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How to write your dissertation

Writing your literature review

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Your dissertation or project is likely to be original research that will add to existing knowledge, and for this reason, you will need to include a review of the existing research in your area of interest; this forms a literature review that usually appears in the introduction section. This page gives an introduction to reviewing the literature, and if you'd like to know more see the how to write your literature review topic.

If you've never written a literature review before, we've tried to anticipate some questions you might have...

When should I review the literature?

As soon as possible! By reviewing the literature at an early stage, you'll be able to identify ideas, resources and methods you could use in your own research. You'll also be able to check that your idea is genuinely original. You may also find that you need to revise your dissertation or project title after an initial review of the literature.

Although you should start early, your literature review should be an a work-in-progress throughout your research. As you progress with your project, new ideas, issues and directions are almost certain to arise, and you'll need to read the existing research in these areas too.

Recommended Further Reading

Is the literature review important?

The literature review is a crucial part of your dissertation or project, and if you do it well you can pick up a lot of marks. Here are some of the criteria for an excellent report taken from a university marking scheme:

What should my literature review do?

The list below tells you what a literature review should do. You can use this list as a check-list to make sure you have included all the important ingredients in your review.


A literature review should:

Activity: Planning your literature review - at least 30 minutes

Giving your literature review a clear, logical structure will make it easier to read and easier to write. It's a good idea to structure your literature review in the same way you would structure an essay:

  • start with an introduction to set the scene
  • follow with a discussion of the literature
  • finish with a conclusion to summarise and to tie up any loose ends

1. Divide a sheet of A4 paper into 3 sections. Label the sections Introduction, Main body and Conclusion.

2. Under the heading Introduction, write a sentence to summarise your research topic. Add a brief summary of the literature that provides the background to your research and sets the scene.

3. Under Main body, decide how you'll organise your literature review: perhaps by theme, methodology or chronologically.

Hint: think about how the previous research on your topic has developed. How has the subject developed over time? What are the important landmarks or key studies?

4. Think about how you will use the literature to support your hypothesis, but where possible, also include literature that offers a different view point.

5. Remember: don't just report what's been written. You need to be critical and make judgements about the validity and worth of previous research.

6. Under Conclusion, re-state your research proposal, and write a couple of sentences about why your research is important and relevant in the context of the existing research. Think about how your research is unique and what it will add to the existing literature in the area.

Activity: Evaluating your literature review - 20 minutes

When you've written your literature review, you'll need to make sure you've included all the necessary ingredients for a great review of the literature. Use the check-list below to make sure your literature review makes the grade.

1. When you've written your literature review, use the check-list below to make sure you've missed nothing out.

My literature review tick
identifies the gaps in current knowledge
shows that my research builds on previous work done in this area  
shows that my research is important and relevant  
shows that I'm aware of important developments in my research area  
identifies different view points and/or highlight areas of controversy  
critically evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of previous research in this area  

2. If you can't tick all the boxes in the check-list, you'll need rethink and rewrite some sections of your literature review.

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