Hints on Writing a Literature Review (the Introduction)


Main Point of Literature Review


You have four main tasks facing you:

                  A. Introduce the topic of your paper

                  B. Organize the sub-topics of your paper in a logical fashion

                  C. Describe the major findings of other researchers

                  D. Conclude two to three major points from your research efforts.  This step includes trying to puzzle out potential reasons for any conflicting results you may have come across, or looking at reasons why researchers consistently found the same results.  This is your most creative piece to the literature review.


Organization of Paper


- Begin with VERY general statement of what's to come.  "Many studies have attempted to discover the causes of students' acceptance of drinking alcohol." "The effects of divorce can be devastating for everyone involved, particularly adolescent children of divorce." etc.


- Do NOT begin lit review with "The ten articles review here describe..." It is understood that your literature review is a COMPLETE AND COMPREHENSIVE review of all of the major literature within the given area - numbers of articles are therefore irrelevant.


- Some people tend to list each article used, describe briefly how the authors measure constructs and who served as subjects, then go back to more specifically describe the findings of each study.  This is a confusing way to organize your paper - it forces the reader to go back to the description of each article in order to understand the findings. Keep description of method, subjects, measures, and findings together for each article.


-               When you describe a study - be sure to first inform the reader of what the researchers were looking for.  What were the hypotheses tested? (only include the main hypotheses if there are many, or the ones which are most germane to your paper). THEN describe the method, measures, and findings of the study. You want to prime your reader with what is to come within each paragraph.


At the end of your paper, after you have finished describing the different findings of several studies - you want to summarize in YOUR WORDS what the gist of the findings are. If there were conflicting findings - do the legwork for the reader and try to find methodological reasons why (different ways of measuring dependent variable, different subject populations, slightly different hypotheses, etc.)


-               Be sure to leave your reader with one or two main points. What is the most important conclusion(s) you have reached after reading your sources? Impart your wisdom onto the reader.


Finally, conclude with a broad statement describing the study that you are proposing, and end with specific hypotheses for that study.


APA Style


- Back up every statement of fact ("Because males tend to be more influenced by their peers than females...") with a citation.  This is a FACTUAL paper - you cannot interject your opinion as fact. If you lack a reference or citation to back up your statement, then be very careful to phrase your statement in terms of conditional probabilities: ("It may be that males are more influenced by their peers than are females...")


-               When citing a reference: DO NOT cite the title of the article. Cite the author(s) and year instead.  Also - do not refer to article as "Study #1" etc. The reader has no idea to which study you refer.


- Make sure Reference section and references cited in text agree (If you cite a reference in text, list it in Reference section. If you cite reference in Reference section, you must cite in text. If you use ANY knowledge/information culled from any source AT ALL, you MUST cite the reference in text, and again in Reference section.


- Remember to cite YEAR of reference each time it is used within text. EXCEPTION: if you have already cited authors once (with the year) within the paragraph, then subsequent citations of the same author(s) WITHIN THE SAME PARAGRAPH do not have to include the year of publication.  However, every mention of author(s) in different paragraphs MUST include the year of publication.


- Reference every quote used with the page number of the article from which the quote was taken.


Research-specific Tips


Although I will be the one reading and grading your APA paper, please don’t direct your writing to me specifically. Instead, write your paper for a larger, intelligent but non-expert audience. That is, in any given area of research, there are only a small number of experts who are intimately acquainted with all of the pertinent literature.  Therefore, keep in mind that your audience most likely is NOT acquainted with the particulars of your area when you are writing a literature review (or the Introduction section).  This means that you must do the following:


                  -CLEARLY DEFINE ANY CONSTRUCTS that are not commonsense or everyday constructs ("ego-identity", "self-handicapping") and the ways in which they are operationally defined within the study.


                  -CLEARLY DEFINE ACRONYMS at first reference (WAIS-R should first be referred to as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale - Revised, after which the acronym WAIS-R can then be used safely).


                  -DO NOT REPORT YOUR OWN OPINION. This is a research paper.  Although your opinion may be appropriate and desirable in other venues, this is not one of them. 


                  -OPINION IS DIFFERENT THAN SPECULATION. Opinion exists in the sentence "I think it is wrong that society blames the victim for many crimes."  Speculation is a type of observation: "The reason the authors found such unexpected results may be due to subjects' high drop-out rate.  It is possible that the tests were too strenuous for most subjects and only those with a great deal of stamina were those who remained in the study."  It is your duty and obligation to provide your own speculations when writing an in-depth literature review.


                  Moral: In the immortal words of George Bush (the first): "Speculation - good; opinion - bad."


                  -GIVE A BIG PICTURE.  Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the details of reporting studies.  Although you have read the primary sources, your audience has not. Try to give them an overall picture of the purpose of your review, what it will review, where your review is going, and your conclusions.  In short, you are doing the leg-work for your audience:  you have read and are now digesting the information to make a clear, coherent picture for your readers.


General Writing Tips


-do not use contractions (wouldn't, couldn't, isn't, etc.). Completely spell out each word in contraction (would not, could not, is not, etc.)


-write in the third person (one would think that; it was hypothesized; the authors found, etc.). DO NOT USE FIRST (I, me, my, we, ours) OR SECOND(you, yours) PERSON PRONOUNS IN YOUR PAPER!! This is an extremely formal way of writing. Try to think of another way of saying “I think that…” or “in my opinion…” Instead, you might write something like “It is possible that….”


-IT'S=IT IS. "ITS" is the possessive form ("Demonstrate the problems with casual observation and its fallacies.")


-make nouns and verbs agree - notice singular and plural forms of nouns and use appropriate verb form. ("This chapter introduces..." "The chapters introduce...")


                  -"data" is the plural form of "datum". Although at first it may sound awkward, the correct usage of the word data requires verb agreement. ("The data were found to be useful.")  You can substitute "data set" for "data"; it now becomes a singular noun. ("This data was found to be useful.")


Usage of commas: When you are writing your paper, consider how each sentence would sound like if it were being spoken. There is a tendency to OVERUSE commas - before inserting one, determine if there would be a pause in the spoken sentence where you are thinking of inserting a comma.  For example: "The community and society in general, have turned their attention...." Most likely one would not pause between "general" and "have" if speaking this sentence.  Therefore, the comma does not belong.


-If you are writing a PROPOSAL, write in the FUTURE TENSE. Remember, few men drop down on one knee and say: "You married me."  Once the proposal is accepted, the tense is switched to the Past Tense: "She married me."


-otherwise, write in the PAST TENSE, especially if you are reporting results which have already been found. As a rule, you will write your APA papers almost entirely in the past tense; only use future tense if you are describing the plans for a future study or suggestions for future research.  A COMMON MISTAKE is to mix present and past tenses within the same sentence. DON'T.




- Writing this stuff takes much practice, which is what you are doing. One of the best ways to understand what exactly is expected from your literature review is to follow the model given to you within one of your own articles. Select the one article which you found easiest to read and understand, and follow the lead. Observe how the authors: 1) introduce the topic of the paper and set the reader up for what is to come 2) organize the introduction of their paper so that their rationale flows 3) describe the findings of other researchers 4) compare and contrast the findings of other researchers in order to form their own conclusions.