By Claire Aitchison

Recently I was chatting with a colleague who supports doctoral students at a large Australian university, and she confirmed the enduring challenge for candidates to understand both the processes of reviewing literature, and what the review should look like in a thesis.

Image by Aitchison

Writing about the literature while honing skills and strategies for identifying, collecting and recording useful literature begins early in doctoral candidature – but all these activities need to be ongoing. There are two aspects to the written review; one is the way that the literature needs to be referenced throughout the thesis, being brought into the conversation/narrative to perform different functions at different points of the thesis, and the other is the discrete section in the thesis (such as a segment, or chapter, or two) whose function is to review the body of knowledges that are relevant to the study.

Reviewing the literature is transformative for the student and your relationship with them.

Typically, one of the first extended writing tasks supervisors ask of their candidates is to begin reviewing the literature. The task of selecting, reading, thinking about, interpreting, synthesizing, and constructing critical responses to other people’s work can be daunting. When you are trying to impress new supervisors, this can be truly scary!

When you are working with new scholars, you wish to support and encourage them, and also stretch them to go beyond simply reporting what they’ve read.

Early tasks for a supervisor include directing students to suitable and seminal readings and authors, helping them decide how to manage references (by recommending training and personal experiences of referencing managements systems such as Endnote and Zotero), checking students know how to take useful notes and write annotated bibliographies (with a growing focus on building criticality), and clarifying what your expectations are for their reading and writing output across the different stages of the research. When supervisors encourage students to read widely and to discuss texts together within the supervisory team, and or in reading groups, candidates learn to talk freely about their ideas as well as hear how others interpret and contest meaning.

Feedback on early drafts can be key for developing confidence and critical capacities. Discriminate between what you require from first drafts and more mature writing. Especially in the early stages, discussing readings can be more powerful than giving written feedback on writing because dialogue is often more open to interpretation, nuance and questioning. Early stages of writing the literature review may involve a stronger supervisory concern for accuracy – expressing appropriate levels of criticality develops over time through observation (supervisors can helpfully point how where and how this occurs in suitable models) and by building knowledge of the field and confidence in one’s own judgments. Setting smaller writing tasks (such as annotated bibliographies) can be instrumental in building active and routine engagement with reading in ways that build towards thesis-ready reviewing.

Typically, a strong and reasonably well fleshed out literature review can be constructed in the first year to help identify ‘the gap’, refine the research problem and guide the research approach. Being reasonably certain about the theoretical frames, the key schools/fields of informing literature (and their debates), and the relevant methodological literature will enable the research to proceed with confidence. Later stages writing requires the student to bring more complex writing skills into play – reflecting on the evolution of their own thinking and the field, comparing their own research to that of others, synthesizing new ideas into existing narratives, accommodating, updating and rethinking earlier writing that may require relatively small adaptations or even major re-structuring of the literature chapter. All and any aspects of the research process can require the literature be reconsidered – keeping on top of change is ongoing.

The challenges of writing about the literature means of course there is no shortage of advice on how to do it. There are a number of go-to books: three I find most useful are Hart (2018), Feak and Swales (2009) and Ridley (2012).  The work of linguists and academic writing experts enrich our understanding by highlighting the rhetorical and linguistic characteristics of the genre, often referencing research into texts and forms (see, for example, Paltridge and Starfield 2020).

In an earlier blog Dr Cecile Badenhorst says: “Literature reviews demand a range of academic literacies from writers. These include analysis, synthesis and evaluation of critically selected texts, constructing a coherent, consistent and valid argument by interweaving source texts with the writer’s own ideas, and contributing to their discourse community (audience) with some measure of originality.” 

And because writing the literature is so hard to do, there are numerous helpful blogs that explore the nooks and crannies of reviewing the literature in ways that support both supervisors and doctoral researchers.


Feak, C. & Swales, J. M. (2011). Telling a research story: Writing a literature review.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hart, C. (2018). Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination. (2nd Ed.).   Sage.

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2020). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language (2nd Ed.) Oxon: Routledge.

Ridley, D. (2021). The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students (2nd Ed.) London: SAGE.



Archive of posts on the literature review

Doctoral Writing

Some misconceptions about literature reviews

Helping students write a literature review – Part 1

Helping students write a literature review – Part 2

Thesis Whisperer