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As a general guide, a dissertation literature review will account for approximately ten to fifteen per cent of a dissertation. However, there are some dissertations, for example within subjects such as nursing, where the literature review may account for significantly more. The literature review is your chance to ‘show off’ how much you have read and to demonstrate how your work builds upon the work of others and is supported by existing academics.
A literature review is not, however, just an exercise in repeating what others have written. It is not sufficient just to list twenty books/articles and to state what each author says. Rather, you must analyse what they have written and link what they have written directly to the exact questions that your dissertation is answering (as you write the dissertation these questions may, subtly change – hence the need, as mentioned earlier, to allow time to review your introduction).
In a literature review you must show that you understand how that which has been previously written upon your subject area feeds into your work and how your work builds upon it. You are not, whatever you may think, writing in a void. Nor are you likely to be writing something that is absolutely ‘unique and new’. The literature review therefore acts to ground and base your work in the wider academic community of writing. Through so doing it allows your work to review the academic debates that surround the subject upon which you are writing.
It is impolite, arrogant, and non-academic (especially at undergraduate level) to state that an academic expert is wrong. You are writing a very short piece of work and they have spent years researching their opinion. However, it is permissible to state that Author X believes that Author Y is wrong and that your dissertation supports the view taken by Author X (without using the first person). Thus, you may use the books and articles noted in the literature review to further the line of argument you believe and to debase the arguments of those that you do not find convincing. However, by using the opinions of others (in a referenced and quotable manner) you are depersonalising the argument and making sure that your work conforms to best academic practice, for which you will be rewarded.
When writing the literature review you do not need to comment on every book that has ever been written on the subject or to quote from every book that you mention. However, you do need to show to the marker that you have actually read the works that you are commenting upon. Literature reviews that just contain long lists of authors in sentences such as, ‘Author X suggests xyz, with which Authors L, M, N, O, and P agree’ do not receive good marks. Such sentences give the impression that little has been read or absorbed, that the student has just copied down a list of names, and that they have not interacted with the books they have mentioned.
In contrast, a literature review that states, ‘Author X suggests xyz and, in agreeing, Author L further states ‘(insert quote)” will attain a better mark because you have made the argument using the opinion of experts and you have included a quote. Better still is the literature review that states:
Author X suggests xyz; in agreeing with him, Author L further states that ‘(insert quote’ and then full citation). This is important within the confines of this dissertation because, as will be noted in Chapter Five, the experiment carried out conforms to views that both authors have previously expressed.
The final example is of First class standard because it directly links the literature review to your own work and directly shows how your work is contributing to the accumulation of wider knowledge. Moreover, the sentences are clear and easily written and the inclusion of a direct quote illustrates to the marker that you have taken the time to read (at least a section) of the book you have referred to. It is this attention to detail that will help you to achieve a good grade for your literature review within your dissertation.
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