How to Write a Literature Review in the ‘Write’ Way

Writer(s): 
Tiffany Ip, The University of Hong Kong

Are You Up Against Any of These Challenges?

How do I read literature more efficiently? How do I structure my literature review? How do I start writing a literature review? Many writers, especially doctoral candidates and young researchers, struggle sorting through an ocean of literature and may find themselves having sat at a computer all day without typing a sentence. They get caught up in a whirl of thought processes as they have to plan, compose, and refine their text, while at the same time integrate multiple components of the paper. These include the topic, purpose, audience, word choice, clarity, sequence, cohesion, and organization of the writing. At the end of this process the ideas may remain stuck in their heads and none ultimately become transformed into words.

Many Novice Writers Face These Challenges Too

For most novice researchers/writers, doing laboratory work and analyzing data may top their priority list. They rarely consider the writing of the literature review as a discrete skill that needs to be learnt. While they are expected to know well how to write academically after several years in college, the truth is graduate researchers still experience difficulties in writing for publication, which include referencing published literature, structuring arguments, and textual organization (Flowerdew, 1999), in addition to many more discourse-level writing difficulties identified by Ip and Lee (2015). Literature reviews of educational doctoral students have been summarized as insufficient and deficient (Boote & Beile, 2005). Failure to synthesize information effectively when reading academic literature hampers many Asian ESL graduate students’ ability to critically analyze and synthesize research in their writing (Phakiti & Li, 2011). It may be good enough for undergraduates to simply demonstrate how much existing knowledge they have mastered. On the other hand, graduate students, or others who aspire to publish their work in academic journals, need to go one step further by using their aptitude in academic literacy to professionally communicate their new knowledge to their fellow scholars.

Although it is possible to write a literature review, or even academic papers in general, without guidance, it takes a long time for novice writers to figure out how to do so in the correct way, which requires a proficient grasp of grammar rules and vocabulary knowledge. The good news is that mastering the skill of writing a literature review will be well worth the effort in the long run. Many of my own graduate students reflect on their experience and tell me, “Literature review writing is one of the most difficult and time-consuming processes, but once I am able to write down a decent literature review section, other sections of the writing turn out to be fine since they all develop from there.” The tips provided in this article are meant to help you ease your way into this potentially difficult writing process.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Novice Writers?

Lots of writing guides are available for student writers, but there are very few for teachers looking to facilitate their students’ literature review writing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model for writers to follow, nor is there one for teachers who wish to guide students in their writing process. In spite of this, I strongly believe that teachers can play an important role for students when writing a literature review. Students are often assumed to be able to simply “pick writing skills up as they go along” while research firmly supports the idea that students benefit from explicit writing instruction. As both a teacher and researcher at a university, I adhere to the following steps in teaching my students literature review writing. These three steps are sufficient for guiding novice writers when writing their reviews. After having gone through the class, students usually feel less intimidated by writing a literature review, and most of their final papers – as compared with their first literature review drafts – show evident improvement, especially in terms of organization and elaboration.

Step 1: Have students read a piece of not-so-critical literature review.

In my experience, students usually find it easier to critique others’ work rather than their own. This task offers a good starting point and encourages discussion and awareness about common weaknesses found in novice writers’ work. Students can relate to their own work better if they are first asked to critique a “bad” literature review sample that is written in the literary style of their own disciplinary field.

Step 2: Equip students with as many preparatory skills as possible.

Do not rush to teach everything about writing skills right away, and do not overlook the importance of the pre-writing stage. Saddler (2006), who examined story writing performance in his study, believes teachers should find ways of simplifying writing tasks to make them more manageable for young writers with learning difficulties. This approach is applicable and necessary for novice writers of a variety of genres as well. Here are three quick tips that teachers can follow in equipping their students with preparatory skills. The first is to guide students in evaluating and selecting good and relevant literature sources. The second is to talk students through the key areas of what they want to write and recommend the style of literature review that suits their research field (students should not see these as strict rules though). The third is to introduce useful words, phrases and sentences that published writers often use to make their reviews critical. These three points, if taught to students, enable most to become less overwhelmed by the task of writing a literature review.

Step 3: Encourage students to sequence the ideas logically.

Effective writing requires a writer to spend adequate time first generating ideas and then sequencing them into a logical order (Westwood, 2008). Teachers can ask students, before searching through literature reviews, to come up with questions they want to explore and to write those questions down. Perhaps they want to look for term definitions, the most recent claims and findings, or if there are any gaps in the existing literature where they could do a follow-up study. If students come up with a systematic set of notes containing questions that are answered in the literature review, this can help them avoid common pitfalls, such as forgetting what they read, spending too much time researching each paper, and getting distracted by side issues. Also, if students can sequence their ideas logically, they will also be able to make critical comparisons across different studies. With notes having been neatly made for each source, students can figure out whether there are some common patterns that emerge from the different studies, and also whether there are ideas in the studies that contradict each other. It is essential for writers to learn not to report everything they read, and to learn how to deduce patterns of connectivity between studies they research.

What Can Writers Do?

I summarize what writers can do at three stages of writing: pre-writing, actual-writing and post-writing.

The Pre-Writing Stage

Planning during the pre-writing stage is not a time-wasting activity that distracts you from the real writing. Working out what you want to say and how you want to say will help you from getting writer’s block during the actual writing stage. I have divided the pre-writing stage into five steps:

  • Step 1: Choose a research topic that interests you and others. Make it as focused as possible.
  • Step 2: Be thorough in your literature search. Note experts and popular theories in the field. Make certain you also include studies that suggest opposing viewpoints against your beliefs. If you notice there are already reviews on your topic of interest, see if you can provide a new angle that has not been covered.
  • Step 3: Skim sources to identify the assumptions most researchers seem to be making, and check if they have changed over time.
  • Step 4: Pick the most relevant sources and read them thoroughly. Note the context of the studies (e.g., When and where were the studies conducted?), the methodologies they use (e.g., What testing procedures and materials did they use?), and the findings (e.g., What are the implications of the findings and do the writers interpret them in a convincing way?). Note also any conflicting theories and findings.
  • Step 5: Go through your notes to check for patterns across studies. Find a logical structure for your review.

The Actual-Writing Stage

You should find it a lot easier to start writing as soon as you have a well-developed structure on which to base your writing. Present your arguments in a good synthesis consisting with the researched literature. Do not report individual studies one by one. You may divide the arguments by themes or subtopics, but make sure each section links well with the previous and following section. Also, make sure to not forget to quote and paraphrase your sources with proper citation formats whenever necessary.

The Post-Writing Stage

This final stage involves both proofreading and editing. Do not get discouraged if you find yourself spending even more time on this stage than the actual writing stage; everyone’s writing eventually needs a good deal of rewriting and restructuring. Apart from correcting typos and muddled sentences, ask yourself if your completed literature review draft provides a “yes” for the following questions: Is it original, is it valuable to the reader, and does it show that you are an expert in your field?

A Final Word of Note

A literature review is usually written as part of an introduction to a longer piece of writing, such as a dissertation or research report, but a good literature review should be able to serve as a stand-alone article. Give yourself a bigger purpose the next time you need to write a review, and think of yourself as constructing an important stepping stone that other researchers—whether they are looking to begin research or add additional knowledge to their existing research—would find useful and inspiring.

References

  • Boote, D. N., & Beile, P. M. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3–15.
  • Flowerdew, J. (1999). Problems in writing for scholarly publication in English: The case of Hong Kong. Journal of Second Language Writing, 8(3), 243–264.
  • Ip, T., & Lee, J. (2015). Difficulties in mastering psychology writing: A student perspective. Frontiers of Language and Teaching, 6, 12–21.
  • Phakiti, A., & Li, L. (2011). General academic difficulties and reading and writing difficulties among Asian ESL postgraduate students in TESOL at an Australian university. RELC Journal, 42(3), 227–264.
  • Saddler, B. (2006). Increasing story writing ability through self-regulated strategy development: Effects on young writers with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 29 (4), 291–305.
  • Westwood, P. (2008). What Teachers Need to Know About Reading and Writing Difficulties. Victoria: ACER Press.
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