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We’ve written elsewhere on The PhD Knowledge Base about how to plan and conduct your literature review. In this guide, we look at the actual writing process and how to write your PhD literature review. Specifically, we zone in on three strategies you can use to make writing it easier and less stressful.
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Work out your central argument, then stick to it
Your PhD thesis.
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Don’t get lost in a sea of authors
It’s important to remember that the literature review isn’t a summary of the literature. An easy way to tell whether you are summarising (rather than critically engaging with the literature) is to see whether you are getting lost in a sea of authors.
If you’re just summarising, you’ll find when you write your literature review that you’re just listing various studies and that you aren’t critically engaging with them and relating them to the central argument you are developing in the chapter. All you’re doing really is saying ‘she said X, he said Y’, rather than explaining why that matters and why it’s relevant.
If you write descriptively, your voice will not come through.
So as you write your review, make sure your argument shines and that your voice is heard. Sure, you’ll obviously need to explain what others have said, but you need to do so in relation to your argument and to the points you are making in the chapter as a whole and in a particular section or sub-section.
One way to do this is to make sure that every chapter has a clearly defined central argument, and that every section and sub-section also have their own nested arguments (for more on how to nest arguments, click here).
That way, each section has a particular function: to develop, validate, and expand upon that particular central/nested argument. The job of the literature then is to back up, validate and expand upon that argument. Working in this way means you start each chapter, and each section and sub-section by clearly stating what you will be arguing. Only then do you bring in the literature to illustrate that argument.
You can see how your voice will shine if you work like this.
Without an argument, you are just piling authors and studies on top of one another, with no clear direction or aim. For more on how to avoid getting lost in a sea of authors, read our in-depth guide here.
Write early, and write quickly.