As many doctoral students have already experienced, the literature review chapter can literally be hell. The chapter is completely unique from the other chapters and, for doctoral students inexperienced in advanced academic writing, it can lead to all kinds of trouble. Therefore, this article is written as a guide containing certain principles for you to keep in mind when writing your literature review chapter. Following them will help you avoid sinking into the literature review quagmire. This is not a how-to article for writing a literature review but will give you the larger picture of what a literature review is, what to do, and what not do.
The Whole Idea of a Literature Review
In a well-known book called The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success, writing gurus Brenda McEvoy and Lawrence Machi define the literature review chapter as a piece of writing that puts forward a logical argument based on a deep understanding of the current state of knowledge on a topic of study. This argument “establishes a convincing thesis to answer the study’s question” (Machi & McEvoy, 2009, p.4).
Unless your literature review chapter does this, you will find yourself sinking deep into the quagmire of studies and materials that you have gathered. But, even more important than this is to know what not to do when writing your literature review.
Literature Review Sinkholes
With over 20 years of experience in dissertation coaching and consulting, I’ve had my share of doctoral students coming to me requesting help on their literature reviews. Some chapters were ok, some were bad, and some were just plain horrible. However, with the passing of time, I’ve noticed a pattern of bad habits that doctoral students tend to make for their literature review chapters. So I’ve gathered the following sinkholes which you should avoid at all costs.
Failure to narrow down your focus
Newly arriving doctoral students usually write their literature review in terms of general categories or labels, instead of writing on focused topics sufficiently narrowed down to be directly related to a student’s research question. Thus, you should avoid topics or categories that would require an entire book to cover (or in some cases an entire encyclopedia). In addition, you must make sure the studies you choose to include in your literature review chapter are framed in terms of their support to your research question. According to a report on dissertation writing, the literature review chapter should create a “firm foundation for advancing knowledge. It facilitates theory development, closes areas where a plethora of research exists, and uncovers areas where research is needed” (Webster & Watson, 2002, p. 13). To sum up, focus on those studies that are only related in terms of the narrow focus of your research question.
Overreliance on direct quotations
I’ve noticed many doctoral students over the years bringing over nasty habits such as putting together too many quotations. Although you should definitely insert direct quotations in your study, you should not rely on them too much. Doing so will prevent you from using your critical thinking skills and applying them to appropriately analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the studies you include. Therefore, do not rely too much on direct quotations and make more use of your critical thinking skills when evaluating the work of others by summarizing, synthesizing, and evaluating the works of others in your own unique way.
Using non-authoritative sources
Another bad habit of doctoral students is using a wide variety of non-authoritative sources. Something I see too often is doctoral students relying too much on professional opinion articles rather than searching for more authoritative sources. They tend to avoid authoritative sources because these sources are usually the most arduous to read. Do not take shortcuts for your literature review chapters. Spend quality time reading authoritative sources, no matter how much effort this requires. Doing so will make your literature review sparkle and compelling to read.
Citing only ‘supportive’ sources
Way too many doctoral students tend to be attracted to those sources that support their own point of view. You must remember that your dissertation committee fully anticipates opposing opinions to exist and they expect you to mention these in your literature review. Citing those sources dissenting with your opinion only strengthens your argument rather than weakens it. Although it isn’t necessary to focus too much on them, it is vital that you mention dissenting studies in your research and explain why they depart from your own thinking.
Not using literature review matrices
One thing I see too often is doctoral students spending too much time creating horribly-organized lists and summaries of literature reviews they include in their studies. You can save so much time by using a simple literature review matrix. It makes things so much easier for you and is something very easy to do. The following is an example of a literature review matrix which you are welcome to use in your own study:
Table 1 – An Example of a Literature Review Matrix
|Summaries of Literature Review Studies|
|results||Disagreements with other authors||Limitations||Implications for practice, research, and theory|
Lacking the skills for a proper literature review
Despite all that you’ve completed until now, you probably have not gathered the appropriate skills to write a literature review at the doctorate level (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article!). Doing so requires several things which include: 1) a full immersion in the studies and literature related to your topic, 2) a good idea of the mental ‘landscape’ of your area of expertise, 3) the ability to properly organize ideas and gather evidence, and 4) the appropriate writing skills to guide your audience through the logical sequencing of your argument without giving them confusion along the way. Work on honing each of these skills. They are not only useful for your literature review, but are vital factors in the future success of your scholarly career.
Conclusion – Don’t be shy to get help
Following these guidelines and avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls will go a long way to assist you in the literature review writing process. However, no matter how much you try to do to learn the writing process, to find out how to create a sparkling literature review, you may still find yourself frustrated. Especially for literature review chapters, you will probably find your dissertation advisor unwilling, or unable, to give you the help you need. If you refer to your colleagues, you may find them unable to explain the process appropriately or, if they can explain it to you, their process may not work for you, since no one single process to write a literature review is universal.
In this case, you don’t have to worry. You can find the dissertation help you need. All you have to do is contact a dissertation consultant who can give you the expert help you need, or at least guide you far enough to do it on your own. Remember, your doctoral dissertation is not only a precursor for your PhD, but it is also a key that can open many doors for you. So don’t waste it because you were too hesitant to ask for help.
Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2009). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Webster, J., & Watson, R. T. (2002). Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a
literature review. MIS Quarterly, 26(2), 13-23