The literature review is likely to be the first part of the main dissertation body that you write. It typically makes up between 10% and 15% of the dissertation’s total word count (so for a 10,000-word project, you would expect it to be between 1,000 and 1,500 words long).
This is the part where you explore the existing research on the subject you have chosen and identify the gaps in the knowledge about the topic. Your main goals here are to:
- Establish the key facts about the subject you’ve chosen
- Evaluate and critique the strengths and weaknesses of the research that already exists
- Identify an area which is lacking in research within this topic so that you can proceed to fill it with your dissertation
We are going to break each part of these goals down for you to make sure you can achieve them all.
Establishing the facts
Your literature review needs to clearly state all the information that is relevant to your research. This sets the scene for the research you will be undertaking later and makes the reader aware of all the things they need to understand to see the value of your research.
The first step here is to read widely around your research area, as well as exploring any subject which may be closely related to it. A good literature review will engage with a range of different types of text (books, journal articles, academic websites and so on).
Stay organised whilst checking out your sources and write your references as you go, you do not want to be scrambling to find a piece of research later down the line!
It is a good idea to try to tick off the questions of ‘who/what/when/where/how/why’ as you work on presenting information. This is the perfect way to prepare yourself to critique the research, which becomes crucial as you go on to the evaluation stage (which we will cover next).
To help you structure your ideas, you might consider using subheadings. You can organise these in a number of different ways, depending on what makes the most sense for your topic. For example:
- Chronologically - where the flow shows the history of your subject
- By theme - a structure based on main ideas and concepts you have found from doing your reading
- By sector - this could be by a certain division within a subject, such as scientific or political viewpoint
- By the development of ideas - this is often done when there have been notable areas of recent development
Evaluation and criticism
Now you have explored and organised all the existing knowledge, it is time to get critical.
If you followed the guidance when you were collecting your information, you will already have begun thinking about the ‘who/what/when/where/how/why’ questions regarding each bit of research. Asking these questions and developing on the answers is the way to generate independent critique. This is absolutely essential for getting good marks, so it’s your number one priority.
Not sure where to start with critiquing someone else’s work? Try asking the following questions about a piece of research you have explored really thoroughly and writing down your answers.
- What assumptions are being made by the research?
- What are the methodologies being used? Is there anything wrong or problematic about this research method?
- Is the author an expert in the field? Has anyone contradicted their research?
- What is the purpose of the research? Is there any researcher bias?
- How up-to-date is the research?
- What are their findings? Do you agree with them?
No study is perfect. That means that if you ask these questions about every piece of research you come across, you will be able to find out what its limitations are.
However, we are not simply looking for flaws! It is just as important to be able to pick out the strengths of a study too. If any good points become clear when you are asking the above questions, make a note of those too.
It is important to get the right mix of identifying strengths and identifying weaknesses so that your argument is balanced.
Why balance your argument?
A balanced argument is essential to show that you have done your research. It is okay to come out of it with an opinion. It is just that you need to demonstrate that you have looked at both sides of the argument so that your opinion is based on facts, not just on your gut feelings!
Identifying a unique research question
Although you will have gained a good idea of what question your dissertation will explore when you wrote your proposal, it is very common for the question to change slightly or be narrowed down when you have completed your literature review. This is because new ideas or viewpoints will occur to you as you go deeper into the literature.
The end of a literature review should give a concise summary of the main points you have picked out from the texts you have reviewed. It should then go on to explain the question your dissertation is going to answer and why this deserves to be researched in more detail.
It is important to make sure your sources are well-referenced throughout your dissertation. Plagiarism is a serious offence and could result in you failing your assignment or even your degree. Different subjects will require different referencing types, so it is a good idea to check with your tutor or course guide about which one you should be using. You can check out our referencing help guides here.
Proofreading your literature review
Proofreading is vital to gaining extra marks.
When you have finished writing your review, print out a copy and read it out loud – it will help you to hear it differently, understand if it flows well and see areas of concern.
It is also a great idea to get people to check your work over, they will spot mistakes that you won’t! Compare your work to your original aims and see if you have achieved them.
Often, the first draft of the literature review is completely different from the finished result. You may find yourself cutting out whole paragraphs, or restructuring and re-writing sections.
Do not panic too much though, as everyone does this!
Keeping within the specified word count can be difficult too, but as you write your dissertation you will come to understand the parts that will be most integral to your work.
As an additional check it may be worth getting your literature review proofread by a professional.
Checklist for writing a literature review
- Have I reviewed enough academic sources?
- Have I noted the strengths and weaknesses of the studies I have used?
- Have I commented on any trends or major differences in the research I have looked at?
- Have I compared the findings of different studies?
- Have I referenced and evidenced my key points?
When you are putting your dissertation together, the literature review will almost certainly lead into the methodology section. You have now explained what and why you are doing your research; in the methodology, we will help you explain how you are going to do this.
For how-to guides on writing other dissertation chapters, see our comprehensive dissertation writing guide.
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