It's Time to Write Your Literature Review!

So, you’ve finished your coursework and passed your exams. Congratulations! As a prize for all of your hard work, now you get to . . . write the literature review for your dissertation. This can seem like an enormously daunting task, and the truth is—it is hard work. However, it is also one of the most important and interesting stages of your entire doctoral journey. This is your chance to read what everybody has already said about the topic closest to your heart. The literature review is your opportunity to discover what’s been studied so that you can develop a well-informed and unique contribution to your field.

Getting Started

Sonja Foss and William Walters lay out an effective method for getting started in their book Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation. They break the task down into six more-or-less manageable steps:

  1. Define your area of research. The more sharply you can define your focus before you delve into the research, the less material you’ll have to go wade through. When you’re at the library, resist the temptation to get sidetracked with fascinating books and articles on sort-of-related or entirely unrelated topics. The more ruthlessly single-minded you can be at this stage, the easier a time you’ll have with the other steps.

  2. Go get the literature. Use a combination of your online library resources and physical trips to the library to assemble as many books and articles as possible on your sharply‑focused topics. In addition to using catalog searches, databases, and the recommendations of your advisors, don’t forget to check out the bibliography of each source you find—those are gold mines. Give yourself a firm deadline for completing this step to ensure you don’t get caught in an endless cycle.

  3. Find and save useful information. For stage of the process, you’re actually compiling two lists: a) a list of text chunks and b) a list of bibliographic information.

a) Skim each book and article to find five things. The first two items are in the interest of mastery: they help you really become (and sound like) an expert on the subject. The other three items are even more important, because they’re what help you stake your own claims rather than just reporting what others have said:

  • Claims, conclusions, and findings about your topics

  • Definitions of relevant terms

  • Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project

  • Gaps or blind spots—what are people not talking about?

  • Disagreements about your topics. Keep track both of disagreements between published scholars and moments when you disagree with the source you’re reading.

When you find any of these things, type the relevant chunk of text into your text‑chunk list. (Just typing the passages in is faster than summarizing, and besides, you don’t know yet which of these chunks you’re going to end up wanting to quote directly in your dissertation.) Be sure to note the author’s name and the page number next to each chunk—you’ve got to keep up with who said what and how you can find it again. Also, put a little star next to every call for follow-up studies, gaps or blind spots, or disagreement—those are going to be important later as your lit review will need to be focused on showing why your study is important.

b) As your saving your chunks of relevant text, be sure to update your working bibliography. Now is the easiest time to do it, while the sources are in front of you. It is a good practice to format the sources in the correct style (APA style, MLA, Chicago, ASA, etc.) right from the beginning.

  1. Arts and crafts! Organizing your text chunks. Print out your text-chunk list, single‑sided. You’ll also need a pair of scissors and a few envelopes. Cut each text chunk out. Look over each one and decide what its main topic or theme is; sort your text chunks into piles by topic or theme. Make sure each one goes into a pile—if there are some that don’t seem to fit anywhere, then you may need to re-articulate some of your themes. Once everything’s sorted, put each stack into an envelope with the theme written on the outside. Of course, this can all be done on a computer as well, but many students find the tactile approach to be very helpful.

  2. Organizing your themes. Put your theme envelopes on a large empty table. Move them around and think about how the themes are related to one another. Can you group any of them together? Do any dialogues or contradictions emerge? Arrange the envelopes until they suggest a good outline for your literature review and write it down.

  3. Start writing. Now that you have the literature review outlined, you can start with whichever theme you like. As you turn to each theme, take the text chunks out of the envelope and arrange them into subthemes and subdialogues just as you did with the envelopes—this will help you create mini-outlines for each section of your literature review. Use those to help you articulate what your project needs to do and how your original contribution is going to advance your field. Show what others are saying not for its own sake, but to scaffold what your field needs you to say back—that’s how you gear your literature review towards supporting your argument as opposed to simply summarizing others’ work.

Need Help with Your Literature Review?

Whether you’re just starting the research process or require a final proofread, our PhD-level dissertation editors can assist you with every aspect of the literature review process. Our staff have not only written lit reviews of their own, but they’ve guided dozens of PhD candidates through the literature review process. Please call or email us today for a free consultation and an instant price quote.

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Phone: 857-600-2241



Foss, Sonja, and William Walters. Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation. Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

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