Writing the Review

This section is based on material gathered from:
State University of New York Institute of Technology
University of Queensland

Now for the hard part - the writing!

From this point when you have finished your own research and you look back and fill in the picture, it is not only that you understand the literature and can handle it better, but you could also see how it motivates your own research. When you conceptualise the literature in this way, it becomes an integral part of your research.

It is a purposeful kind of writing which should be

  • Well argued.

  • Well supported by evidence.

  • Well documented.

A straightforward style - neither informal and chatty, nor stuffy and pompous - is what to aim for. Use clear and unadorned English appropriate for your audience. Therefore, use the jargon of your discipline only when it is necessary. Don't build a smokescreen of impressive sounding phrases to mask what it is you are saying.

You know from your own experience that very complex ideas in your own field can be and are expressed very clearly by good scholars in your discipline. While you are reading for your research, take note of particularly well-written articles. But also be aware of the kind of writing which frustrates you as a reader and obscures the point.

You need to be aware of who it is you are writing for. You are not writing for your supervisor, who should know what you are doing, but for someone who may need to be reminded of some background and who, at the very least, needs you to signpost the importance of the various parts.

You also need to think about what it is you are actually doing; are you describing something, analysing something, explaining something, arguing the point, giving examples, evaluating or assessing the value of other arguments or the sufficiency of evidence? What you are doing affects the language you use. In particular, the verbs you use need attention because they convey your attitude. Very often students don't exploit verbs fully, relying on just one or two favourites (for example 'mentions', 'states', 'suggests', 'discusses') or overworking the weaker verbs ('have', 'be'). However, verbs such as 'judges', 'postulates', 'excludes', 'convinces', 'confuses', 'questions', 'advances (the argument)', 'verifies', provide a stronger interpretation of your reading, understanding, and opinion of the research.

Apart from questions of who your reader is and what it is you are doing, matters of style need to be considered. Here are the three most commonly asked about:

Use of the personal pronoun

Some people frown on the use of 'I'. Acceptance of its use has become more common in some disciplines. Even if 'I' is acceptable, however, its use has to be controlled, as you are not the subject of the literature review or thesis. Therefore, regardless of the practice, there will necessarily be large parts of the text in which the problem never arises. Check with your department or supervisor and take your cue from publications and theses in your academic area. If you do decide to avoid the use of 'I' at all, don't substitute 'we' and don't move into pompous circumlocutions such as 'the author' or the 'present writer'. Whatever your decision about this issue, be consistent in your usage.

Active vs passive voice

Both active and passive voice should be used - where appropriate. As a general rule, use active voice unless there is good reason not to. For example, if "The results support the theory" is the active, and the passive is "The theory is supported by the results", then we would select one or the other version depending on whether we were stressing the results or the theory. Alternatively we might choose one or the other phrasing to finish the sentence in such a way as to link it to what followed. Otherwise, choose the active as more direct. This is a very simple example, of course, and the distancing effect of the passive here is not great. However, in more complex examples, and also where a series of passives piles up, the reader fights unnecessary obstacles.

The use of tenses

Many students cling to an absolute dictum about what tense to use. Their beliefs seem to divide equally between total dedication to the use of the present and total dedication to the use of the past. The tense that suits your purpose is the tense you use. Clearly, an event , be it a survey, an experiment, a study of some kind, done by other researchers or by you, has to be in the past and it is usual to use the past tense to describe it. However, the interpretations or ideas arising from this might still hold and it is usual to talk about them in the present. Even though someone has written an article a decade ago, the article still exists, is currently part of the living knowledge of your discipline, and your reaction to it is happening now. There is even the possibility that you could be predicting something for the future, so the manipulation of time changes again to fit the situation. For example,

Smith (1965) reports/reported [which do you prefer?] a study conducted on bees which used White's (1953) radical artificial insemination technique. These data are still the most convincing to support Brown's (1996) hypothesis that bees would respond well to intensive bee husbandry.

Shades of meaning conveyed by different tenses can be very subtle. Compare the following:

Darwin (1858) calculated that earthworms turn over x tonnes of soil per hectare. Or,

Darwin (1858) calculated that earthworms turned over x tonnes of soil per hectare.

The goal is to achieve a clear, logical style. Clear writing, however, is usually the result of lots of rewriting and careful attention to what it is you really want to say. Clear writing is not the result of obedience to prescriptive rules. Seldom does clear writing come about in the first or even the second draft. It takes work to remove clutter and to fill missing links but the results make the work worthwhile.

Discipline-specific terminology

Don't be ashamed to use such terminology, but remember its purpose is to help you to avoid long and complicated explanations where a technical term exists that can shorten the text.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the use of another person's work without acknowledgment. Examples include:

  • Direct duplication, by copying (or allowing to be copied) another's work. This includes copying from a book article, web site, or another student's assignment (whatever - you should rarely or never quote directly).

  • Paraphrasing another person's work with minor changes, but keeping the meaning, form and/or progression of ideas of the original.

  • Piecing together sections of the work of others into a new whole.

  • Submitting an assignment that has already been submitted for assessment in another subject.

  • Presenting an assignment as independent work when it has been produced in whole or part in collusion with other people, for example, another student or a tutor.

How can you avoid the charge of plagiarism? Basically, whenever you make a statement or present a fact or idea that you have obtained from the literature, you should cite the relevant paper(s). Citations appear in the body of the text usually in the following form:

Smith and Jones (1997) said clearly that ..
Some authors (e.g. Smith and Jones, 1997) are of the opinion that ...

The bibliography at the end of your literature review then provides full details so that others can find and read the original papers. Look at "Instructions to Authors" on the website for your favourite journal for an indication of typical bibliographic style for your field.

Compare:

Reyes, A., Gissi, C., Pesole, G. & Saccone, C. (1998). Asymmetrical directional mutation pressure in the mitochondrial genome of mammals. Molecular Biology & Evolution 15, 957-966.

With:

Reyes, A et al . (1998). Mol Biol Evol 15, 957.

Don't write a list, write a synthesis and a critique.

Compare:

Smith (1970) reported that bilbies come out at night and eat chocolates. Jones (1972) described the variety of beetles eaten by bilbies on their daytime trips. Wheeler (1974) claimed that bilbies eat only apples.

With:

There has been considerable disagreement over the diurnal activity rhythms and food of bilbies. Smith (1970) found them to be nocturnal whereas Jones (1972) reported that they are daytime foragers. Smith (1970) also reported a fondness for chocolate, a finding rejected by Jones (1972) and Wheeler (1974) who however disagreed with each other, Jones describing beetles and Wheeler apples as the preferred food. Given findings from related animals it is hard to believe that either daytime foraging or feeding on chocolates or apples (neither of which is indigenous to the area) could be correct interpretations. The questions of foraging times and the food sought thus remain to be adequately investigated.

Be clear about what is important

It is easy for students to "hide" important information when writing. This may be a result of lack of confidence ("I think this point is important, but I won't emphasise it in case it's not") or of failure to recognise what is important through inexperience. If you feel a point really is important, then tell the reader so. Refer forwards and backwards to important points ("see previous section").

If your literature review is part of a thesis, or is being written before tackling a specific research question, make sure it is organised in a relevant manner.

Use of figures and tables

One picture is worth a thousand words? Sometimes it is. How many words would you need to describe the figure below?

literature review diagram

Figures and graphs are also good ways of presenting data from a wide range of papers without having to write pages of boring text.

Writer's block

The phrase 'writer's block' covers a variety of situations. Absolute writer's block - that is, where someone literally can't write anything at all, not even a note to a friend or a shopping list, for example - is very rare. If this is the case, then possibly you need to work individually with someone like a counsellor or learning adviser. However, 'writer's block' usually means something less extreme. The way to overcome it is to look at what is causing it. It could be that:

  • Considering the whole finished literature review paralyses you. If this is the case, just think of the review as a series of short exercises. You then work on these smaller, identified parts. Often when you come across complex ideas and need to make them clear and linked to your argument, you should be working seriously just on a single paragraph.

  • Working on specific small parts has fragmented the whole and has caused you to lose the thread of what you want to say. This can manifest itself in trying to rearrange the pieces in several ways, cutting and pasting, and, although being very busy, never feeling satisfied with the result. It is important to stop being busy and spend time to recover the plot or story and rebuild the logical framework. You could write down the main points in your argument - for example the aims, what you did, what you found, what it means - and then fill in from this, as it were, adding the detail to each part, feeding your content more and more into a structure without losing the bigger picture.

  • You are searching for the 'right way', the formula, and are overawed by writing rules. There is no right way or formula: grammar, punctuation and style can take their turn much later. Don't try to juggle worrying about what it is you are going to say, what the reader's needs might be, the best word to choose, whether you have the tense right, and when to use the semi-colon - all in the first draft. Accept the fact that you will be writing several drafts and take the pressure off the first one by concentrating only on your ideas. Rewriting is a major part of writing. Allow the time for this.

Writing is a complex and slow process. Expecting it to flow effortlessly because you are writing about something you know and understand well is a mistake that can rob you of confidence. Here are two suggestions. If you are 'blocked', have a cup of coffee or walk around the room/campus/whatever. Then try again. If that doesn't work, then just write anyway. Force yourself to put words on paper for, say, 30 minutes without worrying about getting it perfect. Sometimes, at the end of 30 minutes, you might find words are flowing again and you can continue. If not, re-read what you have just written and score out the trash. Keep the few good phrases or ideas for inclusion in the final product.

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Throughout this guide, when we have used material produced by others, we have tried to acknowledge the source. If you feel we have used material without proper acknowledgement, please let us know so that the appropriate changes can be made.