How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review

How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review

What is a Dissertation Literature Review?

The literature review chapter (not to be confused with a literature review dissertation) is one of the most difficult pieces to write. It is complex and there are multiple things that you as the author are trying to do and which the reader will expect to view. One of the reasons it so difficult is because you have to write with the authority and sophistication of an experienced scholar. It can therefore be an intellectually challenging chapter to write. You need to pull together theoretical perspectives and conceptual debates from previous research perspectives. Furthermore, you have to write in others' voices. That is, you must use other scholarly texts in order to construct an argument of your own and, somehow, through doing that, still pulling together an argument of your own.

What is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

The purpose of the literature Review in a dissertation is to establish the scholarly significance of the research problem by showing what previous research and analysis in this area has found. Generally speaking, then, you need to demonstrate that you have a comprehensive awareness of the subject area, that you have considered it from a wide variety of angles. You are required to be able to see the broader debates in the field, to be able to see what the big discussions and issues are. You need to be able to see what the connections are between papers and between authors. You need to identify which author has generated a range of discussions and how authors connect or disagree with each other. You are also required to show how research is connected either theoretically or by a particular perspective, or perhaps a particular way of looking at that research or using data in a particular way. The main objective, then, is to illuminate the conceptual connections in the field, to chart how different scholarly works talk to each other. In addition, you must demonstrate that you are conscious of and understand the key gaps in the research: particularly the gap that your research is going to bridge.

Component Parts

We can identify three main components to writing literature reviews. All three components are important. First of all, you cannot write a literature review without reading. You must read widely and systematically. Secondly, you need to understand how to write a literature review in an academic format, and what goes into it. The third component is citation: citations play a very important role in helping you construct not only your argument as well as your identity as a scholar.

Iterative Process

One of the important things to think about in writing the literature review is that it is an iterative process, something you come back to over and again. The literature review is the scholarly foundation of the work and as such acts as a touchstone for proceeding chapters. Begin by reading widely and making notes of all the literature works you read. It is especially important that you write down any quotes that you think will be significant to your study. Doubly important is that you take a reference for every quote noted: do this exactly as you would in an ordinary essay (with a full bibliography). This way, you will have your dissertation bibliography already underway. It will also help you in keeping your thoughts clear and orderly. Keep these notes filed and in tidy fashion. This will save you a great deal of time in the long run when you need to find a passage or quote whose relevance has only just become apparent. This will be very important later down the line, because you might come back to that article in the later stages and need to reread it. Again, the literature review is an iterative endeavour. You will necessarily go through a process of initial thoughts, from reading, writing, going back to articles, getting different thoughts, maybe finding new discoveries, and writing again; so, you will be revisiting papers and readings. Keep track of what you have been reading.

Another important consideration is that writing a literature review is in a certain sense an incremental process. As you begin to read and to understand the field, to see what the debates are, the more confidently you will progress. Towards the end of your thesis you will be much more confident about the area that you are researching, because you will have developed expertise as you go along.


The only way you can find out what is happening in the literature is through reading. The more you read the more familiar you are going to become with the literature resources. At the beginning, this might all seem overwhelming; but as you read and you begin to see the same authors appearing, the same points being made, and arguments against a particular point, you will be able to work out what is happening in the field.

Where relevant (and possible) always try and go back to the source documents. Not only is this good in terms of seeing what was written originally but you will find that your confidence will increase if you have read the original source. This way, you are not just relying on other people's interpretations. You want to begin to master how to read critically, how to develop notes and how to relate your notes to the research that you are conducting.

Another important consideration in the literature review is the genre. You need to understand how the chapter will be written and what will go into it. You need to realise that the literature review is made up of a number of arguments and these are all sub-claims in your overall thesis argument. An essential claim in this respect is the need for this research to fill a knowledge-gap. The scholarly need for your own research will be justified based on your assessments of the research that has been really conducted in the field. You need to demonstrate to the reader where the current scholarship is lacking. You also need to show how the literature points in a certain direction in relation to the gap which you intend to bridge.

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