While the ‘literature review’ term is well-known to students, not all of them are aware of how this complex phenomenon is defined. This knowledge, however, is essential because only by having a clear understanding of its concept can you write a literature review that is of high quality.
Literature review as a product
A literature review is both the finished product and the process. It is one of the most essential parts of an academic thesis or dissertation. It not only offers a review of past studies on the research topic but also forms a theoretical foundation for the academic research and exhibits a student’s complete knowledge about the subject area. It can also be a stand-alone piece of academic writing completed independently from your dissertation or other work. In this case, students are tasked to show their research skills, ability to identify the limitations of other authors’ work and relate specific theoretical knowledge to recent empirical work. Regardless of its nature, the literature review helps to find gaps in research that can be filled in. Generally, a literature review is comprised of a critical summary of contributions and findings of other researchers with respect to the chosen subject. It also provides an in-depth comparison of the existing literature and theories relevant to the student’s research objectives.
Literature review as a process
A literature review is also the process of creating a review, which appears in your dissertation. This process is an ongoing activity that begins when you pick up the first academic article, book, or another literature source relevant to your topic and continues until your draft is fully written. Although many students consider a literature review to be a mere summary of other researchers’ and scholars’ work, it is actually a synthesis of their theories and findings, which presents a unique, original viewpoint on the subject matter.
The role of a literature review in your ability to complete a high-quality thesis is considerably important. Most often, a good literature review will account for 20%-30% of the dissertation. Not only it is one of the lengthiest parts of the thesis, it also creates a theoretical and methodological basis for your research. Without a well-structured and well-researched literature review, it is impossible to understand what knowledge gaps exist in your field of study and how they could be addressed. As it is extremely important for students to write a crisp literature review with relevant theories which can be referred back to in the following chapters. Our below guidelines will help you in writing a 1st class literature review in your dissertation.
Start reading around your chosen topic
Based on the area of study, students can select a dissertation topic which will act as a fertile ground for the research. Once you have selected a suitable topic, the next step is to read books, journals and articles relevant to your subject. As the dissertation has to be original, reading will give you a clear idea of where to target your research. Reading the dissertations of peers will also bring you across literature reviews written by others and will provide a crucial background for a more intensive research project.
As you will be reading a lot of material before writing the literature review, it is advisable to take notes of everything you read. Noting down the page numbers and full citations of the material accessed will be helpful at the time of writing the literature review as students can refer back the information to get accurate details.
Develop a consistent outline
While reading all the relevant material, you might come across theories and findings which are correlated or similar to each other. Start classifying information based on the theme of your proposed work. This will be helpful in maintaining a consistent outline for the literature review.
Write only relevant information
Although it might be tempting for you to cover a wide range of literature surrounding the topic, the best practice would be to only include the most relevant information and small subject areas throughout the literature review. Care should be taken so that the information covered showcases the importance of academic writing and not appear as an extended book report.
Content of the literature review
As the literature review gives a constructive analysis of the approaches and methodologies used by other researchers to form the basis of a dissertation, it should be strategically divided into three sections as below:
- Introduction – The aim of the introduction should be to establish the importance of the chosen subject and discuss the controversies and assumptions surrounding the topic. Apart from providing the background of the subject, an introduction should also suggest the benefits of the review findings towards the research.
- Body – The body is usually divided into headings and sub-headings and summarises the subject knowledge. It should only discuss the trends, findings and theories which directly lead to the research topic and generates an argument to justify the proposed research.
- Conclusion – The conclusion must consist of a brief summary of the evidence presented and its significance in the research. It must also highlight the loopholes in the previous research and suggest practical applications of the research along with the possibilities for future research.
Strategically organise your paper
Once you have composed the content of your literature review, try to organise it to make a good impression on the reader’s mind. Establish new headings or shuffle content in between headings and sub-headings and see where it fits the best. Assure that all sections are logically linked with each other and are divided based on relevant themes and not based on the individual work of a researcher.
While writing a literature review might be a tedious task, keeping yourself motivated will help you write a 1st class critical literature review. Motivate yourself by discussing your findings with classmates/professors or attend an academic seminar or conference to brush up your skills. The more you share your opinions about the work of others, the more you can simulate yourself to think about their work in an exciting way. Also, keep yourself updated with the latest trends and practical applications of your research field.
Focus more on analysis
Rather than focusing on the descriptions of the previous studies, try to focus more on critically analysing the work. While most of the students simply describe the research done by others, they fail to evaluate and compare the work from an analytical point of view. Make use of contrasting statements and maintain an evaluative approach using appropriate linguistic terms and phrases to indicate logical connections between the different pieces of evidence. Establishing a firm grip of the central topic and using it as a guiding concept throughout the literature review will definitely help you obtain some additional points. In general, there are several types of critical analysis you can perform (and use collaboratively) while doing a literature review:
- To focus on explaining the problem area your study attempts to address.
- To focus on reviewing previous researchers’ methodological issues and their appropriateness to your project.
- To focus on exploring potential knowledge gaps in the existing body of literature.
Proofread and edit your work
Reading out your work will help you identify the grammatical and linguistic errors made in your paper. Re-frame the sentences which appear unclear and add proper punctuation marks to indicate divisions and pauses within sentences. As the aim of a literature review is to showcase the familiarity of the student with the selected topic, ensure that all the previous work mentioned is up-to-date with recent findings. Also, ensure that all the references and citations are in correct order and in-line with the university recommendations. You also need to make sure that your work is not plagiarised. If you forget to include quotation marks, the passage could be considered as plagiarism. Additionally, the text written should flow in a clear and brief academic style and should be free from grammatical and spelling mistakes. Avoid using a descriptive writing style and language used in everyday speech and adhere to academic style and critical writing.
Galvan, J. (2016) Writing Literature Reviews: A Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Science. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Machi, L. and McEvoy, B. (2012) The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success, Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.
Ridley, D. (2012) The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students, London: SAGE.
Williams, K. (2013) Planning Your Dissertation, New York: Macmillan International Higher Education.