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An ultimate guide to writing a literature review

Writing a literature review for your dissertation? You think it's as easy as dusting off some books, sipping hot coffee simultaneously and just jotting down the summary of whatever you've read while skimming the pages, well not exactly.

Literature review defined!

The literature review of a dissertation is defined as the chapter which provides an analytical assessment of the research sources you've gathered and read during the research procedure of your dissertation. The material surrounds and relates to the selected subject area of your study and helps you to identify the gap in the previous work that your dissertation will address.

Many time students get confused about what to include in the literature review section of their dissertation. Here's the answer, in most of the scenarios, the literature review includes a simple summary of all the important sources that you should critically link with your text to convey your point of view of about the source along with any counterarguments that you have.

What did you interpret from a particular source and is this interpretation different from all the references you made in the literature review chapter is one approach to critically engage the literature review chapter.

A literature review provides a new outlook on the previously conducted researches or often combines both the new and old interpretations of a research study. It provides a thorough and analytic outline of the intellectual developments in a research study with a focus on major, and often polemical, debates. A literature review can also evaluate an information source for the readers and informs them about the validity, pertinence and relevance of that source to the study area.

In a literature review, the student aims to summarize and provide an analysis of the arguments found in the readings without adding any new contributions to the area. It forms the basis of your dissertation research.

Importance of a literature review

Now that you're familiar with what a literature review is, it is time to understand the necessity of having a literature review in your dissertation. The literature review is an essential part of your dissertation as it demonstrates to the examiners and readers that you have a thoroughly refined understanding of the previous research work conducted in your selected study area.

A literature review helps a student to persuade the examiners and readers about the authenticity, relevance. and justification of the presented content in the dissertation. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to put in all the required efforts to formulate the right literature review for your dissertation.  

How to write a literature review?

Writing a literature review is not a simple task of reading and writing. It requires a student to often read and then re-read the sources to appropriately identify any gaps in the study area.

Here are a few steps you can refer to while writing your literature review

Step 1 Identify your sources-

The first and the foremost step to write an impactful literature review is to have a fair idea of which sources will best suit the best with the dissertation theme. If you've been provided by a reference list by your mentor, its great but if not you should identify your sources, read them thoroughly, identify the gaps between those sources, and then finally write your literature review.

The sources selected should be balanced and produced by reputed scholars and authors. You can opt for books, academic journals, and other published reports or documents to act as authentic sources for your literature review. In order to choose your sources effectively, you should think about the parameters and objectives of your dissertation research.

Here are a few questions that can help you to choose relevant sources to include in your literature review-

  • What are you hoping to discover?
  • What theoretical issues or perspectives do you want to tackle?
  • What type of methodology do you plan to use in your research process?
  • Will your literature review focus only on quantitative or qualitative sources or on a mixture of both?

An effective way to analyze the relevance of a source with respect to your dissertation is by reading the abstract of that sourced paper or study. It is the abstract that will help you to determine whether the source fits in with your research or not.

While you're on the way of identifying your sources, make sure that you make a list of all the relevant ones simultaneously as it is very easy to lose focus in today's data-driven era. Opt for an application to store your sources and a citation tool to save long hours of referencing in the end.

Step 2 Read your sources extensively-

After effectively identifying your sources, the time has arrived to grab a steaming cup of coffee and read through the sources. It is advised to read in a few stages to get a clear and better idea of the text added in different sources. Briefly go through all the sources to get a general idea of the content written and the arguments made. This will help you to examine which sources you want to highlight in your literature review.

Follow this step by reading the sources again but this time in-depth to gain a more analytical sight into them. It is beneficial for a student to make notes while reading the sources and ask questions to relate the sources with their dissertation research.

Determining your academic opinion on the text presented in a source, commenting about the methodology used by the scholar, and sharing your point of view on the arguments made or on the research question/ hypothesis formulated in the sources is one way of representing the analysis of the sources in your literature review. These points will help you to make a clear line of argument in your dissertation and showcase that your work is coherent and logical.

Step 3 Explore the gaps in previous research works-

Research gap plays an essential role in your dissertation project as a whole. Identifying a research gap highlights the appropriateness of your dissertation as it showcases your dissertation as a way to fill up the identified gap. Also, identifying a gap is an indicator of in-depth analysis and hence, creates a better impression on the readers and examiners.

In order to identify a gap successfully, you need to understand what exactly this gap is. A research gap is basically a research question, problem, or perspective that has not been explored in the existing works surrounding that area of study.

Identifying a research gap is important for establishing the originality of your dissertation as it proves you're not just regurgitating the existing piece of works. It shows how much you're aware of the status of the literature added in your dissertation and also about the number of efforts and research you'll need to put in your own work.

Students often find it difficult to identify the research gaps in their selected area of study. Here are a few ways to overcome the problems while pursuing this difficult endeavour

  • Reading: Start by reading prominent articles related to your selected study area. Do not panic if you have to sift through numerous articles before you find the most relevant ones.
  • Read abstract and recommendations: Reading the abstract is a good way to quickly get the sense of what an article entails within the wordy content. After the abstract, skim through the introductory and concluding paragraphs of the selected articles.
  • These steps will help you to get an insight into the aim and outcome of the article or research study and will also provide new recommendations for future studies. It is these new recommendations that help you to identify the gaps in the research areas.

Step 4 Start writing your literature review-

With all the relevant sources and points in hand, you're all set to start writing your literature review.

Follow the mentioned pointers to make the writing process smooth and convenient:

  • Explore sample literature reviews: You should have a look at the sample literature reviews surrounding your selected study area and read them extensively to be aware of the current debates and themes. This is a good starting point for structuring and framing your own literature review.
  • Also, if you're unfamiliar about the academic writing, review samples will help you to understand what is exactly expected of you. The bibliography or reference list of the selected texts will help you to discover further references as well.
  • Keep it sorted: Keep your topic as narrow as possible It is no surprise that there will be numerous sources that concern your selected area of study. Researches explore a topic is diverse ways and each research is vast in nature, thus the literature of each subject is extremely broad.
  • You're expected to explore each and every text related to your dissertation topic. You have to limit the scope of your work to write the literature review easily. It is important to ensure that your literature review represents the focus of your dissertation.
  • Refer to recent and updated sources: Make sure that the sources you're selecting to add in your literature review are latest and up-to-date given the advancements in the chosen study area. It is important to balance theory with current approaches as it will demonstrate the ways in which perspectives in the literature have changed over the years.
  • Establish the organising pattern of your dissertation's literature review: Organising the structure of your literature review is an iterative process. In a literature review, the structure goes way beyond the simple writing of an introduction, body, and conclusion. A large number of sources are involved thus you'll have to plan systematically about the theme, topic, and argument. You can consider the mentioned pointers to do this accurately
  • Plan the basic structure of your literature review.
  • Pay extra attention while structuring the body of your literature review.

Step 5 Write the body of your literature review-

Once you've planned the approach with which you'll work on the body of your literature review, it is time for you to start writing the paragraphs to be included in this part. A review must be written in a formal and academic writing style. Sources should be grouped appropriately according to arguments made or the theme. The written text should be coherent, concise, and free of strong or personal language. A literature review majorly follows the third-person style of writing to highlight specific points of a source for the readers or examiners.

It is advised that a student should always be aware of the writing standards of an institute to ensure the usage of acceptable terms and language. Remember that it is beneficial to use the present tense when referring to certain sources of the literature review. BE aware of the linking words as they'll be used most frequently while writing our literature review.

Step 6 Develop the conclusion-

An influential conclusion is the one that contains a summary of the implications drawn from the gathered sources and then link those to your argument ore the main research question of your dissertation.

Tips on writing a literature review:

  • It is a strict no-no to simply describe the opinions of other authors. Analyze things and provide relevant support content for each remark made.
  • Use multiple techniques to structure the body of your literature review.
  • Ample shreds of evidence should be provided to back up your point of view about a specific source.
  • Be very selective while adding sources in your literature review.
  • Use direct quotes only to emphasize on a point not generally.
  • Reference your work appropriately to ensure authenticity in your literature review, and dissertation as a whole.
  • Summarize the key pointers of your literature review and state their significance.
  • Make your point in a hard and loud voice.
  • Get rid of unnecessary jargons or slang.
  • Double-check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review according to the guidelines of your institute.

Once you are through with writing your literature review, do not forget to proofread thoroughly before sharing it with the examiner or the readers.

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