A literature review is probably the largest chapter, which sets a theoretical background for the whole dissertation. So, it is hardly surprising that undergraduate and postgraduate students tend to include everything they know about the subject in this essential part. Alternatively, tutors are willing to see not a horrendous mixture of theories and definitions but rather a focused and well-justified theoretical framework. These 10 easy tips for writing a literature review will help you to produce a balanced theoretical chapter that will definitely bring you 80+%.
1. Plan the word count in advance
A first class literature review allocates around 30% of its word count to discussing relevant theories. Another 30% is usually spent on reviewing the recent developments in your area (e.g. industry-related trends, breakthroughs, controversies, dominating opinions, and important official documents). You should reserve up to 30% of the word count for evaluating empirical evidence, particularly on the connection between your target variables. The remaining 10% is left for constructing a conceptual framework.
2. Group articles when reading
You can hardly overestimate the importance of arranging empirical articles you come across into groups based on their similarity while preparing to your literature review process. Strong theoretical chapters avoid reviewing articles one by one. Conversely, experienced students create several folders on their device and collect literature sources with similar conclusions for more convenient access in the future. This tip allows for seeing a bigger picture and won’t let you switch to a micro level where articles are approached in isolation from each other.
3. Create a database with citations
At the preparation stage, you read a lot but your knowledge still lacks proper organisation. When you happen to see something extremely relevant for your literature review, save it as a screen capture, copy as a citation to your Evernote, or simply write down the article title and page number. You will be able to return to these ‘diamonds of thought’ later. If not saved immediately, they vanish and cause a lot of irritation when searching for them again.
4. Get rid of irrelevant sources
There is always a temptation to add one more theory, one more example of empirical evidence, and one more source. However, if you select articles more strictly, your tutor will never tell that you have lost your focus. A keyword search on databases and online libraries often palms off hundreds of sources, but don’t make haste and be very selective. We came across a literature review on marketing where a student was referring to journals on physics because of similar terms used in the two subjects. Yes, keyword search can be dangerous!
5. Critique, critique, critique!
A first class dissertation literature review always offers mature critique and evaluation, not only presents the findings of empirical scholars in a descriptive manner. You can critique the following aspects:
- Context and conditions in which the research was conducted
- Implemented methods of data collection and analysis
- Relevance of findings (in light of other scholars’ conclusions)
- Generalisability and validity
6. Add visuals
‘It is better to see something once, than to hear about it a thousand times’ – this Asian proverb is more than applicable to the academic process in British universities. A successful literature review should contain illustrations of your reviewed models, logical associations between variables, a graphical conceptual framework, and summary charts for scholarly opinions.
7. Achieve a high density of in-text references
Even if you have adopted a correct referencing style, your tutor will judge how well you can build a line of argument with a reference to secondary sources. You can’t just rely the whole section or paragraph on a single source. A standard practice is to use 2-3 sources in each paragraph of 100-150 words. Remember to prioritise quality sources such as journals and books but not blogs.
8. Find a massive research gap
Along with identifying limitations and weaknesses of each article, have a 360-degree look at the whole body of literature to find a massive research gap. What hasn’t been done in the field yet? What context or link have previous researchers in this area overlooked? Actually, the purpose of a literature review is to answer these significant questions. If you only repeat existing studies, your project will fail to be unique and won’t be awarded a first standard.
9. Avoid plagiarism
Make sure to know the tolerance percentage of the anti-plagiarism system used by your university. Even unintentional plagiarism is penalised; so, reduce the number of direct quotations and academic clichés that are suggested by phrasebanks.
10. Adjust the format and proofread
Format your literature review in strict accordance with the dissertation handbook, which is provided by your university. Fonts, spacing, headings, page margins, captions, reference list – all that must be neat and clean. If English is your second language, you may need professional help with proofreading.
Realistically, this list of tips for writing a first class literature review is not exhaustive, as you need to take into account many other aspects. If you are struggling with writing the first or second literature review in your life, we are happy to offer professional help and years of experience in academic research. We know what exactly your tutor expects to see!