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How to write a Literature Review for your Thesis or Dissertation

When I first started my MA, I didn’t see the point of a literature review. “My topic and research is entirely innovative – nobody else has said anything like it, why should I include sources?” I told my professors. Since then, I’ve learned that the difference between writing your opinion and writing a research paper is… research (duh). The point of writing a Literature Review is to show that you’re aware of what else has been done on the topic in your field. It doesn’t necessarily matter if what other people have done match or support what you want to do; you need to show that you’ve at least looked. (Otherwise, how do you know that somebody else hasn’t said exactly the same thing?

Actually, if your thesis topic isn’t at all related to anything else, then you probably haven’t chosen your thesis statement or claim wisely. Ideally, the purpose of your thesis should be to solve a problem, give a response, or fill a ‘gap’ in the literature. To do this, you would need to know what’s been done and what’s currently going on, and what has yet to be done. There are many ways to find this – hopefully in your studies you will have found something very interesting, or with interesting implications, or something problematic, that begs to be examined more closely. Obviously, your Literature Review would then include the history of that subject or topic (or sub topic), leading up to the point where you pick it up.

Examples of how to write a Literature Review for your Thesis or Dissertation

Try something like:

The field of Ice Sculpting Research was started / discovered / found by Alex, who defined Ice Sculpting Research as “…………” After that came researches by  Bob, Calvin, and Donna. Bob said “…….” Calvin went further by claiming “……………” Donna distinguished between “……………………………”. After that, the field was split into two schools. However, neither of these schools has yet sufficiently explored / answered the question “…………….” Eric came close by saying “…………….” Francis claimed that “………….” but still the basic problem of “……..” remains, leaving a current gap in the literature which this research hopes to fill.

Tips for writing a  Literature Review for your Thesis or Dissertation

1) Search abstracts by keyword. Often a few sentences copied from the abstract is enough – you don’t actually have to read the paper in most cases.

2) Try to keep things in order by sticking to a timeline; earliest to latest.

3) Stick with the big names. You’ll look dumb if you skip over the big, famous names in your field in favor of some unknown grad student.

4) Don’t just dump a bunch of crap together. You need to demonstrate the overall situation; the development or evolution of related ideas. You need to show how each piece of research was influenced by or influences other works

5) Definitely find and address those researches which disagree with you. If you’re claiming “X” and some of the heavy hitters in your field have already said “Definitely not X”, then you need to quote them and show the flaws in their arguments.

Good luck!


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