FinishLine | Tips Tools Techniques for Completing a Thesis or Dissertation from Dr Wendy Carter

December, 2006spacerVolume 2, Issue 12

In This Issue:

Name Dropping, Book Review, or Writing a Literature Review - Part 2

October’s issue of FinishLine dealt with the first part of writing a literature review, i.e., organizing your articles, notes, and files. This issue addresses the actual writing of the literature review.

In review, a literature review is a written account of the existing sources of evidence that has been published by accredited scholars and researchers on a particular topic. Let face it, research is a cumulative process; few experts ever write or invent anything from scratch. Our thoughts and ideas come from what others have done (methods), written (results) or have conceptualized (ideas). As such, your task is to build upon this tradition by connecting your research to what has already been studied and written about.

Scholars/researchers use literature reviews to help keep them up to date with what is being published and discussed in their field. More importantly, when writing they use it to organize their material and build an argument that sways the reader to the author’s way of thinking.

To make a simple analogy, when my daughter wanted me to make her prom dress she wanted something unique. We didn’t start from scratch; we started by looking at existing patterns. We combined different patterns to make her one- of-kind dress. Similarly, when you are making an argument you don’t have to make the entire argument yourself. Other researchers have already worked on some aspect of your problem or related problems. Your job with your literature review is to take the studies that address your problem and sort, categorize, evaluate these studies in a coherent essay so that reader understands what your unique contribution is. 

To make clear the relationship of previous research to your thesis or dissertation, a literature review must answer all of the following questions:

•  What is already known about this problem, from both a broad perspective and more specifically? Why is what we already know insufficient to solve the research problem you have chosen?

•  What other methods have been attempted to solve this problem? What is right about those methods, and what is wrong?

•  How do gaps in the current literature contribute to the problem that you have chosen?

What and How Many Papers to Include?
How many papers should you include in your review? How relevant should they be to include them? That is a matter of judgment; it will depend on how much research has been conducted on the topic already and also on the field itself. You are the world expert on the (narrow) topic of your thesis, and you must demonstrate that with the choices you make.

To help make your decision, remember that a literature review needs to further the reader's understanding of the problem and to provide a rationale for your research. Although internet search engines are helpful, DO NOT rely solely on Internet searches to complete this task. You will almost certainly have to spend some time in a local library which is still a very good source of information and help.

Organizing your ideas: Create a Flow Chart to Help You Write
An effective literature review isn’t simply an annotated list of related studies; rather, it is an organized summary of ideas that are directly related to the thesis or research question you are developing. As such, your literature review should be written in an essay format that leads the reader through an exploration of what has been written about the topic, and a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of writing.

When you begin to write, be sure that you provide a critical assessment of the material rather than just “dropping names,” or beginning each paragraph with another researcher/author’s name. The task is not about simply listing all of the material that has been published, but about synthesizing and evaluating the published material in an organized and meaningful way, relative to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.

One of the biggest mistakes that graduate students make is that they just go through a pile articles and simply regurgitate what each article said. This does not accomplish the key goal. In addition to evaluating and critically analyzing individual papers, a well written literature review must be able to lift general concepts from all of the articles, link them together, and create a logical flow of ideas.

If you have having trouble synthesizing your ideas try using a visual aid to help you get a picture what you’re trying to say. I suggest you make a flow chart showing the progression of your argument. To help you accomplish this, try creating a flow chart that represents the ideas you have gleaned from the published work, rather than the articles themselves. As you write, you can flow from the broad topics into the more specific. For a good idea of how to do this, click here to see a flow chart that provides an example of a progression of ideas for a literature review on The Effects of Family Structure and Educational Attainment.

Stop Reading and Start Writing
One of the most difficult aspects of a writing a literature review is to know when to stop reading and start writing. It’s certainly a lot easier to read than to write, and you may have trouble deciding when you “know enough” to start putting some ideas down on paper.

Writing, however, should be considered a part of the process of researching your review. Consider “free writing” a first draft to test your knowledge of your area of study, and help you to decide if you actually do need to complete more reading.

In addition, if you’ve been keeping up with the literature and have been in an active conversation when reading, and have made summary notes about those papers, you’ll already have many good starting points for the review. This is where all those notes written in the margins and in your own words will really pay off: You have probably already written a good portion of your review!

As you complete additional research, it’s a good practice to summarize and type up comments as you go. If you use this approach, again, you’ll have a lot of material already on the page when you begin to create your own draft. All you’ll have to do is make some decisions about structure, and then just start stringing those notes and comments together.

If finding a starting point is difficult, choose a small section of the review. Look for something with which you feel completely comfortable, and write about it. Remember, you don’t have to write the entire review in one sitting.

Many universities have outstanding web pages relating to writing a literature review. However, I liked the clarity of the University of Melbourne’s description for writing a literature review. I have summarized their section on constructing an argument and academic language below:

Constructing Your Argument
In order to write a cohesive literature review, you need to present a clear line of argument. That means taking all of the critical comments you have made in your reading notes and using them to express an academic opinion. A well argued literature review will:

 Provide a clear relationship between your arguments and the evidence. Linking sentences within the passages should be used to indicate connections between other reviews and your arguments. Summary statements at the end of sections should draw conclusions.

 Back up your opinions with facts and theory from the literature. Examples, citations and quotations should be used wherever appropriate.

•  Account for differing opinions, rather than ignore them. While you will clearly present your evidence and argument, you must also make some attempt to acknowledge opposing viewpoints. In addition, you must clearly make your preferences regarding these arguments clear, rather than “sitting on the fence” or leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

 Clearly connect all the sections of the review. Be sure to include an outline statement in the introduction which makes the order of the arguments clear, and gives some reason for your choice in ordering the material.

Academic Language
A literature review is considered a scholarly text, so your writing style should be formal and similar to what you find in the scholarly journals of your discipline. Review models of literature reviews in your area to get a sense of what is expected in terms of structure, style and language. Thorough reading of current journals will also help give you a sense of the “hot” topics in your field.

The literature review is often the section of the thesis written in the most formal, academic language. While there is not much scope for rhetoric in a “results” section, a literature review may allow you to express yourself in a more elegant, academic or literary manner. However, it is important not to get too carried away! Shorter, less complicated sentences and paragraphs are always better – and more readable -- than complicated prose.

One of the fundamental qualities of academic language is that it attempts to be objective, and criticisms of other authors’ work must be fair. You must always maintain a respectful, scholarly tone when discussing the work of others. For example, even if you think a researcher's methods were sloppy, research appalling and arguments ridiculous, it is not appropriate to write, “This was terrible, sloppy research.” Use more neutral language; if you write, “Inconsistent sampling weakens the validity of the results,” your readers will understand what you mean.

Likewise, you should avoid personalized comments or strong or emotive language. When writing about arguments presented by other authors, use phrases like “Carter argues…”, “According to Mare…” or “The authors suggest that…” Avoid words such as “think” or “feel” when writing about scholarly discussion. Not only are those emotive, they may be inaccurate; you don’t know what the researchers feel, only what they reported or said.

Although it’s important to be polite and fair to others, you must also be convincing and decisive about your own argument. Sometimes this requires treading a fine line … but it is important for your work to sound confident, and to avoid vague or qualifying statements. One “maybe” or “perhaps” per sentence is plenty!!!!

In addition, be sure not to overestimate the reader’s familiarity with the topic, particularly in the introduction. You may be writing for researchers in a general area, but not all of them will be specialists on your particular topic. As you read through your draft, it may help to imagine such a person … for example, a researcher whom you may have met at conference on your subject, but who worked in a different area. This person was intelligent and had the same general background as you, but knows little about the literature or “tricks” that apply to your particular area of expertise.

Email Question of the Month:


Hello Dr. Carter, I am struggling to write my prospectus on the impact of curriculum on developing critical consciousness in adult college students. My institution demands a quantitative approach so I'd do a mixed methodology. Janice H.


Thank you for contacting us at TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. I am not exactly sure how to help because I don't exactly know what aspect of your proposal/prospectus you are struggling with. The Literature Review? If so you might begin by answering the broad questions first and then drill down to your specific research question.

What do already know about the following?

1. Have there been any studies on "the impact of curriculum on X" anything in general.

2. Have there been any studies on "the impact of curriculum on developing critical consciousness " ?

3. Have there been any studies on "the impact of curriculum on developing critical consciousness in college students " in general.

4. What do we (experts) already about "the impact of curriculum on developing critical consciousness in adult college students"? i.e. have there been any studies on this particular issue?

When you look at these studies, after you have noted the findings you should also look at the methodology section to see what data set they used. Did they do their own survey? Did they use data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) or U.S. Department of Education

I hope I have answered your question and helped you to move forward.

Dr. Carter

TA-DA! Graduates
Congratulations on Your Success

The leg of the journey is over. I passed my dissertation defense yesterday. It is finished!!!! Thank you for your support and words of encouragement over the years. No one becomes a success alone.
W. Lemon, Ph.D Director DCS/OSES/DNSD

Congratulations, Dr. Lemon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Welcome to the club.
Dr. Carter

Hi I have GREAT news. I had a successful defense on Nov 30th. I am really thankful for the advice and the kind words of encouragement. May God bless you, your family and all those you love. I now have a MA in Early Childhood Special Education. I am going on to the Phd in Special Education also but a strong focus on policy development. ... Thank you so much Dr. Carter.
Lenisa, M.A. Early Childhood Special Education

Congratulations on a Job Well done!!!!!!  Now you take what you have learned and apply it to pursuing your PhD. Thank you for sharing your great news and for your feedback; it helps to know that I am making a small difference.
Dr. Carter

What TA-DA!™ Users Have to Say...

If you're still wondering whether or not TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished™ can help you — don’t take our word for it. Take a few moments to read what some of our customers have told us.
See how TA-DA!™ helped them...

Ph.D. Doctoral Students

•  Hello Dr. Carter, I met with you a few months ago. I had an impossible deadline to meet: to complete my dissertation proposal in 6 weeks time. I just wanted you to know that I successfully defended the proposal on October 3rd!! Thanks for your help and encouragement! All the best, Harriette W.

•  How it (TADA) Helped: In many ways but I will mainly highlight two areas for now. 1. The TADA Calender. The main problem I faced before was how to get down and do my work. But with the TADA Calender, I have made a committment and I everyday I have the motivation to fulfill this commitment. 2. The 12 Minutes Tasks. I was never even aware of some of those requirements. Now I feel more confident since each day I know exactly what is expected of me and I can make an exact plan of how to accomplish them. Dear colleagues in Thesis/Dissertation writing. Anybody wanting to have a peace of mind and confidence in whatever she/he does during the whole Thesis/Dissertation writing, you have no choice but to buy the TADA CD. I won't explain what wonders it will do to you, but buy it and experience it." Connie, U.K.

•  TA-DA gave me the incentive to "get the lead out" and finish. The 12 minutes a day has lead to approximately two to three hours. I have really got a lot done, just knowing that the twelve minutes does wonders for the psyche.
Maryjane, Fayetteville, NC

•  The commitment to a deadline and to working 12 minutes a day actually reduces stress. I can always do 12 minutes--even if I'm tired, sick, uninspired or grumpy. Facing a deadline makes it feel like I will actually get done! "I have to do my 12 minutes" we say in our house these days. I've been progressing steadily on my dissertation by committing to 12 minutes, and my husband has covered huge amounts of material for an upcoming professional exam. My friend has committed to completing the annulment papers she has procrastinated on for 10 years, and my father-in-law has started studying Spanish 12 minutes a day. Thanks!
Christine, Seattle, WA

•  It helped me to set goals for my chapters and give me some practical strategies for finishing. Also I believe it's good to list your finish date. It gives you something to strive for rather than letting the thesis become nebulous.
Martha; Albany, CA

•  TA-DA explains the dissertation process and lifts the curtain to a process that seems impossible to accomplish. It provides strategy for selecting the committee and provides timelines that enable accomplishment of the dissertation within a specific time frame.
Randall; USMC Jacksonville, NC

•  The program helped me to understand the dissertation concept much better. I am a visual individual; the tutorial was a great help.
Deborah; U.S. Army

•  Provides helpful suggestions for how to proceed as well as suggesting disciplined and reasonable timelines for completion.
Lawrence; Philadelphia, PA

Master’s Thesis Students…

•  It has helped with the fact that my graduate school does not have a formal format for the proposal. The Journal has helped a lot.
Talia; Naranjito, Puerto Rico

•  This is a great tool for those who will be starting either their Master's Degree or Dissertation. I highly recommend it.
Teresa; Naguabo, Puerto Rico

•  Requesting that I set a goal date for finishing, kept me focused and it was the first step in accomplishing the task. Also, I kept remembering the words; a good thesis is a done thesis.
Gladys; NY, NY

•  It guided me to a fair start. Gracias!
Jess; San Francisco, CA



Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more and sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, contact us at Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.

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Inside This Issue:

Name Dropping, Book Review, or Writing a Literature Review - Part 2

Email Q & A of the Month

Congratulations Graduates

What TA-DA!™
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