How to Write a Literature Review

Literature Review word cloud

Many people are daunted by the literature (lit) review portion of a dissertation or thesis. It requires much focus, time, and energy, so it is not something to put off or be undertaken casually. The good news is that getting this section right will make it easier to write the remaining chapters. Before starting your lit review, you need to decide on your topic and develop a strong research question. Ask yourself the following questions to find a good topic.

  • What topics are you very interested in?
  • What are some of the problems or challenges in those topics?
  • Which of these challenges would you like to learn more about?
  • Is there sufficient current research (within the last 10 years) available on this topic?
  • What kind of study could you undertake to learn more about that issue?
  • Of the theories you have studied, which would best guide your study?
  • What do you hope to find or solve?
  • How could your study benefit others?

You will then phrase your topic in the form of a question that you will strive to answer by performing your own study. The research question should be specific while the topic is broad and complex. This will ensure that you have a lot to work with and room to adjust your research question or study parameters, if needed. And, finally, the research question should be answerable within the allotted time.

Once you have your research question, you are ready to begin! While there are many steps to planning your study and the writing of your thesis or dissertation, this post will focus on the literature review. The lit review is very important to the overall project. It provides information about the current state of research in your topic area and lays the foundation for later chapters, including providing support to your own findings and recommendations. The main steps to planning and executing a good lit review are:

  • Find lots of good research
  • Group scholarly articles by themes
  • Determine the order in which you will discuss the themes
  • Write the lit review

Good research is the key to a great lit review. Find more articles than you think you will need. Not all of what you find will be as applicable or supportive to your project as they seemed at first. Be prepared to search again later as you get further into the writing of your paper. For a thesis, you may need to cite a minimum of 20 or 30 sources. Often, it is more. I used 50 sources in my master’s thesis. For a dissertation, the minimum might be 50 but you could use 100 or more sources. Check your school’s requirements or follow up with your advisor/dissertation chair to be sure.

Once you have a sufficient amount of research, read the articles you found. Highlight quotes and sections that you think you might use in the lit review and make notes of the main points, methodologies, population, findings, and recommendations. Once you’ve read all the articles, make note of the main similarities and differences you found among all the articles as well as any themes that stand out. Analyze your notes and begin to group your articles with similar main points, findings, or themes. Then, look through the articles in each grouping and re-read the highlighted portions. At this point you are ready to develop an outline or perform one or more of the other creative processes that prepare you to write such as brainstorming or freewriting.

Whether you start with a detailed outline, freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, or some other pre-writing technique, it will be best to consider how to order the groupings of articles. You want to arrange them into an order that makes sense. Each subsequent theme should build upon, or connect in some way, to the previous idea discussed. By the time your reader gets to the end of this chapter, they will have a good grounding in the topic including current research and problems and will be able to understand your research question, the study you will undertake, as well as your own findings and recommendations.

Once you have a plan, you can start writing. You will discuss the themes you found, each article in a group (including a brief summary of a relevant aspect such as the main points, stating the population studied, or highlights of the findings and recommendations), and compare and contrast the research and themes you found. You should point out if you think any of the articles do not support their findings well, if there are problems with their methodology, sample problems, or weak conclusions. Explain the articles in relation to your topic and research question. The idea is to take all these different articles and present them as a coherent whole by tying them all together by topic and themes while discussing their differences and the outcomes of your examination of the current literature. This is more interesting than randomly or chronologically discussing each article, one by one, and summarizing at the end. It also highlights your knowledge and understanding of the topic and current research and allows you to organically transition to discussing why your study is needed (and how the current research is lacking).

The most critical part of the lit review is the discussion of the theoretical framework that will be the foundation of your thesis or dissertation. More of your time will be spent discussing this in detail because this is what your study will be based upon. The findings and your recommendations will be the original contribution you make to your field so it is critical that you choose your theory well. Ideally, some or all of the research you find can be tied to the framework in some way. The theoretical framework is the thread that will tie all the chapters of your dissertation or thesis together.

The importance of the lit review can’t be understated. Having this section well-organized by theme will help with writing your findings and recommendations because you can organize the writing of those sections in a similar way or be able to point out why your study is different than much of the prevailing literature. It sets up the writing of future chapters and will make your writing seem more seamless and very cohesive as everything will be smooth and well-tied together. Knowing how to prepare a literature review and allowing enough time to research and write the chapter, will get you off to a great start.

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