By Sam Grinsell |

Almost every PhD student, and many others doing research projects, will have to write a literature review. For some of you this will be the first chapter of your thesis that you work on. But the literature review can seem an unfamiliar form, different from anything you’ve written for standard student assignments. It’s one thing to investigate the existing scholarship, but how do you go about producing a written review of it? Follow these key steps to make the writing process as pain-free as possible:

1. Understand your audience

The literature review is a required part of your PhD because it is the place where you prove to your examiners that you understand the relationship between your work and your discipline. You are writing it specifically for them and your supervisors. It is unlikely anyone else will read it. (This can be a liberating thought!)

It is vital, therefore, that your literature review fulfills its goal of communicating to your examiners that you understand your field and your place within it. It really has little purpose beyond the thesis, as it will almost certainly be cut from any future published version. You should keep closely focused on communicating the key points to your audience, this is not the place for high-flown rhetoric or literary experimentation.

Shelves of old harback books

2. Read a literature review

These days a lot of theses are available online through institutional research repositories, and your library should also hold physical copies. These are a valuable resource for understanding the PhD thesis as a form, and you should at least skim through a few to get an idea of how they can be structured and how arguments are developed. Literature reviews are among the most formalised elements of the PhD thesis, so reading these should give you a good idea of how yours should look. Do remember, however, that the norms can vary between different disciplines and subject areas, so pay particular attention to those produced for your department.

3. Know your thesis

One of the most challenging things about writing a literature review is that although you are not writing about your research, the whole chapter is really about just that. Ideally you should describe the existing literature in such a way that the need for your thesis is always clear. In order to do this, you should first write out a rough idea of your thesis or research questions. Remember that this will change as your project evolves, it doesn’t need to be a final statement. It is, however, a necessary step in establishing how your work relates to your field.

4. What are you doing?

Just to wildly simplify things for a moment, there are two types of contribution you might be making with your PhD: providing a new answer to existing questions, or examining previously unexplored questions. (Many projects will in fact combine these.) If you are doing the former, you will need to make very clear exactly how you are departing from previous views, and why. You should make sure that you describe the current consensus accurately, and are explicit about why you are departing from it.

If, on the other hand, you are asking new questions or examining previously unexplored material, your challenge is to make sure that your research remains grounded in established scholarship. You should lay out the types of work that have been relevant to the formation of your project, and how your findings will contribute to these. You should prove that you are able to relate your research to existing work, even where this may cover different ground from yours.

5. Group your readings

A good first step to understanding how you might structure your literature review is to group your readings according to theme, sub-discipline, methodology, or whatever category makes sense to you. Then think about how your work relates to each of these categories: are you disputing this existing area, building on it, or adapting it for a new context. Be clear enough about this that you can write sentences in these formats: ‘this thesis will contribute to the following areas of scholarship…’ ‘this thesis builds on existing scholarship on…’ ‘this thesis uses theoretical approaches from the following types of research…’

The work 'argue' being written and underlined

6. Criticise existing scholarship

Another of the challenging elements of writing a literature review is that although you are writing about what other researchers have already done, you need to identify weaknesses or gaps in this work. This needn’t involve directly arguing with individual scholars (although it might), more important is to identify what has already been found and, from this, what has not yet been answered, or answered clearly. This goes back to point four: if you are providing a new answer to existing questions, this will involve directly engaging with the work of others who have provided different answers. Be very clear about where you disagree with them and why. It is possible that you agree with most existing scholarship, but make it clear that this work has not already answered the questions that you address.

7. Use a reference manager

Drew mentioned this last week, but if you are not already using a reference manager then stop reading this and get one. No, now. (Zotero, Mendeley, Qiqqa)

Hand writing words on whiteboard: 'find yourself, express yourself, creative writing'


8. Don’t worry

As said earlier, the literature review is not for anyone except for you and your examiners. As such, there is no pressure to produce something beautiful in its own terms. This is your chance to demonstrate the work that you have done. You can also see it as an opportunity to think about yourself as a scholar. Imagine your thesis as a published book: who are you next to on the shelf? Whose work do you dispute or build on? A convincing literature review will play an important role in proving yourself as researcher ready for your place on that shelf.

Sam Grinsell is the chair of Pubs and Publications, and is about to finish his first year as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His research is on British Imperial Architecture in the Nile valley. He can be found on twitter and hcommons.

Image 1, Pexels, CC0

Image 2, Nick Youngson, CC-BY-SA

Image 3, © Jorge Royan /, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA

Image 4, North.jvta, Wikimedia Commons