How to write a Literature review (for thesis and Dissertations)

author By Mary Boies

When examining your dissertation or thesis, most examiners, dissertation committees, and supervisors will focus on your literature review.

Dissertation Literature review writing guide

The premise is simple; a well-written and conceptualized literature review indicates that the other chapters of the dissertation are intact, loaded, and relevant to the topic. Unfortunately, writing chapter two or dissertation literature review section is often challenging, and many get it all wrong.

If you are an undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate (doctoral) student seeking ways to improve your dissertation literature review, you came to the right place. We intend to make the entire process of writing a dissertation, thesis, research paper, term paper, white paper, or other academic research-based papers with literature reviews easier.

You are probably concerned with a literature review, how to do it right, the steps and tips, and other bells and whistles about literature reviews in dissertation writing.

We have good news for you! This article defines it, explores the steps, structure, and finding sources, and gives you some valuable insights to set you up on the right trajectory.

As we begin, a cup of coffee, some incredible music, and a notebook would be ideal. Let’s do this!

What is a Dissertation Literature Review?

Generally, a literature review surveys scholarly sources on a specific topic. We already talked about selecting good topics for a dissertation, which comes in handy as we define chapter 2 or the literature review section.

For a dissertation, the literature review process entails a critical assessment of the scholarly sources (collectively termed literature) that are gathered, read, and selected based on the subject area or topic and subsequent identification of the research gap that the dissertation or thesis intends to address.

The process entails sourcing and reading through existing research publications relating to the topic. It also comprises writing the second chapter of your dissertation writeup.

In terms of length, the literature review chapter comprises 25% of the entire word count for a dissertation.

Purpose of a Literature Review in a Dissertation

There is a good reason why students find it worthy to begin the process of writing a dissertation by writing the literature review chapter.

First off, it demonstrates that you have researched and know your topic. The literature review chapter shows that you understand what you are talking about in your subject or field context.

As a scholar, you should demonstrate through reviewing what other scholars have written on your topic. Doing so indicates that you have read the existing literature, understood the research gaps, and understand the direction of your research.

It is never just a summary but a critical discussion that shows how the rest of your research sits with the works of other scholars.

Literature reviews also reveal the research gaps. It helps you to show what is missing in the existing research, which gives meaning to your research. It also forms the foundation for your conceptual or theoretical framework.

A literature review also informs the methodology, research approach, and design. By looking at your research's aims, objectives, and questions, you can develop a methodology, design, and approach that addresses the research gaps.

Reviewing studies covering a topic close to yours helps you identify the methodological and content deficiencies or gaps you can address through recommendations from these studies.

Other functions of a literature review include avoiding fruitless approaches, delimiting the research problem, seeking new lines of inquiry, and seeking support for the current findings. You will be able to focus on the correct variables, contextualize the topic, relate ideas, concepts, and theory, and gain new perspectives on the topic through your literature review.

How to write a Great Literature Review for a Dissertation – The Steps

A dissertation review is founded on credible, reliable, and relevant sources.

1. Look at other sample literature reviews

If you are writing a dissertation for the first time, it is best to begin by looking at the past dissertation literature reviews for inspiration. Then, focus on dissertations completed in your department or your topic.

You can access such a dissertation through your university’s website or online by searching for “topic + dissertation + academic level (undergraduate, masters, or doctorate) + PDF.”

You can also get the dissertation samples from other university websites. Alternatively, look for dissertation publishing databases such as ProQuest, EBSCO open Dissertations, or Open Access Theses and Dissertations (OATD).

You can download the copies of these dissertations and assess the number of sources they used, the preferred organization approach, the length, and other desirable factors you can later incorporate when writing yours.

By looking for inspiration from the completed dissertations, you will be able to understand how to begin your literature review, develop its parts, and complete it with a guaranteed transition/flow to the subsequent chapters (3, 4, and 5).

Reviewing the past dissertation literature reviews also assists you in understanding how to stay relevant when writing a section comprising 25% of your dissertation. You will also get to understand the words to choose.

For instance, how the authors have introduced other scholars when referencing their work, how they have used in-text citations, and how they have framed paragraphs.

In short, getting inspiration from an already completed and marked literature review will make you avoid the common pitfalls and challenges experienced by students when writing their dissertation literature reviews.

2. Identify the scholarly sources

After getting the inspiration and drawing from your topic, you need to identify the sources to include in your dissertation's literature review.

An excellent literature review will depend on the validity and relevance of the scholarly sources. Therefore, you need to search for the relevant literature. 

The preliminary literature review you completed when writing the dissertation proposal is an excellent place to begin. Then, you can identify the strong sources that you can feature in the main literature review of the dissertation.

As you consider the sources, focus on the literature related to your research question and problem.

Ask yourself what you intend to achieve from the entire review experience. You should also assess whether a study will be accepted based on its age, relevance, and validity of its findings.

To select the acceptable sources, look at the objectives of your dissertation or thesis. Then, consider the source from which you get the scholarly source.

Furthermore, it would help if you also weighed in on the sources' theoretical, conceptual, and methodological aspects. You must also consider the suitability of the recommendations, gaps, and findings from the referenced studies for your investigation. Similarly, consider your dissertation's preferred methodology (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-method), research design, theoretical or conceptual frameworks, and goals/objectives.

Making a list of keywords related to your research question, objectives, or hypothesis can be a good start. While doing so, ensure that you factor in the variables and concepts of interest in your research.

You can also list the synonyms and related terms. This list will come in handy when looking for information from relevant sources.

Search for scholarly works published in academic databases such as EBSCO, Google Scholar, Project Muse, EconLit, Medline, Inspee, or others in the A-Z list of databases from the library catalogue of your university.

Use the Boolean operators to narrow down your search. Finally, read the abstracts to identify whether a peer-reviewed journal article is relevant to include in your dissertation.

3. Read and assess the sources

Getting the sources is not so much work compared to evaluating the sources. Since reading everything would be impractical and tiresome, you must assess the sources relevant to your research question and objectives.

The only way to do this is by reading the articles one by one to determine if they are fit to include in your literature review. Then, as yourself, these questions:

You can assess the sources' relevance, validity, and credibility so that you can sieve those that do not apply to your dissertation. During the evaluation stage, you can summarize the answers in a table to decide what stays and what is discarded.

Additionally, it would help if you took notes as you evaluate the sources. Finally, you will need these notes when writing the literature review.

4. Organize the sources

This step goes hand in hand with the previous step. After establishing the relevance of a source, you need to organize your sources. There are many citation-management tools that you can use, such as Zotero, Mendeley, or Endnote. This software helps organize references, take notes, format bibliographies, generate in-text citations, and collaborate with your supervisor.

Keeping track of the sources will help you to incorporate relevant in-text citations that can help you avoid plagiarism. You can also download the PDF copies of the sources and store them in a folder on your PC or laptop.

5. Identify the themes, helpful content, and research gaps

After organizing the sources, you must begin by reading through them to establish the relationships between the sources identified through research. This step entails analysis and interpretation of the findings from the research. Here is where the notes come in handy. You will be looking for trends and patterns, themes, debates, conflicts, any contradictions, and research gaps. This is an important step that helps you work out the literature review structure, depending on your selected approach.

To identify the gaps, read the abstract, findings, and recommendation sections as you take notes.

Recommendation sections always provide insights into the focus areas that future research, like yours, must focus on to address the topic thoroughly. It could be content, methodological, or general recommendation that can shape the scope of your research.

The existence of a research issue, problem, or perspective that has not been addressed begets a research gap. Therefore, it is critical to identify the research gap as it defines how genuine and authentic your research is, demonstrating that you have researched widely.

At the graduate and post-graduate levels, you are expected to identify these gaps and fill them, which is why you need to write an entire dissertation after researching. The research gap rhymes with the research questions you formulate. Therefore, it is a relatively straightforward step yet delicate and needs care and attention.

6. Write a literature review outline

Like other academic papers, writing an outline for your dissertation literature review helps you start it with the end in mind. A literature review outline helps to organize the body of the literature review. It helps structure the introduction, body, and conclusion sections of chapter 2 of your dissertation.

You can combine the approaches you use in your literature review, depending on the length of the literature review and the advice you have from your supervisor.

You can use the chronological approach, where you trace the development of a topic as time advances. You should, however, avoid the risk of summarizing or simply listing the sources in order. Instead, as you use the chronological approach, try to analyze key debates, turning points, and patterns that have shaped the direction of your topic. In addition, you should interpret how and why certain developments occurred and how they matter to the topic you chose for your dissertation.

When planning the structure, ensure to incorporate the thematic aspect as well. The thematic approach entails putting together sources that have recurring themes. You can organize the dissertation literature review into subsections addressing different aspects of the topic. For instance, you can look at the various types of leadership theories.

Suppose you are drawing from sources that have different research designs, approaches, and methods. In that case, you need to use the methodological approach to compare the results and conclusions that each approach yields. You can check what qualitative vs quantitative research yields. Also, you can discuss the approach to the topic through empirical vs. theoretical studies. Finally, you can also structure the literature depending on the subject background.

When deciding on the structure of your literature review, you can select the theoretical approach. With the theoretical approach, you ground the literature review on a conceptual and theoretical framework. You will be looking at various models, theories, and definitions of key concepts. Using this approach helps you argue for the relevance of your chosen framework or why you resolved to combine different approaches or create a new framework.  

As you write the literature review outline for your dissertation, consider its focus. For example, you could focus on research outcomes, research methods, theories, or practices/applications. The overarching goal of your literature review should also guide you. If it is integration, ensure that it is clear whether you want to achieve conflict resolution, criticism, generalization or identification of central issues.

You should also decide on the scope of coverage. For example, is your dissertation literature review exhaustive or has a selective citation? Are you including a purposive or representative sample of the articles and journals?

Finally, like a good book, a good dissertation meets the requirements of its audience. So, for your literature review, write a plan that allows you to meet the basic requirements set by the dissertation committee from your school.

Because there is no single way to structure your literature review chapter better, ensure that you synthesize the research instead of summarizing it in the end.

7. Write the literature review

Given that you have reviewed some of the sample dissertation literature reviews before beginning and have planned the review, writing should not be challenging. However, you need to now start by writing a good introduction that picks up from the first chapter. The introduction of a literature review chapter should be clear, focused, and concise. It should present the topic of interest, state the major arguments, signpost the entire literature review, and draw the findings from the review to the dissertation's aims, purpose, and objective.

The literature review's body paragraphs should feature a presentation of ideas and findings from scholarly sources. It should also have an in-depth analysis of the conclusions of this literature, linking them to your research topic, findings, and approach. You should present the research gaps and demonstrate that you understand the field and have researched widely. If you disagree with a view of an author, you should note that and give a cogent reason. Finally, critically engage your readers through a scholarly discussion that makes them see value in your dissertation. Have a chronological flow and mix the approaches discussed in the previous step.

As you write the body paragraphs, use present tense when referring to the theories and opinions of the authors. You should never use the first person when writing a literature review. Besides, use enough linking words and transition sentences/phrases to achieve a good flow of ideas and thoughts.

In the last section of your dissertation, summarize the significant findings from the readings. Let your readers know about the research gaps and how your research has adequately fixed these gaps. Next, take your readers through recommendations that your dissertation has met based on the research gaps you have identified. As you wind up the conclusion, give an overview of what to expect in chapter 3 (methodology section of the dissertation). The conclusion should also link the findings to the main hypothesis or research question.

8. Edit and Submit for Review

The ultimate step of writing a dissertation literature review is editing it to perfection. We insist that the writing stage focus on writing, leaving the rest for this stage. Edit your dissertation for grammar, formatting, and organization.

The best thing is to have someone help you edit the dissertation. And for this, our dissertation editing and proofreading services come in handy. An extra pair of eyes can objectively see your writing and offer you a positive critique.

Proofread the chapter well to ensure no errors or mistakes, then submit it to your supervisor for review. In most cases, supervisors review literature reviews and provide constructive feedback. You can refine chapter 2 based on the feedback and proceed to other chapters.

Final Words

Thus far, you can now handle a literature review for a thesis, dissertation, or any academic research. You understand a dissertation literature review, how to compose the chapter, its purpose, and the steps to take.

If you are keen to get assistance with writing your literature review chapter, we have the best literature review writers. Our experts are experienced in different fields and can write your chapter 2 faster and more accurately.

We guarantee confidentiality, privacy, and professionalism as we assist you in writing a chapter of your dissertation. In addition, we have handled longer dissertations chapter by chapter and completed them with the best supervisor and committee feedback.

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