Writing can be one of the most rewarding, daunting, misunderstood, and important steps in the research process. While countless (and wonderful) books have been written on the topic of writing well, this article will focus on a very specific type of writing: how to turn a great literature review into great writing. A literature review is a vital component of the research process; through conducting a literature review you gain an understanding of your area of research, past contributions of scholars, and future directions for research (Lai & Landoll, 2008). Yet, finding and reading past research is only a first step in writing about research. There are several important steps to consider when moving from collecting research articles to synthesizing that research and creating a written end product.
Step One: Determine Your Audience
Literature reviews are collected as a first step in the writing process. If you have collected a literature review, you probably already know what you plan to write. The next step involves determining the audience that will be reading your work. What message would you like to convey? Where will this work be presented: in class, in a journal, at a conference? Asking yourself these questions will help you determine the style of your paper, the length and language of your paper, and the story you will be presenting with your writing. This article will focus on preparing your literature review for various types of writing, such as submissions to journals, abstracts for conferences, and term papers.
With each of these various end products of a literature review, it is important to be aware of the requirements, style, and rigor of a review that is associated with each particular writing goal. For example, a literature review for a conference abstract may be very limited, consisting of only a few references from research that broadly covers the topic of interest. A literature review that is an introduction in a journal article will tend to be less than 10 pages. This type of introduction covers a wide range of articles. They tend to begin with an exploration of the general field of inquiry and lead the reader directly to a specific hypothesis. Writing for a term paper may be longer and more completely cover concepts and their inter-relations. It is important to consult submission guidelines for presentations and papers and to consult with your professor for term paper guidelines in order to obtain a clear sense of specific length and format requirements. Furthermore, be aware of these factors prior to the start of a literature review to ensure that the review is conducted with these requirements and goals in mind.
Step Two: Create Time for Writing
Now that you have determined where your writing will be presented, you need to organize yourself. This is oft en the most overlooked step in writing, despite being one of the most crucial steps. Good organization before writing will help you better streamline your work and make it easier for others to understand your ideas.
First, create a timeline for your writing (DeAngelis, 2008). Determine your deadline and use this to calculate a time frame in which you should finish your work. Next, use this timeframe to structure a writing schedule. This schedule should include time for outlining, creating several draft s, and a review period for reexamining your writing.
Step Three: The Writing Process
The writing process can be difficult and daunting, so it is important to arm yourself with tools for success. Read books on writing to learn about the writing process and specific tools for improving your writing. Some excellent resources include William Zinsser’s (2006) book On Writing Well or R. Eric Landrum’s (2008) Undergraduate Writing in Psychology: Learning to Tell the Scientific Story.
Next, create an outline. Your outline should organize your writing by topic area and flow clearly from beginning to end. Each paragraph should “set up” the next paragraph. Think of yourself as a professional pool player. Each shot should be carefully planned so that when you are ready to take your next shot, you are wellpositioned to do so. Begin by deciding where you want to end up when you finish writing the literature review. Journal articles or conference submissions should end by stating how your work addresses gaps in the fields and how your findings should be interpreted and used. For a term paper, the conclusion should synthesize and summarize the overarching relationships among constructs your literature review elucidated. Froese, Gantz, and Henry (1998) observed that most students fail to take into account the larger message when writing. Students tend to first merely summarize articles in order, rather than integrating common themes. Thinking of your “take-home” message before you begin writing will help you avoid this common mistake.
Once you have your goal in mind, you should think of each section and each paragraph as a step towards your final goal. The beginning is where your audience will start. Your written review will take them step-bystep to your end goal. Following the analogy of a professional pool player, each paragraph should set up the following paragraph in a way that logically builds on previous material. Make these connections clear to the reader. In addition, create “parallel” story lines throughout your writing. All sections (e.g., literature review, hypotheses, results) should introduce concepts and their relationships in a parallel fashion. For example, if you conduct research that finds that being teased can lead to withdrawal and then feelings of depression, you will want to organize each section in a similar fashion. So you may structure the introduction to talk first about research on teasing, then lead into research on withdrawal and its links to teasing, and finish with research on depression and its links to withdrawal. Then, your hypotheses would flow in a similar fashion (the first being that teasing predicts withdrawal, the second that withdrawal predicts depression), and you would present results in this order as well. This ensures that the reader will be able to see how each section relates to previous sections. It also prevents the reader from being surprised or confused by your current study and specific hypotheses because you have carefully walked them through past research.
Also, be aware of the technical aspect of your writing. The APA Publication Manual (5th ed.) is the definitive source on how to properly cite and format your writing in accordance with APA style, as well as providing some general tips on writing (American Psychology Association, 2001). However, some journals and conferences prefer other standard styles of writing. Be sure to follow these rules as you write.
As you begin to write, be sure to familiarize yourself with ideas associated with academic dishonesty and plagiarism. In many cases, plagiarism is unintentional and is the result of not understanding how to properly paraphrase and credit past work (Landau, Druen, & Arcuri, 2002). Familiarize yourself with examples of correctly paraphrased versus plagiarized material. Landau and colleagues noted that beginning scientific writers have difficulties properly citing articles, understanding how to paraphrase, and conceptualizing plagiarism. These challenges can be especially hard when summarizing the results of a literature review, as you are dealing directly with summarizing past work. It may be helpful to read an article several times to understand its key points. Paraphrase an article without looking directly at the article to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Also, be aware that your goal in writing a literature review is to establish links between past research that have not previously been established. Thus, your writing should draw points from past articles that support the general themes of your paper. Being aware of these issues will ensure that you uphold ethical and legal principles associated with academic research.
Last, be prepared to expect some challenges. Writing is hard work and requires persistence. Set up a time each day to write, even if only for small amounts of time, such as 20 or 30 minutes. Set small goals for your writing (i.e., one or two paragraphs or a subheading) and stick to the timeline you created in Step Two! Also, recognize that oft en the biggest task in writing can be getting started (Myers, 2007).
Step Four: The Review Process
All writing may be improved. Leave yourself ample time to take advantage of the review process to improve your work. First, build in time to give yourself a break before your deadline. This will allow you to come back to your work with “fresh” eyes. When you look at your work after a break, you may notice areas that may be improved or see connections that you did not consider before. Second, during the review process, take advantage of the help of the resources around you. Ask experienced writers to read your work and provide comments. Ask your peers for help. Incorporate reviewers’ comments into your work and be open to feedback. Feedback is not a personal attack on either your work or your writing, but rather an opportunity for you to improve your work (DeAngelis, 2008). As you review your work, ask yourself, how well does my writing flow? Does each paragraph begin with a topic sentence? Do all of the sentences within a paragraph fit the topic sentence? Could a person outside of this specific field understand the work because the writing is clear?
After incorporating feedback, read your work again. Novotny (2008) suggests that writers reexamine their work for jargon. Avoid overly technical language. Doing so will help make your underlying concepts more clear and easier to read.
In conclusion, a great literature review lends itself to great writing. By keeping in mind your audience and your end product, you can tailor your literature review to address your needs. In retelling the story of your review, try to think in terms of thematic areas and relationships, much like you are encouraged to do when initially conducting the review. Set up each paragraph with the preceding paragraph and walk the reader to the end of your review with no surprises. And when it comes to writing and revising, remember that you are not alone—there are countless resources available to help you!
American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
DeAngelis, T. (2008, November). Craft a winning manuscript. gradPSYCH, 6(4), 38-41.
Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry, A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 102-105.
Lai, B. S., & Landoll, R. R. (2008, Winter). Conducting a literature review: How to search for relevant articles. Eye on Psi Chi, 13(2), 34-35.
Landau, J. D., Druen, P. B., & Arcuri, J. A. (2002). Methods for helping students avoid plagiarism. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 112-115.
Landrum, R. E. (2008). Undergraduate writing in psychology: Learning to tell the scientific story. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Myers, D. G. (2007). Teaching psychological science through writing. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 77-84.
Novotny, A. (2008, November). The art of revision. gradPSYCH, 6(4), 42-45.
Zinsser, W. K., (2006). On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (30th anniversary ed.). New York: Harper-Collins.
Ryan R. Landoll, BS, is a second-year graduate student in the doctoral program in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL). He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he graduated summa cum laude with highest honors in psychology in 2007. His interests include the interplay between peer relations, depression, and social anxiety, as well as health risk behaviors and body image among adolescents.
Betty Lai, MS, MST, is a third-year doctoral student in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL). Before graduate school, she taught middle school mathematics and science in New York City with Teach for America. Her work focuses on social networks and their influence on health behaviors.