How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation

As a graduate student of literature you may be assigned to write a review for a dissertation in which you are expected to give an analysis of the most significant works of literature on your topic. You should never assume that your audience will have expert knowledge in your topic, which means that your literature review should be instructional.

Here’s how to write a dissertation literature review:

Give an overview of the topic, concept or theory under discussion. Literary reviews should provide some background on the major components of what you will be discussing. Bring up the major issues, questions, and brief chronology. You should introduce the works you will be discussing as well as give reasons why they are important in this particular paper. Don’t catch your audience off-guard by introducing topics, concepts, or theories in your body paragraphs that you didn’t already mention in your introduction.

Break up the outside works into concepts and categories. Dealing with more than 2 or 3 works presents an organizational challenge in literature reviews. To avoid this, you should develop an outline beforehand that breaks up the outside literary works you are working with into concepts or categories. You will have a much easier time writing your review and your audience will have an easier time making sense of a complex network of sources.

Make connections between outside works and other works that have come before. Using your grouped concepts and categories, you should make connections within each related work. With literature you will usually find yourself writing about works that can be either a few years apart or several centuries apart. However, connections can still be made; you just have to be clear to show what those connections.

Provide a conclusion about all works to give closure and understanding to your topic. Your audience will be expecting a conclusion that reiterates all of your major points and synthesizes your ideas. This means that you should mention all of the works you used and show how they are connected with one another and how they work together to support the opinion presented in the literary review. Your audience should have no doubt as to why you have chosen these specific works to prove your point.

Remember that your ideas should be at the center of your literary critique, but your ideas should demonstrate a connection to the literary works that came before. In this way, your narrative becomes embedded into the long discourse that makes up literary criticism.