I’m writing a journal article – what literatures do I choose?


I’m often asked about the literatures sections of journal articles. Not your literatures based paper of course but your standard empirical paper.

They only want a short section! I can’t cram everything I’ve read into a few paragraphs – how do I know what to put in and leave out? What criteria do I use to select?

This is a good question. It certainly isn’t possible to jam an entire thesis literature review into a journal article.

When reviewers read a paper that tries to cram the literatures octopus into the jar* they wonder if the writer is simply afraid to let go of the lengthy survey they’ve already done. They just can’t face starting over. Or they haven’t yet understood that something different is needed for the journal article And for these reviewers, nothing says “newbie” louder than a really long and un-selective essay about all of the literatures.

So what to do?

Well here’s some pithy advice from Tom Boellstorff, writing when he was Editor of the journal American Anthropologist.

Boellstorff points out that a journal article must make a novel – that is a new  and original – contribution. Just like the doctorate. And the argument for novelty can only be made through reference to the literatures. Just like the doctorate.

But with less words.

Like many others, Boellstorff thinks of the journal as a conversation. You need to show that you are pushing the journal conversation forward, he argues, and you can’t do that without being aware of what’s already been said. This is not simply referring to the existing scholarship, he points out, but engaging with it.

Boellstorff says that there is no set formula for working with literatures. So that’s good and bad news. It does mean that all writers have to work out for themselves what to include and exclude. And you get to do it your way.

But, Boellstorff says,  the most successful authors in his journal generally do these things:

  1. They show that they are aware of classic literatures germane to their topic
  2. They engage with recent scholarship germane to their topic
  3. They emphasise scholarship that they find useful and/or inspirational, showing how they build on this work
  4. They don’t spend time tearing down the work of others in order to show the value of their own contribution
  5. They avoid “namedropping” disconnected authors simply for the sake of showing they know them
  6. They show the existence of a community of scholars working on an issue and they demonstrate how their work fits into that community and carries the conversation forward.

I think these are a pretty helpful six  points – they do provide some serious clues about what literatures to include and exclude, as well as the appreciative stance to take.

I hope you find them useful thinking points too.


* This is a great metaphor and comes from a participant in a Kamler-Thomson workshop, reporting in our doctoral writing supervision book.


Boellstorff, Tom (2010) How to get an article accepted at American Anthropologist ( or anywhere) Part 2. American Anthropologist 112 (3)  353-356.