Have you checked out the rest of The PhD Knowledge Base? It’s home to hundreds more free resources and guides, written especially for PhD students. 

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. 

1. Work out you central argument and then stick to it
2. Avoid getting lost in a sea of authors
3. Write early, and write quickly
We’re not claiming that these are a magic wand to suddenly make your literature review easy. That’s impossible. But they are a way of taking some of the confusion and stress out of the process. 
Let’s deal with each in turn.

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Work out your central argument, then stick to it

One of the most effective techniques you can use when you write any chapter, not just your literature review, is to tell the reader exactly what is about to happen as soon as you can in the introduction section.
That’s because each chapter is there to serve a very particular function. Put simply, each chapter is there to develop a small number of central points, which collectively relate to the central argument running through your thesis as a whole.
It’s helpful to explore this point a little bit further. In your literature review, the central argument you are seeking to develop is two-fold. First, and above all, that there is a gap in existing knowledge in your particular niche or discipline. Second, that this gap is worth addressing.
The purpose of the entire chapter, in many ways, is, therefore, to develop, validate, and back up those arguments.
For that reason, it helps to tell the reader very early on (ideally in the first couple of paragraphs of the chapter) what the gap is, and why you think it is worthwhile filling it. Then, you must make sure that you use the rest of the chapter to make that case in a convincing and robust way.
Regardless of which chapter you write, it helps to try and condense the core argument into a short paragraph of around two or three sentences. Print this out and have it to hand. Then, as you’re planning, writing, or even editing your chapter, you can ask yourself whether a particular line of argument or a particular section is serving that argument and therefore whether it is relevant. If it’s on message, it’s relevant. If it’s not on message, you can consider removing it.
So before you start to write your chapter, spend some time condensing the core argument(s) that you will be developing in your literature review down into two or three sentences (it helps to imagine someone asking: ‘In two or three sentences, explain what your literature review is about and why I should care?’)


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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.

The earlier you start writing your literature review the better. You must accept that your first draft is going to be just that: a draft. When you write the first draft, focus on the broad structure first. This means focus on the broad themes you want to discuss in the review.
Equally important though is knowing when to stop reviewing the literature.
The sooner you go out and do your fieldwork, the better. The literature review is a cruel mistress; you’ll struggle to fully nail down its various components and fully understand how everything you have read is related. But don’t despair; aspects of the literature review will become clearer when you enter the field and start to collect data.



Your PhD literature review is never going to be easy. From my own experience during my PhD, and through conversations with the hundreds of PhD students I’ve coached and worked with, the literature review chapter is, in many ways, the hardest chapter to write. A methods chapter or a results chapter has fairly clearly defined boundaries, making your task more straightforward as it’s possible to know when the chapter is complete. The literature review has more porous boundaries, so it’s hard for you to know when you’re finished.
What’s more, you’re taking considerable risks in your literature review as you carve out a gap and make the case for your particular study and contribution. There is a risk that your gap is an illusion, or that your contribution is insufficient. This uncertainty can bring about a tendency to over-commit to the literature review. 
So these tips aren’t a get out of jail free card. Your lit review is always going to be fiddly and it will give you a headache from time to time. But these tips will give you more tools in your arsenal as you attempt to tackle it. 
We’ve written a number of other guides that will help you as you write your PhD literature review. You can check them out on The PhD Knowledge Base. If you want a crash course on how to structure your thesis, you can check out our 5-star rated How to Write A PhD online course. Or, if you need more hands on support, book a one-on-one PhD coaching appointment today.