Writing A High-Quality Literature Review

5 Time-Saving Tips & Tools

By: David Phair (PhD) and Amy Murdock (PhD) | May 2022

One of the fundamental chapters of any dissertation or thesis is the literature review. However, students often struggle to write this chapter, especially if it’s their first time engaging in a formal research project. At Grad Coach, we’ve worked with thousands of students to help them craft their literature reviews. In this article, we’ll share five time-saving tips and tools to help you approach this chapter the smart way.

1. Develop an outline before you start writing 

As with all chapters in your dissertation or thesis, it’s a good idea to create a rough outline or structure of the literature review, before you really start writing. The purpose of this is to ensure that the foundation of your literature review is solid in terms of the topics, key points identified, and the order in which they’re presented. 

If you start writing from the very beginning without an idea of the overall structure, you’re likely to end up with a muddled mess. This practice is sometimes also sometimes referred to as creating the skeleton outline because you are organizing the bones of your chapter which you’ll later flesh out with the content of the chapter.  

Broadly speaking, a literature review chapter will usually take the following shape: 

  • Introduction – This short section should outline the purpose and content of your chapter.
  • If you haven’t already included it in your introduction chapter, then you should next provide the definitions of any jargon/specialist terminology and key variables.
  • Body section (core topic area) – This can be structured in different ways, and the right approach depends on the research aims and research questions. The most common ways include:
    1. Chronological, which is based on the date of the publications. This is good for showing how the topic has evolved over time.
    2. Thematic, where the chapter’s structure is grouped by variables of interest or core themes. This is appropriate when identifying and discussing variables of interest and is most commonly used.
    3. Methodological – when the chapter is grouped based on methodologies, such as quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods.
  • Conclusion – Here you’ll provide the key takeaways from the chapter and highlight the research gap that provides the basis for your study. 

Although creating a loosely structured outline of the literature review before you start writing is important, remember that it is just there to guide you and help you stay organized. That is, you don’t have to stick with the structure you’ve created at the beginning, and you can change things up, add, expand or rearrange as you go.

PS – check out our free literature review template to help fast-track your outline. 

If you start writing from the very beginning without an idea of the underlying structure, you’re likely to end up with a muddled mess.

2. Look at existing literature reviews in your area 

As a general rule of thumb, it’s always wise to look at existing literature reviews that cover similar topics to yours to check how they’ve been organized and presented. Doing this will help you further develop a suitable structure because it will give you ideas and help you identify the “norms” in your discipline. 

There are a few common ways to find these existing literature reviews. For example, you can look at existing dissertations and theses from your own university’s dissertation database/library. Doing so will give you valuable insight into the style and structural norms of your university. Similarly, you can search through public dissertation databases such as EBSCO, Open Access, and Proquest, and many university libraries offer access to these public databases, too. 

Next, you can search for literature review-type journal articles such as narrative, systematic literature review (SLR) or meta-analyses. To find some of these articles you can go to Google Scholar and search using the terms “review” + your topic – for example, “review organizational performance”. 

Another benefit of working through existing literature reviews is that it can help ensure that you’ve covered as much relevant material as possible to develop your own literature review. In other words, it can help you spot any studies you’ve missed. However, be cautious about choosing articles that are old or dated beyond the past five years, as the topic of study may have developed since then and those findings may no longer be accurate or relevant. 

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3. Write first. Clean up later.

Once you’ve digested all the literature and have a loose outline planned, it’s important to not get stuck in the mindset of only being able to write the literature review once you’ve figured it all out and know exactly what you’re going to say. This will only land you up with writer’s block.

Once you have a loose outline or structure, just get your thoughts on paper and you can neaten things up later, add, remove, etc. In short, don’t try to say things perfectly from the start because you may never actually start writing. This may seem strange or counter-intuitive to some, but there’s a strong logic behind approaching the literature review (and the rest of the chapters) this way.

#4. Insert citations and references as you write

As you start writing, remember that the literature review chapter needs to be extremely rich with sources (i.e. references to high-quality journal articles and studies). In fact, it should be the most citation-intense chapter in your dissertation or thesis. To this end, it’s prudent to always incorporate the citations as you write up your chapter. Don’t leave it until later, because if you leave it too long, you’re likely to end up missing key references, forget who said what, and your literature review chapter will be short on sources, which will limit the rigor of the chapter. 

One way to make this activity easier is to use a reference manager such as Mendeley or Zotero. Reference management software will help ensure that your in-text citations are aligned between the chapter and the reference list, and that everything’s in the correct format (e.g. Harvard, APA, etc). If you’re new to reference managers or need a refresher, check out our how-to-videos for Mendeley and Zotero on our YouTube channel.

The literature review chapter needs to be extremely rich with sources. In fact, it should be the most citation-intense chapter in your thesis.

5. Ask a (non-expert) friend to review your writing

As you spend more time writing your chapters, it’s easy to start confusing the trees for the forest. Therefore, it’s always wise to ask a friend (that’s not a subject expert) to review your drafts and give you feedback, particularly regarding the readability of the work. While your literature review will likely get quite technical, you need to make sure that it’s written at a level that a non-expert can follow. In other words, you need to write for the “intelligent layman”. This is where a friend’s feedback can really help. 

When having a friend review your draft, it’s a good idea to ask them to highlight the parts that are difficult to follow in the chapter. Ideally, you should also ask them to give you a summary of what they understood, in their own words. This will help you identify which points are well-articulated or coherent and which aren’t. This activity has similarities to the document reviews that we conduct at Grad Coach, and it’s particularly helpful for catching overly technical jargon that may not be comprehensible to a non-expert. 

In short, be sure to seek feedback on your writing from outsiders. Since you’ll be shoulder-deep in your topic, it’s easy to write up a literature review chapter that is difficult for the reader to follow. You’ll often make assumptions about what the reader knows and is thinking, which can make the chapter hard to digest. People see things differently and can help you uncover your blind spots, identify important questions, etc. Therefore, an outsider’s input can greatly help you improve the readability, clarity, and comprehensibility of your literature review.

Let’s Recap…

In this article, we covered 5 time-saving tips for writing a literature review. To recap:

  1. Develop a (rough) outline before you start writing
  2. Look at existing literature reviews in your topic area
  3. Write first, then edit and clean up
  4. Insert your citations and references as you write
  5. Ask a (non-expert) friend to review your writing

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your literature review, be sure to check out our 1-on-1 coaching service.

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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