Literature Reviews in the Sciences

Lesson 3: Fundamental Writing Skills

Composing the Review

It’s a common misconception that researching and writing a literature review is a straightforward process that starts with research and ends with writing. The reality is that research and writing are intertwined, often with one process informing and reinforcing the other. This chapter of the micro-course provides some guidance in how to approach writing as a recursive and integrated process that most effectively (and efficiently!) occurs along with your research.

A helpful analogy for thinking about the interconnected activities of researching and writing is that of a band performing music. While individual musicians in a band will sometimes play louder, and some musicians may stop playing their instruments during a song, the musicians all remain on stage together, building on and responding to one another. Similarly, while you may conduct more research or more writing at different points during your literature review process, the two activities are very much interrelated, building on each other and responding to each other. To try to conduct your research and writing completely separately would be like playing only one instrument in a band at a time–it wouldn’t sound very cohesive.

Analogy: Literature Reviews as Playing in a Band

Open Band Analogy in a new window


Strategies

Read sample literature reviews rhetorically

As you conduct your research, you will likely read many sources that model the same kind of literature review that you yourself are researching and writing. While your original intent in reading those sources is likely to learn from the studies’ content (e.g. their results and discussion), it will benefit you to re-read these articles rhetorically.

Reading rhetorically means paying attention to how a text is written—how it has been structured, how it presents its claims and analyses, how it employs transitional words and phrases to move from one idea to the next. You might also pay attention to an author’s stylistic choices, like the use of first-person pronouns, active and passive voice, or technical terminology.

Consider this notion: Reading sample literature reviews rhetorically constitutes a form of writing. It does! When you read to write you are likely composing thoughts and experimenting with organization in your head. That cognitive activity is crucial to building familiarity with the nebulous literature review genre, and it also helps to build an effective and efficient writing process that works for you.

Write informally along the way

Writing can (and should!) be folded into your research process. It’s not only a strategy for getting the writing process started earlier, but a means of deepening your thinking about your project.

You might, for instance, incorporate informal writing activities into your data collection and management by writing short summaries or critiques of sources as you read them (you may know this strategy as creating an “annotated bibliography”). Alternatively, you might fill out pre-made templates for your sources to ensure you record all the most important information (e.g. experimental methods used, populations studied), or you might annotate your sources directly by hand or electronically.

Click on the following headings to learn more about each of these informal writing strategies.

Informal Writing Strategies:

How this strategy works:

In addition to tracking citation information for all your selected sources, an annotated bibliography collects short descriptions of each source in one space. In a document, spreadsheet, notebook, or citation manager, keep a running list of all the sources you intend to incorporate into your review. For each source, set aside some space to write a brief summary after you have read the source carefully. Your summary might be simply informative (i.e. identify the main argument or hypothesis, methods, major findings, and/or conclusions), or it might be evaluative as well (i.e. state why the source is interesting or useful for your review, or why it is not).

Why this strategy might be useful:

Taking the time to write short informative and/or evaluative summaries of your sources while you are researching can help you transition into the drafting stage later on. By making a record of your sources’ contents and your reactions to them, you make it less likely that you will need to go back and re-read many sources while drafting, and you might also start to gain a clearer idea of the overarching shape of your review.

You can find this information (and more!) in the Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook section on Annotated Bibliographies.

How this strategy works:

This strategy might be used by itself or in combination with writing summaries. To create a template, consider what will be the most important information for you to glean from your sources as you read them. Then, write short prompts for yourself in a document, spreadsheet, or notebook that will remind you to gather that information. Copy these prompts for each source, and write short responses to each prompt as you read. Here are some sample prompts you might incorporate into a note-taking template:

  • Bibliographic information (author(s), title, journal, etc.):
  • Purpose or aims of the study:
  • Major claims, hypothesis, or argument:
  • Main findings and issues raised in discussion (i.e. the major take-aways):
  • Your critical evaluation of the study:
    • What’s especially valuable about it? What are its limitations? How is it relevant to your project?

Why this strategy might be useful:

A note-taking template can help ensure that you gather information consistently across all the sources you collect, and can serve as a self-reminder to evaluate the usefulness and relevance of sources as your project progresses.

How this strategy works:

Annotating sources refers to the process of writing notes directly on your reading material (e.g. articles, patents, etc.). This might be done digitally, as when adding comments to a PDF document, or manually, as when writing on a print copy. Annotating a source is often used in combination with highlighting or other means of visually drawing attention to specific content. Importantly, annotations reflect your own ideas and reactions to the content of a source (as opposed to simply repeating what already appears in the text).

Why this strategy might be useful:

Annotating a source while reading it can deepen your engagement with its content—its ideas, arguments, methods, and findings. Be sure to consider whether digital or hard copy will be more accessible for you (e.g. is managing screen fatigue a priority for you?), as well as how you would like to be able search for and find your annotations at a later date.


Drafting

Once you have done enough research that you feel you’re in a good position to begin drafting in earnest, it will be important to consider what the overall structure of your literature review will look like. As you know from previous lessons, the type and form of your review will dictate to a large degree the structure of your final product.

It will be important for you to find example literature reviews of the same type and form that you are writing so that you can get a sense of the specific expectations of that kind of review. If possible, you might look at specific examples that also target the same audience and pursue the same purposes as your own literature review. For example, you might find sample dissertation chapters written by peers with the same adviser as you; or you might find reviews published in the same journal that you’re submitting to.

With a clear sense of what the final product should look like, you might begin drafting your literature review in a number of ways. Some writers like to begin by outlining the different sections of the review, either in broad strokes or in specific detail. Other writers like to begin with a mind map of all their collected sources to help them envision relationships among them. Yet other writers like to begin with freewriting, which allows them to get ideas onto the page and deal with organization later.

Click on the following headings to learn more about each of these drafting strategies.

Drafting Strategies:

How this strategy works:

Take the sources, ideas and connections you’ve generated and write them out in the order you might address first, second, third, etc. Use subpoints to create hierarchies of logic through which you might introduce specific groups or categories of sources. Maybe you want to identify specific conclusions or methodologies within the sources you might use. Maybe you want to keep your outline elements general. Do whatever is most useful to help you think through the sequence of your ideas. Remember that outlines can and should be revised as you continue to develop and refine the flow of your review.

Why this strategy might be useful:

Outlines emphasize the sequence and hierarchy of ideas—your main points and subpoints as represented by the sources you’ve selected. If you have identified several key ideas emerging from the literature you have reviewed, outlining can help you consider how to best guide your readers through these ideas. What do your readers need to understand first? Where might certain studies fit most naturally? These are the kinds of questions that an outline can clarify.

You can find this information (and more!) in the Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook section on Outlining.

How this strategy works:

This technique is a form of brainstorming that lets you visualize how your ideas function and relate. To get started, you might find a blank sheet of unlined paper or, for a larger work area, a whiteboard. You could also download software that lets you easily manipulate and group text, images, and shapes (like Coggle, FreeMind, or MindMaple). Write down a central idea, then identify associated concepts, features, or questions around that idea. If some of those thoughts need expanding, continue this map, cluster, or web in whatever direction makes sense to you. Make lines attaching various ideas, or arrows to signify directional relationships. Add and rearrange individual elements or whole subsets as necessary. Use different shapes, sizes, or colors to indicate commonalities, sequences, or relative importance.

Why this strategy might be useful:

This drafting technique allows you to generate ideas while thinking visually about how they function together. As you follow lines of thought, you can see which ideas can be connected, where certain pathways lead, and what the scope of your project might look like. Additionally, by drawing out a map you may be able to see what elements of your review are underdeveloped and may benefit from more focused attention. It’s important to note that not all of the ideas or sources in your mind map would necessarily appear in the final draft.

You can find this information (and more!) in the Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook section on Mind Mapping.

How this strategy works:

Sit down and write without stopping for a set amount of time (i.e., 5-10 minutes). The goal is to generate a continuous, forward-moving flow of text, to track down all of your thoughts about each source, as if you are thinking on the page. Even if all you can think is, “I don’t know what to write,” or, “Is this important?” write that down and keep on writing. Repeat the same word or phrase over again if you need to. Write in full sentences or in phrases, whatever helps keep your thoughts flowing. Through this process, don’t worry about errors of any kind or gaps in logic. Don’t stop to reread or revise what you wrote. Let your words follow your thought process wherever it takes you.

Why this strategy might be useful:

The purpose of this technique is to open yourself up to the possibilities of your ideas while establishing a record of what those ideas are. Through the unhindered nature of this open process, you are freed to stumble into interesting options you might not have previously considered.

You can find this information (and more!) in the Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook section on Freewriting.


Structure

Depending on the kind of literature review you’re writing, the overarching structure can look quite different. For the purposes of this introductory micro-course though, let’s walk through a fairly common structure for narrative reviews—that is, reviews that typically feature a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Each of these three sections has a specific rhetorical purpose. In other words, they are meant to do certain things:

Introduction

  • Define the general topic, issue, or area
  • Point out overall trends, conflicts, and gaps in the published literature
  • Establish your point of view and the line of inquiry you’ll be pursuing
  • Provide a “road map” of how your review will proceed

Body

  • Group studies according to common themes
  • Paraphrase study findings and elaborate on their significance according to their relative importance
  • Provide strong umbrella sentences, effective transitions, and brief “so what” summaries

Conclusion

  • Summarize major contributions of significant studies to the body of knowledge under review
  • Evaluate the current “state of the art” of the knowledge reviewed, noting flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and areas for future study
  • Provide some insight into the relationship between your central topic and a larger area of study

While you’re drafting, try to keep in mind the purpose of each section, and plan on spending a significant amount of time revising your document to ensure that each of these purposes is met.

As you might imagine, drafting and revising the body can be particularly labor-intensive! Consider breaking this component of your drafting into smaller, less intimidating tasks. For example:

  • Develop categories for the sources you plan to include in your review
  • Determine the order in which you’ll discuss your selected sources
  • Establish a clear organization scheme, for example:
    • Background information 🡪 specific information
    • Areas of consensus 🡪 areas of controversy
  • Add section headings
  • Include summative sentences at the conclusion of paragraphs (that is, clearly state why the sources addressed are important to your study)

Above all, allow yourself to engage in drafting as an ongoing (and often messy!) process. There is no one “correct” way to draft a literature review, and you may find that using different strategies at different stages will help you make progress toward the final product you’re aiming for.

Revising

Remember, writing is a cognitive process, so allow yourself to use the drafting process as a means of deepening and organizing your own thinking about your research. Revision, on the other hand, presents an opportunity to transform your writing from a thinking tool to a communication tool. In other words, revising is a process for considering how your target audience will experience your writing through its relative clarity and cohesion.

Just like drafting, there are multiple revising strategies you might explore, but generally speaking revision is most effective when it moves intentionally from global concerns to local concerns. Global concerns are whole-text issues that impact a reader’s overall experience of your piece. For example: Does it have a clear focus? Is it effectively organized? Local concerns are paragraph- or sentence-specific issues that impact a reader’s experience in particular areas. For example: Are there clear transitions? Could word choice be more precise? Are there proofreading errors?

Global concerns:

  • Focus and relevance
  • Unity and cohesion
  • Clarity and organization

Local concerns:

  • Paragraph-level (transitions, topic sentences)
  • Sentence-level (tone and style, punctuation)
  • Word-level (diction, spelling, grammar)

Once you’ve addressed the major global concerns in your draft and considered how your readers might experience navigating the document, you might take a final pass through your language—sentence by sentence—to fine-tune your style.

Some stylistic considerations:

  • Objective tone
  • Appropriately qualified language
  • Limited quotations
  • Appropriate use of active/passive voice
  • No leisurely sentence openers

Click on the following headings to learn more about each revision strategy.

Revision Strategies:

How this strategy works:

Reverse outlining is a process whereby you take away all of the supporting writing and are left with a paper’s main points or main ideas, sometimes represented by your paper’s topic sentences. Your reverse outline provides a bullet-point view of your literature review’s structure because you are looking only at the main points of the review in its current state.

Why this strategy might be useful:

Reverse outlining allows you to read a condensed version of what you wrote, and provides one good way to examine and produce a successful review. This strategy is particularly useful for large-scale revisions that tackle global concerns. It can help you determine if your literature review meets its goals, discover places to expand on your discussion of sources, and see where readers might be confused by your organization or structure.

You can find this information (and more!) in the Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook section on Reverse Outlining.

How this strategy works:

Editing for clarity and concision occurs most effectively toward the end of your writing process, after you have addressed any global concerns in the literature review. This requires re-reading each paragraph and each sentence carefully, considering how your language might communicate your ideas most effectively to your readers.

Every writer has quirks and inconsistencies in their writing, so the specific edits you make in your review will look different from other writers’ edits. The UW-Madison Writing Center’s online Writer’s Handbook features a section on improving your writing style that can guide you through a variety of editing procedures. For example, how to use active voice and how to avoid vague nouns.

Why this strategy might be useful:

Your literature review will undergo many drafts and revisions along the way, and this might easily lead to some chopped sentences, confusing grammar, and gaps in transitions. Editing—especially with the help of outside readers - can help ensure that you are communicating your ideas as clearly and effectively as possible.

Finally, don’t forget that talking about your writing with knowledgeable, engaged readers is an effective way to gain new perspectives, learn new strategies, and make progress toward your goals. Lesson 4 provides a list of resources (including outside readers like Writing Center instructors!) to support you in your research and writing.