How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review in 3 Steps

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Whether you’re just thinking about pursuing higher education or are about to start writing your dissertation, you probably already know that with any type of academic paper, it’s crucial to be thorough and follow all submission guidelines. Failure to adhere to these guidelines is usually a sure-fire path to rejection, even if the academic rigor and writing quality of the paper are exemplary. Therefore, make sure you follow all the instructions to a T despite the extra time and effort that will likely require.

Even after reading the description of a literature review for a dissertation, you might have some questions about what exactly it is and how to write one. We get it—there’s a lot of confusing information out there, so we’ll guide you through the basics of a literature review, which you will need to submit with your dissertation. Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your literature review—the various parts of a research paper work in harmony to produce high-quality academic output.

Although you should always double-check the requirements for your specific submission and follow them carefully, in most cases, a literature review is an opportunity for the writer to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject, summarize and review the research sources (or literature) they’ve used for their dissertation, and offer a critical analysis of how their own research fills any gaps in the existing literature. 

A literature review adds important context to a study, illuminating how the research and insights fit into the field and highlighting how the new paper advances current concepts. Reviews can range from simple summaries of sources to more complex, critical, and engaging interpretations of them. A literature review can serve to assess the validity and relevance of a source to the research although it is not the place to include any new contributions. Think of it as laying the foundation before you start building new knowledge structures.

If you’re confident in your research and analytical skills but are struggling with grammar, spelling, and punctuation, check out our combined proofreading and editing services and let our team of experts help you polish your literature review and any other parts of your dissertation that need improvement.

So, how do you write a literature review for a dissertation? 

1. Identify and review your sources

The first step in writing your literature review is compiling a list of the sources you plan to use in your research. Make sure there’s a balanced mix of books and academic journals and that you include reputable scholars and studies, which will give your dissertation more credibility. Ideally, you want to include newer research as it will be more relevant—older research may still be valuable, but there is a much higher risk that the findings have become outdated or have been debunked.

Consider elements such as methodology, parameters, objectives, and the contribution of each source. Will the sources provide the type of information you need? Are they robust enough to base your research on? Are their findings consistent with other research on the subject? Are the studies you’re selecting truly relevant to your topic? Papers that simply deal with matters in the same field aren’t good enough—make sure the literature you’re including truly gets to the heart of what your dissertation is about.

The sources you choose speak volumes about how focused you are and how deeply you understand your topic, so take your time reading abstracts and finding the right publications to support your research. List them in order of relevance and importance, and then go over them once again. This may sound tedious, but don’t forget that the more you immerse yourself in the literature of your field, the more competent and versatile you’ll become as a researcher—the knowledge you glean will allow you to write an even better dissertation.

2. Find the gaps in the research

Before you start writing your literature review, it’s vital to reread your sources to ensure that all the arguments you’re making in your dissertation are clear and all the information you’re presenting is accurate. You also want to be fully aware of any gaps in the existing research and the potential of your work to fill some of those gaps, which is what most professors expect from a literature review. Thus, a literature review becomes your chance to show readers exactly why your dissertation makes valuable contributions.

Study your sources with a critical eye and question the texts, the methodologies, the theoretical arguments, and the general hypotheses. Do you agree with them? How would you do things differently? How does a given paper support or contradict your argument? Make sure you include opposing arguments that give more weight to your hypothesis to show your deep understanding of the topic. Of course, even if you disagree with the methodology, findings, conclusions, or other elements of some of your sources, always treat the papers and their authors with respect, keeping in mind that another scholar may similarly criticize your paper someday.

A literature review is all about highlighting the importance and relevance of your work to the subject or field, proving that your research is novel and interesting and that you’re doing more than simply rehashing old literature. It should also demonstrate your knowledge of the field and your critical thinking skills, so give yourself enough time to carefully read through all your sources (particularly the abstract, introduction, and conclusion) and take note of any observations or questions that come up as you read. 

A literature review may not feel that important because you’re not diving into the research your dissertation is meant to present, but don’t underestimate all the background and context it provides and take it seriously.

3. Write your literature review

Once you’ve listed all your sources from most to least relevant, gone over them again, and figured out where the gaps in the research are, you can start shaping the arguments for your literature review. 

We suggest writing an outline to keep your review focused and guide your introduction, body, and conclusion, helping you decide whether to organize it by theme, topic, or argument. By creating an outline, you can preview different organizational approaches without actually writing everything down and then having to overhaul it if you decide to change direction. Plus, working from an outline will generally make the writing process much smoother. The body is the most essential part of your literature review since it’s where you discuss your academic sources and link them to your research, so carefully consider how you can organize your sources to make the strongest case for your argument. 

Many writers find outlines helpful, but everyone has their own methods, so do whatever works for you. What matters is that when you start writing, you build a logical narrative that supports your hypothesis while keeping your topic as specific as possible, and an outline can provide immense value in helping you keep your writing focused. If you work in a broad field, it’s especially important to focus your research and clearly state the purpose of your dissertation in relation to the sources you’ve chosen. 

Also, make sure that your tone, style, and language are appropriate for academia without over-complicating your flow. Good academic writing is clear and concise, accurately conveying the sources, methodology, and findings of a research project in a way that readers can easily understand. Some scholars pull out a thesaurus and dig around for the fanciest words, thinking that arcane vocabulary will make them appear more intelligent. However, all this does is obfuscate the message of a paper. Plus, if you try to use words you don’t fully understand, the risk of misusing them is high, and then you definitely won’t look more intelligent.

The key to writing a great literature review for your dissertation is to follow academic conventions without losing your voice and focus, putting the research first and showing that you’re familiar with the existing debates and discussions in your subject area. It’s your opportunity to present an in-depth argument to critically engage with your sources, so it needs to be error-free and easy to read, based on solid and credible sources relevant to the research you’re presenting. 

If you’re struggling to structure and write your literature review, take a look at our deluxe academic package, which will ensure your work meets the highest standard of academic excellence. 

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