for Writing a Comprehensive Literature Review" because writing the literature review can be extremely overwhelming and frustrating when you lack the proper approach.

Though I can't explain the strategies of that hour long session in a writing tip blog, I can share an important tip when writing a literature review. That tip is to focus on what the scholarship says about the topic rather than on the topic. Many graduate students make the mistake of writing their literature review as if they are writing about the topic. However, the goal is to present what scholars state about the topic, not simply write about the topic then cite scholars. This subtle shift requires that the subjects of your sentences focus on the scholarship, not the topic being researched.

The sentences below provide a great example:

Original Sentence: There is an increased need to comprehend the relationship that exists between IT capability and firm performance (Santhanam & Hartono 2003).

Edited Sentence: Current IT literature explains that an increased need exists to comprehend the relationship between IT capability and firm performance (Santhanam & Hartono 2003).

As illustrated in the edited sentence, the subject of the sentence becomes the scholarship on this topic. The author also could have started the sentence with the scholars (i.e. "According to Santhanam and Hartono," or "Santhanam and Hartono" assert that...). Remember, the literature review gives you the opportunity to present the major themes, studies and/or methodologies surrounding a topic, so keep that broader focus.

To learn the other strategies for conducting, organizing and writing a comprehensive literature review, sign up to become a member of the Cultivate the Writer Center for Academic Writing Development ( This topic along with more than 20 others will ensure that you have what you need to be a proficient scholarly writer!

Dr. V

Writing Coach - Editor - Consultant

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