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How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review: All Tips and Tricks

A dissertation is a large project that students complete as part of a postgraduate degree. When students are composing dissertations, they go through various important processes, and one of them is writing a dissertation literature review section. This chapter entails a critical evaluation of sources that the researcher uses in his/her writing. Thus, a student needs to be familiar with previous research, currently established knowledge, existing theories and theoretical concepts that are connected with the research subject. So writing a literature review for a dissertation will require going through a large amount of data and spending a lot of time studying and gathering the sources. Moreover, students have to structure literature, format and represent their own research project properly. So, if you have doubts or don’t know how to write a dissertation literature review correctly, we would like to provide you with great tips and guidelines for composing the chapter.

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The Basics Explained: What Is a Dissertation Literature Review?

In a dissertation literature review, your aim is to summarize and make a critical analysis of the research arguments that have been found in your readings, without making any new contributions to the literature. In a few words, a lit review section provides a critical evaluation of the literature (sources) that you’ve read and collected surrounding your subject area. Then, the chapter discovers a “gap” in that literature and your study will attempt to address it. The nature of a dissertation literature review can be misunderstood, as it can vary in its requirements. While it may involve summarizing important sources in some cases, it usually involves critical analysis of the text and expressing your positive or negative opinions about it. It requires you to consider your interpretation of a specific source and determine whether it differs significantly from other perspectives in the literature. This type of critical engagement is expected in a lit review.

Furthermore, it provides assurance to readers and serves as evidence for the validity of the statements presented. Through conducting lit reviews, students demonstrate their engagement with the academic work conducted by other researchers and affirm that they've thoroughly read, analyzed, evaluated, and absorbed the research topic. A comprehensive literature review dissertation chapter encompasses the following aspects and contributes to:

  • Demonstrating a clear comprehension of research and scholarly discussions;
  • Identifying pertinent theories and establishing a strong framework for the paper;
  • Demonstrating familiarity with the scholarly context;
  • Synthesizing knowledge with that of other researchers;
  • Developing a research methodology.

The Purpose of Writing a Dissertation Literature Review

Before writing a literature review, one should clearly understand the purpose of writing. The section “Literature Review” is focused on the discussion of the subject matter explored by different researchers. One should have a close look at advantages and disadvantages of previous research procedures, as well as identify possible gaps in the study. The literature review also implies introducing the background of the study (as outlined in Chapter 1), but it should be done in a more extensive manner. The writer is supposed to provide comments pertaining to the study and explain their significance in the context of research question under analysis.

Many experts believe that one should begin the dissertation process by creating a lit review. Engaging in critical analysis and extensive reading can assist in identifying recurring themes and formulating academic questions. A comprehensive literature overview demonstrates a foundational understanding and familiarity with the chosen topic before delving into further investigations. Conducting your own research through sources overview enhances various skills, including:

  • Identifying contentious issues and disputed statements;
  • Analyzing and summarizing relevant research and theories that have already been investigated;
  • Identifying areas of current knowledge that require further exploration;
  • Avoiding duplicating existing research by discovering prior studies on the topic;
  • Expanding your breadth of knowledge in your research;
  • Recognizing seminal works in your field;
  • Providing the context for your research and positioning it in relation to other relevant studies;
  • Presenting opposing viewpoints;
  • Discovering research methods that may be applicable to your own work.

How Long Should a Dissertation Literature Review Chapter Be?

There is no set length for a literature overview. The length to a great extent relies upon your area of study. However, as far as it's observed, the majority of lit reviews range in length from 40 to 60 pages.

On the off chance that your chapter is fundamentally more limited than that, ask yourself whether:

  1. There is other significant exploration that you have not investigated,
  2. You have carried out a sufficient discussion of the data you've investigated.

The Scope of Work

Please carefully investigate your professor’s instructions and requirements of your specific educational establishment. Some universities oblige students to write not less than 20-30 pages in a “Literature Review” section. Students begin to panic because it is rather challenging and daunting to find appropriate materials that directly relate to the assigned topic and summarize general information about the assigned research question. For this reason, since students cannot dedicate 30 pages to the literature review, they fill out the text with verbose sentences just to fill out the blank space. Do not confuse dissertation writing with a common term paper. Sometimes even a couple of pages in a literature review dissertation section clearly outline the research question and its gaps. Therefore, find out specific word count requirements relating to this section to avoid unnecessary generalizations. 

Recently, some educational establishments have allowed their students to take the original research and adjust one element (for instance, a geographic location). Do not think that the same can be applied in your college or university. Altering the data in the original research (even the location) will not represent an explicit and robust research relating to your specific research question. Always try to present a research with original data, no matter what topic you have. Adjusting previous studies according to the assigned topic is not the way out. If you outline some issues explored in a specific geographic location, be sure to give credit to the source and mention that the discussed part relates to the research conducted elsewhere. For sure, most of professors allow exploring both national and international studies, but they must be clearly outlined in the Literature Review. 

How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review: The Essentials to Keep in Mind

As it was already mentioned, a literature review may take up to 30 pages of text. Therefore, it is highly important to create a logical organization according to any writing pattern. Most likely, your professor will ask you to create subheadings that will allow comprehending information easily. Moreover, you can always create linking sentences – the last sentence in a paragraph gives a hint about what the next text will discuss. Remember that the purpose of writing a literature review is to outline your findings, conclusions, gaps, controversies, etc. Thus, this chapter is bound to include a great deal of ideas that must be systematized. 

According to modern writing standards, students should focus on sources published within the latest 5 years. If later, there are high chances that you will show a specific gap in the knowledge and will not include relevant and up-to-date ideas necessary for PhD literature review writing. At the same time, some disciplines do allow their students to use materials published before a “5 year” rule (e.g. history). In any case, you have to show what has been done recently, what statistical analysis you found to be interesting, what methodology was used along with research approaches, how do they differ with other studies and their results, etc. 

If you were assigned a very complex topic that was not properly explored before, you will barely find some material for your literature review. In this case, create a small section consisting of several paragraphs explaining the key findings and possible implications. If you have managed to find much about your research question, you must focus on the most recent studies only, which will prove your ability to discuss the notion in the newly settled context. Moreover, you can indicate some studies that did not correlate with a purpose of your dissertation writing. Outline the major differences and state why these studies were not taken into consideration (show logical gaps, if possible). 

How to Write a Dissertation Literature Review: The Structure

A dissertation literature review, like any other academic paper, consists of an introduction, body, and conclusion.

  • The Introduction

The introduction should be concise and focused, clearly stating the main topics to be covered in the section. It should also present the arguments to be made and the underlying rationale supporting these arguments.

  • The Main Body

The body of the lit review delves into a comprehensive discussion of the chosen academic sources. You have the option to organize these sources based on themes, methodology, or even chronologically. It is crucial to present your arguments clearly and establish connections with the existing literature. If there are scholars who support your viewpoint, it important to mention them in a way that is easily understandable to the reader. This demonstrates your familiarity with the academic research in your field. Additionally, it is essential to acknowledge and address views that do not align with your position. Excluding opposing arguments would weaken the methodological robustness of your review.

  • The Conclusion

It is important to summarize the conclusions drawn from one's readings in a lit review. If your literature overview section is part of a broader proposal, be sure to list the gaps in the literature and state how your proposed research will address these gaps. In addition, recommend future research that shows your analytical skills and demonstrates your knowledge of the field.

Students have to work on a Literature Review before composing Chapter 1 (introduction). Your scientific supervisor may advise you what similar studies should be investigated, how to review results from different angles, what the body of literature should take, etc. You must clearly understand that Literature Review is all about summarizing existing studies and identifying their gaps in the context of your research question. However, you should differentiate between “summarizing” and “concluding/analyzing.” In the end of your literature review, you should create a small summarizing paragraph outlining the key notions discussed before.

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Dissertation Literature Review Chapter Organization: Different Types to Consider

Creating an initial draft of the body of your dissertation is a valuable step in organizing a substantial collection of statements. It is important to visualize how your literature review will be structured. There are several options that can be modified or combined:

Way of Organization



Arranging your sources in chronological order is a straightforward option. However, it is crucial to avoid a simple timeline-based ranking. Instead, provide an overview that explores the reasons behind certain events, explains the outcomes of specific changes, and examines how they have influenced your research topic.


Many students draw from diverse fields of study and incorporate various research methods in their academic papers. Comparing and presenting the results is an effective way to succinctly convey your final thoughts. For example, you can juxtapose economic migration theory with social migration theory or divide your lit review into sections on cultural attitudes, historical facts, and sociological statements.


The overview of literary sources serves as the foundation for the theoretical structure of your dissertation. It aims to discuss various definitions, terms, and theories related to your research question. You can challenge established cultural sources and theoretical perspectives or combine multiple theories to create a coherent framework for your dissertation.


If your topic involves recurring concepts, you can structure this chapter in a way that addresses different aspects of the topic. For instance, in computer science research, you can discuss methods of gathering, storing, and processing personal information.

By considering these options, you will know exactly how to write a dissertation literature review properly. Adapting them to your specific needs, you can effectively organize and present the overview of literary sources in a manner that supports your research objectives.

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