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Writing a Literature Review

by
Christine D. Tomei, PhD
Thesis and Dissertation Coach, Content Editor, Advisor


I am writing this following a spate of literature review problems and in answer to the question: Is it better to use a dissertation consultant before or after the writing of this chapter?

There seems to be a wide array of dissertators who have begun writing their literature review—usually chapter 2—without understanding the purpose of this chapter. Since it is called a "review of the literature," many novice writers believe that all that is involved is describing the existing research, an activity that would be completely mechanical. In fact, while the this chapter may seem quite formulaic, there is little that is actually mechanical and a lot more that is analytical; moreover, it requires careful crafting to provide the foundation that integrates the present research into the specialized and general fields where the reader must recognize it. The novice writer’s dissertation committee is not always reliable in pointing out deficiencies until it is too late, the chapter is composed incorrectly, and the dissertator is stuck with material that must now be punched into the proper shape.

The important function of this section is to place the current research into the field and establish the current research’s originality. It must be clear why the present work has inherent value to a specialized audience who is assumed to be current with the field and aware of the ongoing issues. The existing literature is manipulated to show the reader why the present work deserves scholarly attention.

Literature review problems occur too often; there is a limit to the extent of the ethical intervention a dissertation consultant can provide, and it is painful to have to decline assistance when the problem lies with the actual composition of the literature review. It may not be possible to help someone who is writing something they do not understand, especially within a budget; and writing without knowing how the material is supposed to work. Simply mentioning sources and talking about results does not provide an easy basis for a consultant to intervene.

Obviously, the on-site advisor is to blame, but no one can get much satisfaction with a problem in this quarter. And the problem may derive from the education system itself: few schools issue precise guidelines for their dissertators, and most writers do not seem to have a lot of organizational guidance. Also, most dissertators are steered toward peer-reviewed journals for their research, where the brevity of most introductions in academic journal articles does not lend itself to extrapolation to the dissertation format either.

The best way to offer a literature review is to find sources that are allied in some way with what you want to express and look for ways to make that person’s work speak to your audience on your behalf; or, conversely, find sources that are contrary in some way and express where that was wrong vis-à-vis your own idea—which is supported by all the other sources, naturally. If you can find the arguments and introduce them into the text, even if you cannot articulate them fully, at least you will have a proper literature review, and a dissertation consultant will be able to whip your chapter into good shape for you.

Before the chapter is written, a dissertation consultant can more easily assist in terms of content and focus. In working out how to present the existing literature, the consultant can suggest what might help and where to look for it. It is also ethical to help perform some of the mechanical aspects of compiling the references that would feed into the focus of the work in this section.

But it would not be ethical—meaning the work could not be considered original to the author—if the consultant produced the argumentation that situates the present research in the field. Helping present it and improving the organization, flow, and focus are about the extent of what can be done once the chapter has been composed.

So if there is a problem, it is probably better to start with a dissertation consultant who can lead you through the process of developing the arguments. It really might pay off in the final analysis.