Hints & Tips: Writing a Literature Review

If you are writing a dissertation, you will probably be asked to write a literature review. It can feel daunting, but it’s not too difficult once you get your head around what you need to do.

Here are some hints and tips to bear in mind:

  • Read your brief carefully. Sometimes, what departments are really after is an annotated bibliography, which is a much more structured version of a literature review. And the brief may well also tell you what kinds of literature you should/shouldn’t include. Plus all the usual stuff about word count etc.
  • Resist the urge to include everything. It’s so tempting, but only include the articles, books and authors that are genuinely relevant. Literature reviews are about your ability to select and critique sources, not your ability to digest high volumes of literature.
  • Don’t take what the literature says at face value. You will get the high grades for showing your ability to critique and evaluate the sources you’ve read, so try to avoid simply describe what they tell you. If you’re not sure how to do that, this is a great resource about critical reading.
  • Aim to present a clear picture of the literature. This should include:
    • what the experts think/have discovered about the general issue you are researching,
    • the approaches they have used,
    • how strong (or weak) their methodologies, evidence and arguments are,
    • and the gaps in the experts’ understanding of the topic.
  • Aim to demonstrate the need for your research: i.e.
    • the specific gap in the experts’ understanding which you will explore in your dissertation,
    • why it is important/needed
    • the appropriateness of the method you will use.
  • Have a clear structure. Your literature review is like an essay, so it should have an introduction, main body and a conclusion. And don’t be afraid of using subheadings, they can really help the reader navigate through your dissertation.
  • Three easy structures of the main body are:
    • chronological, i.e. how the understanding of the issue has developed over time
    • moving from big picture to small picture, i.e. general to specific
    • answers to a big-picture question, e.g.
      • ‘Does pain lead to depression?’ – (section 1) evidence for yes, (section 2) evidence for no
      • ‘Why do people choose to buy electronic products?’ – (section 1) influence of reviews, (section 2) influence of advertising, (section 3) influence of brand loyalty, etc.
  • Don’t try to be too clever in your weaving together of the literature that you’ve read. Keep things simple. Your reader will appreciate it!
  • Imagine writing for yourself before you began working on your dissertation or one of your course-mates. It’s a better strategy than trying to impress your lecturer with long sentences and unexplained specialist language.

 

A helpful online resource:

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