How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation

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If the thought of writing a literature review fills you with dread, you’re not alone! The literature review is one of the most important parts of the dissertation, so it’s bound to cause a bit of angst.

But don’t let this angst turn into procrastination. According to academics from our dissertation writing service, it’s best to get the literature review out of the way early so that you can focus on the rest of the dissertation.

Thankfully, breaking it down into stages can help. The more systematic you can be, the better. That said, you should begin by understanding what the literature review is and why it’s so important.

What is a literature review?

Contrary to popular belief, the literature review is not just an information-dump of all the research that exists on a given topic.

Rather, a good literature review critically evaluates what is known about a given topic, and also considers what is not known about that topic. In turn, this highlights a ‘gap’ in the literature that can be addressed by the dissertation.

How long should it be?

Generally speaking, the literature review commands around 20-25% of the entire dissertation, so it’s quite a hefty chapter.

This means that if the word limit for your dissertation is 10,000, the literature review be around 2,000 – 2,500 words in length. However, this is only a guide, so always check your dissertation handbook.

Where does the literature review go?

The positioning of the literature review can vary depending on the discipline you are studying.

  • Generally speaking, if you are studying a Natural Sciences, Social Sciences or Business related degree, the literature review will have its own chapter, and it will usually come after the ‘Introduction’ chapter.
  • However, if you are studying a Humanities subject (like History or English Literature), or if you are writing a ‘theoretical’ rather than empirical dissertation, your literature review may or may not have its own chapter. For example, sometimes it’s more appropriate to discuss the literature in the Introduction, or intersperse it throughout the entire dissertation.

This is something you should check in your dissertation handbook before you start.

But, in any case, the research for the literature review is carried out in a similar fashion across all disciplines. Indeed, the literature review process can be summarised into 5 key stages.

1. Decide what needs to be researched

It might sound obvious, but the first stage of the process is to decide where to focus your research. Although general ‘background reading’ is useful, it’s a good idea to set some research criteria, too.

First, take a copy of your dissertation proposal and locate the research question(s). Then, highlight the most important words or phrases within the research question(s).

E.g. “This dissertation will explore the relationship between adolescents’ caffeine intake, gender, and anxiety levels.”

So, to guide your literature review, you could look for studies that have already tested the relationship between 2 of the highlighted variables. For example, you might look for studies that have tested:

  • The relationship between caffeine intake and anxiety
  • The relationship between gender and anxiety
  • The relationship between caffeine and anxiety in adolescent populations
  • The relationship between gender and anxiety in adolescent populations

Also, given that this dissertation focuses on adolescents, you might consider how this population group differs from other population groups. So, you could see if other studies have tested:

  • Whether adolescents are any more or less likely (than the rest of the population) to be anxious
  • Whether adolescents are any more or less likely (than the rest of the population) to consume caffeine

If you can at least get a rough idea of what you’re searching for, this will make the research process a lot easier.

2. Search for sources

Now that you’ve got a rough idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to begin searching. Often, the best place to start is your university’s library catalogue. However, other good search tools include JSTOR, EBSCO, and Google Scholar. Here are some tips to consider when searching for your sources:

  • Try synonyms – Try searching for synonyms of your key words. So, as well as searching for “caffeine intake”, try searching for “coffee intake”. Or, try substituting “anxiety” for “mood disorder” etc. This will ensure you do not miss out on any search results.
    Google Scholar is not very effective at ‘guessing’ synonyms, so it’s particularly important to try alternative words when using this search tool.
  • Use the filter – Use the filter or the “advanced search” option to select research from a specific time period. It’s best to stick to research from the last 10 years (unless you’re quoting a seminal theory or study).
  • Check the stats – On Google Scholar, you can see how times a particular source has been cited. If it’s been cited many times, this suggests it’s very important, and so should probably be mentioned in your dissertation.
  • Find a seminal paper – Following on from the previous point, try to find a relevant paper that has been cited many times. Take a look at the Introduction of this paper, as this should give you a good overview of the key debates relevant to your topic.
  • Check the abstract first – Searching for papers can be a very time-consuming process, especially if there has been a lot of research conducted on your chosen topic. Save yourself time by skimming through the abstracts of papers to see if they are going to be relevant or not. After all, part of the skill of writing a good literature review is being able to select the most relevant literature.
  • Check lecture slides – If your dissertation topic is closely related to something you’ve already studied in class, it may help to look back over the lecture slides or module handbook. Often, tutors recommend “further reading” so this could be a great starting point.
  • Internet sources – Sometimes, a good-old Google search can unearth some useful information, such as a blog post from a credible organisation. Or even a Ted Talk related to your topic. Sources like these are generally fine to use in a dissertation, as long as they are supplemented with plenty of peer-reviewed journal articles, credible books, policy documents etc.

3. Evaluate the sources

Remember we said that the literature review is not just a summary of the existing research? Rather, it’s a space for you to critically evaluate the literature and formulate the rationale for your dissertation.

The easiest way to evaluate the literature is to create an annotated bibliography of the sources you are going to use in your literature review.

You have probably come across an annotated bibliography before. Essentially, it’s a list of sources, accompanied by a very brief outline of the study and an evaluation of the research methods. Also, you should consider the implications of the source in relation to your dissertation.


Source: Botella, P., & Parrs, A. (2003). Coffee increases state anxiety in males but not females. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical Experimental, 18(2).


Overview: In a clinical setting, participants were administered 300 mg of caffeine. After 30 minutes, they completed the state-trait anxiety inventory (STAI). Results showed that caffeine increased state-anxiety in males but not females.

Evaluation: This was a clinically-controlled trial, so there was a high degree of validity. This means it is credible enough to include in the literature review.

Implications: Although this paper suggests that the link between caffeine intake and anxiety is stronger in males than in females, the researchers only tested adults, so the findings cannot be generalised. More research is needed to determine whether this phenomenon exists in adolescents, too. Hence the significance of the current dissertation.

The annotated bibliography might seem like a lot of extra work, but it’ll actually save you time in the long run. For one, it’ll help you to design the structure of your literature review. In case you need help with it our Ivory Research offers annotated bibliography writing services.

4. Formulate the structure

Once you’ve collected all your sources, it’s time to formulate the structure of your literature review. You should try to present this section in a clear and readable way so that your reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Broadly speaking, this chapter is usually comprised of the following structure:

  • A short introduction – This paragraph should briefly describe each of the ‘sections’ of the literature review. Keep it short and sweet, and write it last.
  • Main body – The main body of the literature review is often split into several subheadings. Take your annotated bibliography and group the papers into 3 or 4 ‘themes’ – these themes can form your subheadings.
  • Conclusion – In the conclusion, you should reiterate the “gap” that you’ve discovered in the literature, and emphasise how your dissertation is going to address this gap.

As mentioned, some dissertations won’t necessarily have a separate literature review chapter. In that case, plan each chapter of your dissertation and decide which sources will go where.

5. Begin writing

Phew! Once you’ve reached this stage, there’s actually not that much work left to do. Indeed, if you’ve recorded your research in an annotated bibliography, you’ll find it much easier to write up the literature review.

The literature review is often the first chapter you’ll write as part of your dissertation. It’s advisable to send the literature review to your supervisor for their feedback. That way, they’ll be able to raise any concerns they may have before you start collecting your data.

As mentioned, it’s natural to be a bit nervous about writing the literature review. After all, it’s one of the most challenging aspects of writing a dissertation, so it will take quite a lot of time to complete. But, if you follow the 5-step approach outlined above, this should make things a lot easier.

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